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NCAA Power 5 Autonomy: Disaster in the Making

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The seas are changing, and for college athletics as an institution, nothing good is going to come of it.

Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, chair of the Division I Board of Directors.
Wake Forest President Nathan Hatch, chair of the Division I Board of Directors.
Jamie Squire

Yesterday, as has long been expected, the NCAA Division I Board of Directors -- a body comprised mostly of representatives from Division I schools outside the Division I FBS college football elite -- met in Indianapolis. With the Power 5 conferences' metaphorical gun to their collective head, the board voted to allow the Power 5 the autonomy to set rules for themselves in certain areas; barring an override vote by Division I as a whole, the plan is now official.

There is no way to express how bad this all really is.

Gentrification

We all understand that there is a hierarchy to college athletics. It is part of the fabric of the sport, and barring the implementation of the one sensible idea which would make the long-term prospects for the industry both entertaining and fair, it is not going to and should not be stripped away. At the same time, however, the NCAA -- or, being more accurate here, college sports as a whole -- has always operated under the presumption that schools shall be allowed to compete at the level that they desire. There have always been some procedural hurdles schools have to leap, but the criteria have also always been perfectly clear and joining a level of play has been a matter of simply abiding by the process put in place to qualify for that level.

With the exception of the infamous and temporary 1984 downgrade of the MAC to Division I-AA, which was the result of those schools failing to meet the statutory attendance requirements to which they'd agreed at the time of the 1978 Division I split, no team has ever been pushed backward in the NCAA hierarchy except by deliberate choice. During the days of the University and College Divisions, no team ever lost its University Division status; many schools voluntarily downgraded, but it was never forced upon them, and at no time were those voluntary downgrades able to be characterized as simply choosing not to keep up with new, more permissive regulations. Since the advent of Divisions I, II, and III, no school has moved down the ladder except by completely voluntary and uncoerced means, with the exception of the 1984 incident. More pertinently, that is the only time any school has moved from Division I-A/FBS to Division I-AA/FCS, and no football schools have ever left Division I since the final 1981 reorganization.

Every school that was playing Division I football in 1982, and now no longer is, dropped football rather than downgrading.

No, seriously. Not one. Every school that was playing Division I football in 1982, and now no longer is, dropped football rather than downgrading. This is a vitally important fact we have to keep in front of us as we watch this situation play out, because while Joe Sportswriter bloviates about how the Group of Five schools might have to consider dropping back to FCS or whatever, the reality for many of these schools is that if their football programs can't earn some semblance of TV dollars, then they won't be downgraded; they will be terminated.

Even aside from that issue, though, there's a problem inherent in the way those processes are being implemented. In point of fact, had the Power 5 conferences broken away to form a new NCAA division or subdivision, it would be more fair and less objectionable. It is, after all, the right of every individual member of an organization to leave that organization of their own volition and without coercion.

On the other hand, we have a word for forcing someone to give up their rightfully-owned property at gunpoint. By enacting the autonomy proposal, what the Power 5 have done is to say: "We don't care that you keep your house in good repair and the lawn mowed. You want to continue living in our neighborhood, you'd better increase the property value by 50 percent." (Some people have attempted to characterize this as the little guys having their cars up on blocks in the front yard. That's an utterly unfair comparison. This is McMansions trying to drive out decent late-60s ranches, not trailers and tenements.)

It's abhorrent. And while, yes, 16 of the 18 members of the Board of Directors voted in favor of this proposal, there's an important detail to remember: Of the 18 members, seven are from schools that aren't even part of FBS, and five are from the Power 5. Two of those 12 voted against the proposal. That means that the five people representing schools directly impacted in a negative fashion by this proposal couldn't have carried the vote anyway, and thus went along with it rather than angering the mighty lords of football.

Don't pretend they're happy with this just because they didn't vote it down. They agreed to the HOA proposal to require their driveways to be paved in order to avoid having their homes seized as part of an eminent domain redevelopment plan.

