Jacobs: College sports nearing a tipping point

September 19, 2013 

Kevin White can’t get over it. He really can’t. Six times during a 50-minute interview he mentioned how much his grandson living in Arizona knew of professional soccer overseas, far more than White did at a comparable age about basics such as which schools competed in the Big Ten or SEC.

“I can call him right now and (ask him to) tell me what’s going on in the Premier League in Europe and he can give me everybody’s stat,” marveled White, 62. “He’s 7. He knows everything about college football, everything about college basketball. He’s a SportsCenter junkie.”

White, the Duke athletics director, cited this difference in experience as a measure of the societal saturation achieved by sports, a phenomenon that’s blossomed through war, recession, and scandals galore.

“The country is riveted by this thing called sport,” said White, a 32-year veteran of collegiate athletics administration. “It’s amazing to me. It’s not becoming less riveted, it’s becoming more riveted.”

But the swag that popularity has sent coursing through sports, notably college sports, is not distributed uniformly among the 1,083 schools in the much-vilified NCAA, let alone shared equitably with the students who play the games.

Differences among participants historically have been a source of tension whenever NCAA funding is discussed. The 345 members of Division I may all see basketball as a splendid mechanism for institutional advancement (think Florida Gulf Coast), but idiosyncratic imperatives, traditions, resources and alliances drive them apart.

Widening the gap, schools engaged in big-time football, the sport that commands roughly 80 percent of conference TV revenue, divvy up their unprecedented earnings largely outside the NCAA’s direct control. That’s in contrast with basketball’s postseason tournament, which provides proportional shares to leagues represented in the field. March Madness also generates most of the funding the NCAA depends upon for its operating budget.

Nor has the boom in collegiate sports revenue produced significant additional benefits for the quasi-amateurs whose performances generate the money. This too has long been a sore subject.

Now it appears attitudes have shifted slightly, suggesting a much-touted “tipping point” in how the NCAA enhances “the financial well-being of student-athletes who are on scholarship,” as ACC Commissioner John Swofford put it in July.

Fueling the discussion, and a sense of disquiet in NCAA circles, is the Ed O’Bannon case, a pending legal challenge to the handling of rights fees for athletes’ images. There’s also growing discontent within the five major football-playing leagues over the constraints of NCAA rule-making. This past summer the power conference commissioners independently voiced support for change; Swofford floated the possibility of a partially self-governing football division comprised of the 65 members of the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and SEC.

Don’t expect quick or sweeping transformation; talk of paying players or deconstructing the NCAA is an outsider’s game. Rather, over the next few months, starting with next week’s Division IA Athletics Directors’ Association annual meeting in Dallas, a proliferation of scheduled discussions will explore possible structural adjustments.

“I think in a general sense, what we would like to see is what I would call a modern version of the collegiate model, and I’m not sure yet how to define that,” Swofford said recently, speaking for the ACC. “I think the next six months to a year will be critical to the effort to restructure the NCAA and to redefine amateurism in an educational setting.”

N.C. State athletics director Debbie Yow and other ADs bridle at a system that allowed smaller schools to block a 2011 proposal to cover expenses for Division I athletes beyond grants-in-aid for what used to be called “laundry money” and is now dubbed “full cost of attendance.” But NCAA dissenters – among them North Carolina schools Appalachian State, Davidson, East Carolina, Elon, Gardner-Webb, UNC Asheville, UNC Charlotte, Wake Forest and Western Carolina – protested that the $2,000 formulation wasn’t well articulated or adequately debated. A key, unresolved concern was whether need-based assistance would be extended to every Division athlete, male and female, as Yow and White support.

“I think the majority of us want to spend that money responsibly,” said Yow, “and that includes reasonably meeting the needs of our student-athletes financially. We can debate what reasonably means. For me it’s unmet financial need.”

White, an adjunct professor of business administration at Duke, isn’t convinced major change is necessary. He’s listening, but sees a more modest “market correction” in the offing.

“We’ve got through periods before where we’ve had an outcry that the system is broken,” said the self-described traditionalist, “and we’ve done some pretty modest reorganizing, if not restructuring, and have found a way to continue to move forward.”

White summarized current conditions by reciting a line from “All Along the Watchtower,” a Bob Dylan song: “There must be some way out of here,” said the joker to the thief, “There's too much confusion, I can't get no relief.”

Yow, by contrast, is eager to forge a way forward. But concrete proposals to facilitate adjustments, such as creating escrow funds so players can retain some revenue from the sale of replica jerseys, have not yet emerged.

“I don’t think it’s that organized,” said Yow, who presides over 23 sports and a $63million annual budget that’s larger than that of 55 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. “It’s just a stream of consciousness related to changes in our enterprise.”

Skeptics like Orin Starn see this maneuvering and agonizing as part of a familiar, largely futile, century-old dynamic.

“College sports has been in a state of crisis and corruption forever,” said Starn, chair of Duke’s department of cultural anthropology and a longtime critic of the current collegiate athletic system. “It’s like some very weird chemical compound that manages to be very unstable and volatile, and yet sticks around and (doesn’t) decompose into something different.”

As for the athletes for whom everyone else tries to speak, they are not evident at the negotiating table and don’t appear eager to challenge the comfortable – some claim luxurious – status quo in big-time sports.

Typical is Wake Forest wide receiver Michael Campanaro, a preseason All-ACC pick. He expressed contentment with the current NCAA model – a scholarship, a robust support system and a chance to play the sport he loves.

“I don’t think that college students should be getting paid, I don’t think we know where it could lead to if we start paying guys maybe even $100, $200,” Campanaro, a senior communications major, said before the season. “I don’t see the big deal. They clothe us. They feed us. We’re playing football 24-7. You’re pretty much busy playing football.”

And so others debate the fate of the worker bees, and gather most of the honey for themselves.

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