On Aug. 7, a new NCAA governance model was adopted, providing greater decision-making autonomy for the Gang of 65, which long sought control of its own fate free of the influence of smaller, less affluent athletic programs.
The next day, federal Judge Claudia Wilken issued a ruling in the so-called O’Bannon case that opened the door for payments to football and men’s basketball players.
Ron Wellman gauges the sweep of years by ticking off the stops on his professional journey, from serving simultaneously as head baseball coach and assistant in basketball and football at Illinois’ Elmhurst College through his posts in college athletic administration.
He’s spent the past 22 years as director of athletics at Wake Forest, the smallest of the 65 members in the five power conferences that dominate college football.
Yet, for all of his experience, Wellman is in search of his bearings after decisions rendered on consecutive summer days rocked college sports. Like it or not, the NCAA has reached a tipping point and may soon look and act significantly different.
“I’ve been in this (profession) for 43 years, and I’ve never been in an environment like this,” the longest-tenured AD in the ACC said recently. “The uncertainties, the questions, the changes have produced a whole lot of angst with just about everyone associated with college athletics. We’ve been through changes before, but not coming from all different directions.”
The August actions undercut twin assumptions that for decades shaped NCAA policy – the ideal of the level playing field and the fading fantasy of amateurism in a cash-infused setting.
“These are monumental changes, and it potentially could be a tipping point, and a tipping point in a direction that is more towards commercialization of collegiate athletics and more away from the amateur model,” said Lissa Broome, UNC’s Faculty Athletics Representative and a law professor at the university.
“I personally regret that. If that’s the way we tip – and it seems like that’s where we’re tipping – I hope that we can maintain the notion of amateur intercollegiate athletics.”
Broome worries the intercollegiate structure is being distorted to accommodate two revenue sports, ultimately compromising the educational interests and opportunities for participants in all of UNC’s 28 sports.
She shares the widespread concern that long-resisted costs of compensating athletes may force schools to drop teams, or cause some among the Gang of 65 to lobby to reduce the minimum number of sports required to remain in Division I.
“I think you’ll see men’s Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pike,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said in remarks that reverberated throughout the college sports community. “I think there may be tension among and between sports on campus and institutions that have different resources.”
Sharing the swag
The landscape is changing because so much money, particularly from televised football, has visibly flooded select athletic coffers and the pockets of coaches and administrators.
The numbers are staggering: The new SEC television network could generate $800 million annually, according to one estimate. Fifty football head coaches at public universities annually make at least $2 million each. Newsday reported recently the 25 highest-paid football coaches at public schools average $3.85 million a year in guaranteed money.
Maryland swallowed a court settlement this summer in which it forfeited $31.4 million to leave the ACC in pursuit of a grander payday in the Big Ten.
The Wilken decision introduced an overdue note of fairness into sharing the swag. The judge found NCAA policies “unreasonably restrain trade” in violation of antitrust laws by prohibiting athletes in big-time sports from earning money from the use of their names and images in video games and television broadcasts.
Her 99-page decision supported paying athletes the full cost of attendance at the school of their choice and setting aside trust funds of up to $5,000 annually to compensate football and men’s basketball players for use of their likenesses.
However, the ruling, which the NCAA is appealing, raised as many questions as it answered.
Conferences within the Gang of 65 already have advanced proposals for a complete package of support for athletes worth additional thousands of dollars per year, plus other long-denied benefits. However, defining the full cost of attendance, even among students within a single university, is no simple matter.
It’s unclear whether there will be a uniform stipend at every school in the power leagues, lessening recruiting advantages, or a variable amount offered by individual institutions. And, while Wilken was strikingly silent on the matter, the fact that Title IX requires equal treatment for female athletes may rightly send costs higher.
Wait until schools start tinkering with what they can offer players – recruits may be able to shop for the most lucrative trust arrangement, or coaches quietly tout the richness of the financial deal they’ll provide, especially compared to schools outside the power five conferences.
Such an environment will inevitably whet athletics departments’ commercial appetites. We might soon see the Triangle’s ACC schools join Wake Forest in selling beer and wine to the general public at football games. Or team uniforms festooned like NASCAR vehicles with advertisers’ names.
Duke-UNC basketball games only on pay-per-view. Naming rights for the ACC tournament sold to the highest bidder. Pricing that scales ticket cost to market demand for individual games.
Expansion showed old paradigms may be easily jettisoned when money is involved.
Of 230 public universities in Division I, even accounting for notoriously creative bookkeeping, only one in 10 brought in more money than it spent in 2013, according to numbers compiled by USA Today.
None of the ACC’s eight public universities made money in athletics when student fees and institutional subsidies were taken into account. Neither did other in-state public schools playing Division I sports, most prominently Appalachian State and East Carolina.
Wake Forest’s Wellman conceded it’s doubtful any of the ACC’s seven private schools turned a profit, either. (Private universities are not required to publish that information.)
The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics reported that from 2005 to 2012 the ACC’s public schools saw spending for each full-time student grow a median of 24 percent to $16,296, while expenditures for football scholarship players jumped 53 percent to $207,096 per head.
UNC trustees learned in late September that, at $104,464 per athlete overall, the school spends below the ACC median of $128,576.
These sobering facts haven’t slowed the long-lamented athletic arms race, as evidenced by Wake Forest and N.C. State currently building indoor football practice facilities.
The competitive imperative is complicated by widely varying resources among members of the five power conferences, which haven’t defined the parameters of their new authority.
Financial differences may portend nasty rules struggles over, say, football roster and staff sizes, pitting wealthy, football-oriented schools like Texas and Ohio State that took in more than $100 million in athletic revenues in 2013 against associates such as the Pac-12’s Washington State ($47.2 million) and Georgia Tech of the ACC ($61.8 million).
“The thing is, they still need protection from themselves,” Tom Yeager, commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, said of the subgroup carved out by the big boys. The CAA plays Division 1 football in the lower, Football Championship Subdivision.
“Historically, the problem has been, even within the group of 65 they can’t all agree that it’s Monday. They just aren’t going to be able to blame UNC Wilmington, William & Mary and (James) Madison anymore for whatever agreement they can’t come to.”
Let the games begin.