The NCAA will publish the latest edition of its manual on Aug. 1. The 464-page tome is the foundational rulebook for the world’s most unique amateur organization. By that date, huge swaths of it will already be obsolete.
That’s right. The updated NCAA Manual will largely be meaningless before it is published.
The events of the last few weeks have rendered it that way. Bylaw 12 — “Amateurism and Athletics Eligibility” — was overruled by a waiver on June 30 allowing name, image and likeness rights to athletes. The 34 pages detailing the bylaw are the spine that holds the NCAA upright.
“You’re publishing meaningless rules,” said a former NCAA employee. “The central authority for college sports has just published its rulebook that is largely meaningless. How can you maintain your authority?”
NCAA president Mark Emmert seemed to answer the question last week with jaw-dropping precision. In an interview with selected national outlets, he said the NCAA’s oversight should be “the bare minimum“. In one phrase, he reached a conclusion many others had since the Supreme Court’s Alston v. NCAA ruling on June 21.
The NCAA can no longer maintain its authority.
“The NCAA is imploding and in retreat,” said Tom McMillen, a former Congressman and head of the Lead1, an organization representing FBS athletic directors, “because of actual and potential litigation, Congressional and state intervention and public antipathy.”
Bad decision after bad decision led the NCAA down this road. It could have headed off NIL before Ed O’Bannon filed suit over his image on a basketball video game. It could have legally challenged the first NIL laws in California and Florida with at least a hope of retaining is oversight over college athletics. It could have engaged Congress earlier in order to get federal legislation passed that basically would oversee amateurism.
But the NCAA did not do those things, and Emmert boldly performed one of the biggest hand offs in college athletics’ history last week.
Here, he intimated, you take it.
The conversation now is less about how it happened than what’s next. Without Bylaw 12, the NCAA has become more of a service organization than a hammer-handed Big Brother. It runs the lucrative NCAA Tournament. It has diminishing traction now in eligibility and amateurism rulings. With so many benefits now allowed, the role of enforcement is lessened.
Emmert suggested a decentralized structure where the schools and conferences take over.
In allowing schools to offer education-based benefits to athletes, the Supreme Court basically pushed the NCAA’s influence down to the conferences.
It has occurred to more than one stakeholder that taken to its logical end point, college athletics could eventually devolve into pay-for-play and unionization as conferences compete.
If decentralization occurs, then conferences could make their own rules. That might lessen legal liability, but left to their own devices, there would be a natural progression toward permissiveness. Regulation could become a competition.
The Power Five couldn’t come to agreement on when and how to play football during COVID-19. How can those conferences be trusted with the whole enchilada?
“The problem is you can find yourself in a race to the bottom,” Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “in terms of who is going to spend the most. Then everybody is going to spend that amount or something close to it. Who is going to have a lowest standard? Well, everybody is going to have low standards.”
Another possible end point: In the future, those who support that free-for-all model would be in one division and those who lean more toward the current education-based model would be in another.
Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick laid out that vision for CBS Sports six years ago.
A lot of this has become not only evident since the third week of June but more than possible. To many administrators, Emmert’s remarks made formal in the moment what had been hinted at for years.
“We’re at an inflection point in college athletics,” one Power Five AD told CBS Sports. “What are the radical changes we need to make so that college athletics, in its current form, can live on?”
In the short term, this much seems certain:
- Athletes themselves will have much more input. Their empowerment during COVID-19 and now NIL will make them stakeholders in any major legislative decisions going forward. Post-Alston, we’re already trending toward group licensing that could theoretically lead to the return of the “NCAA Football” video game. Short of unionization, that would make football athletes a trade organization that at least could theoretically negotiate for such things as length of practice and other working conditions.
- The professionalization of college sports already has occurred with NFL agents representing football players in NIL deals.
- Big-time college athletics will essentially be run by the Power Five commissioners. Yes, that might have been happening already since autonomy took hold in 2014. The most senior of those commissioner are the Big 12’s Bowlsby and the SEC’s Greg Sankey. At the moment, they might be the de facto executive directors of college sports.
