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The National, 4/29/13: Slip Slivin' Away

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Mike Slive opened Pandora's Box, and now everyone's talking about cost of attendance and a potential split of Division I. Of course, Jon has thoughts.

Kelly Lambert

Mike Slive, as is his wont, dropped a grenade into his Q-and-A session with reporters today. He had a lot to say about things which are tangentially related to the realignment landscape, but there was one bit which jumped out. As reported by Jon Solomon of the Birmingham News on Twitter:

Well, alrighty then.

There seems to be a misconception that this foreshadows the big schools departing the NCAA, but the reality is very likely to be far less severe. In the past, I have tried to remind everyone that the structure of the NCAA is a lot different than what a great many people seem to think; for example, the widespread misconception that teams can or should move "up" or "down" based on their success on the field. Teams aren't in FBS because they're better than teams in FCS; teams in FBS are better than teams in FCS because they're in FBS. The structure creates the disparity, rather than being created by it. The teams which remain in FCS do so because they can't afford the weight of a full 85 football scholarships (or choose not to carry the burden, or indeed offer any at all like the Ivies and Pioneers); the schools which move "up" to FBS do so because they can or choose to do so.

Where am I going with this? Simply put, I don't think Slive's comments presage a break from the NCAA. The organization still does a great deal for the big schools, most especially in the realm of non-revenue sports, so there's a great deal of impetus to remain in the fold. The NCAA tournament is a cash bonanza, and one which is actually enhanced by the presence of the small fry. (I don't think anyone can rationally argue that a great deal of the excitement of, at the very least the first weekend of the tournament, isn't directly tied to the chance of stunning upsets by schools Joe Sixpack's never even heard of before.)

What I see happening is another divisional split. Here's where we get back to the structure of the NCAA. Far too many people talk glibly of things like kicking the Idahos of the football world back to FCS without taking into account the fact that schools choose their level of play based on the resources they choose to commit. The very idea of forcing a school to move to FCS is antithetical to the NCAA's mission, and has a direct impact on the institution as a whole; doing so essentially forces that school to deprive 22 athletes of a paid education. It's not going to happen. But what can happen, and probably will if the Division I membership at-large doesn't fall into line with the desires of the larger schools, is that those schools will push forward legislation creating a further subdivision based on the granting of cost-of-attendance scholarships, which is the sort of delineation the NCAA would, historically, be prone to accept as an acceptable bifurcation. (Unlike the attendance requirement for FBS, which schools have routinely been allowed to game into submission.)

Ultimately, this may not have the effect some desire. The average fan will look at this and think it means getting rid of all the chaff in FBS, but there's one very important thing to consider: by the structure of the NCAA, any school which wishes to match that resource allocation has to be allowed in the door, and any school which can't or won't is walking right back out through it. I find it hard to imagine any circumstance under which any of the Big Five conference schools would opt out, but there are several schools outside the Big Five which will open their wallets without question. UConn and BYU wouldn't even have to think twice about it. The service academies would presumably qualify by their very nature. I can't see SMU, Houston, Memphis, Cincinnati, or Boise State falling off the ledge either. So the idea that this will somehow create a super-league formed solely of the teams in the Big Five conferences is probably erroneous.

There is a knock-on effect here, however. A split of this nature would create a bizarre limbo for the teams which are in FBS but can't or won't meet the CoA requirements, and while it would take awhile to happen, I'd imagine that they'd merge back into FCS at some point.

Tragic, really. Just when you thought realignment was over and done with, here's the SEC Commissioner threatening to start a whirlwind of moves. It's just that this time, it won't be a question of what conference will people be playing in. It'll be a question of whether they even play at the top level anymore.