- It’s a new era for female athletes. NIL has tapped into their off-field possibilities. Any reformation of college athletics will have to adhere to Title IX.
- Federal intervention may not happen at all. There is a growing realization that if Congress provides any NIL help in the form of a federal law, it will be minimal. That’s another reason why the NCAA finds itself on an island.
- The College Football Playoff might step in as the new de facto NCAA. With expansion, it will be generating more money and have more power. Because of that, it have to be more responsible as college athletics are reshaped.
- The 27 conferences below the Power Five face a period of uncertainty. While they make up a majority of Division I, the Power Five has long enjoyed a weighted-voting advantage in legislation. That’s assuming the Power Five remains a part of the NCAA.
- Emmert hinted at an Olympic model where the sports themselves may have separate governing bodies. For years, the idea of a “minister” of football and basketball has circulated. As executive director of the CFP the amiable Bill Hancock is already regarded as one of the most powerful persons in college sports.
What does college sports look like without the NCAA?
“We’re all going to start talking about that and figuring that out,” said Amy Perko, CEO of the Knight Commission, a watchdog on college athletics. “There are some that think the NCAA should just run championships and that’s it.”
All of it might take years to unwind, but given the whirlwind arrival of NIL, college athletics has to be on alert. With less rules, isn’t there the possibility for anarchy? Bowlsby suggested it. A lot of the arms race described above is going on now. The difference being, the NCAA still maintains at least a stated adherence to an education-based model.
“Is the governance process broken? Yeah, but it’s been broken,” said a Power Five AD after seeing Emmert’s comments. “For someone to think that’s earth shattering hasn’t been following college sports.”
Emmert likes to say the membership is the NCAA. If it hasn’t already, the membership must take over the NCAA. The current minimal approach to NIL we’re witnessing emerged out of the SEC and particularly Sankey. Allowing athletes to engage schools/sponsors to make their own NIL deals, removed significant legal liability from the NCAA and conferences.
A Lead1 initiative code-named “Intrepid” involving top FBS commissioners is in the process of reimaging college athletics. Washington State AD Pat Chun wants to fully fund “equivalency” sports with scholarships. Some minor sports don’t have scholarships equal to roster size.
Example: Baseball is allowed to split up a paltry 11.7 scholarships among a roster than can reach 35. Those wildly popular gymnastics teams that are a TV ratings winner? At the NCAA level, they’re allowed to split up only 6.3 scholarships.
With the College Football Playoff about triple in size, Chun envisions enough money being available.
“We shouldn’t have [the restrictions of] equivalency sports anymore,” Chun told CBS Sports. “There is enough money in the system. That’s an outdated system.
Much pressure will be on the expanded CFP to contribute on every level to a new collegiate model. Conservative estimates have the annual payout doubling to at least $1 billion per year. That would be equal to the amount produced by the NCAA Tournament. Approximately $600 million goes back to the schools.
But the payout to the biggest Power Five programs is a small percentage of the athletic budget making it more possible those schools could stage their own basketball tournament if they chose. The CFP is already its own entity, a registered LLC. With that amount of money in the system, many think the CFP has a responsibility beyond funding an annual windfall for the Power Five.
The reform-minded Knight Commission proposed in December 2020 that the 130 schools and the CFP break away from the NCAA to form its own entity. That looks like more of a possibility with the NCAA not sponsoring a championship in the sport.
“I think the only solution is what the Knight Commission recommended,” one former Power Five AD said. “Take your football programs and park them somewhere else.”
When Emmert was hired in 2010, it was a signal that presidents were going to take over. Having come from the University of Washington, Emmert was only the second campus CEO to lead the NCAA. Then those presidents spent the next decade or so acting as detached observers as the organization declined to this point.
When the presidents did interject their influence, it was misguided. Somehow, they agreed to interpret the NCAA constitution in a way that…