Upstarts

Back in 1986, there were still only 105 schools in Division I-A. At that time, the Big Boys didn't want any more schools to join, but completely failed to enact legislation which would have prevented the swarm of schools -- almost one a year at this point -- that have moved up to the highest level. The 23 schools that have joined Division I-A/FBS since then are basically now being told to go stuff it, along with 25 other schools that have at least had long histories in the top level of college football. And then, there's the remaining 11 schools we haven't accounted for.

11 of the 65 schools that were part of the CFA are being shuffled off to the side.

Those 11 schools were part of the College Football Association. You remember that, right? The 1982 NCAA v University of Oklahoma Board of Regents et al case that ultimately led to the explosion of television rights deals? Yeah, 11 of the 65 schools that were part of the CFA are being shuffled off to the side, including a team that has won a consensus national championship in my lifetime and very likely yours, too. Worse, if it hadn't been for life preservers tossed in the direction of Fort Worth and Salt Lake City during the most recent wave of realignment, it would be 13 schools. Every one of these schools has played by the same rules as the Power 5 conferences ever since there were rules to be followed, so it's not as though they just haven't kept up with the times. Their only crime: being located in places without millions of television sets.

Since when was upward mobility something to be discouraged? In the 32 years since NCAA v Oklahoma, we've allowed 11 schools not even part of the Big Boys Club to enter it... so, obviously someone considers it a virtue.

Some of those schools were absolutely irrelevant, too. Good lord, in 1982, do you know what Miami's resume consisted of? Five bowl games ever, only one of which had taken place in the preceding 15 years. Florida State? Florida State was Boise State in 1982. Virginia Tech? Four bowl games. Ever. Three for Boston College. West Virginia had earned exactly one top-10 poll finish and one bowl appearance prior to 1982. Louisville had three bowl appearances, and had only ended a season ranked once, ever. South Carolina was, of this group of pretenders, the most accomplished, having appeared in five bowl games, three of which had been in the preceding seven seasons. Seven of the 11 teams in question were as meaningful to college football in 1982 as BYU, Boise State, Houston, Cincinnati, and Central Florida are now.

Of the non-CFA teams which are now safely ensconsed in the Power 5, only Penn State, Pittsburgh, Syracuse, and (amusingly) Rutgers had any prior claim to being part of the recognized power structure of college football in 1982 when NCAA v Oklahoma changed the picture. (Of course, in 1982 we could also argue that Army and Navy were also part of that structure, but then we'd have to acknowledge that we've kicked them to the curb, too.)

The ebb and flow of relevance is part of football, just as the hierarchy itself is. And it would be intellectually dishonest not to observe that the 65 teams in the CFA in 1982 included a bunch of schools who were just as, if not more, irrelevant than the 11 schools that later graduated to the Big Time. (Hell, Kansas State is one of them, along with schools like Wake Forest, Iowa State, Northwestern, Oregon State, Vanderbilt, and Texas Tech.) This is not meant to imply that we should never see teams drifting out of the Big Picture. The argument isn't that it's ridiculous that we don't let UTEP have millions of dollars of television revenue and an equal shot at the national championship as Alabama has; it's that it's ridiculous to pretend that just because a school isn't a national power right now, they should automatically be excluded from any chance of ever achieving that goal.

After all, one year after NCAA v Oklahoma, the Miami Hurricanes won the national championship. A decade later, Florida State did as well; Virginia Tech has played for one. West Virginia and Boston College have both found themselves in the top two of the BCS standings at some point, as has Kansas State, twice.

The egalitarian paradigm -- build your program, and win, and you'll at least have a chance -- is ingrained in the sport.

College football means something. It may mean different things to you than it does to me, and a different thing entirely to that guy sitting over there in the corner. But the egalitarian paradigm -- build your program, and win, and you'll at least have a chance -- is ingrained in the sport, and I cannot for the life of me imagine anyone who wants to see that disappear. Sure, you've got your fans of the big-time programs who wallow in a sense of self-righteous entitlement and think that there are only a half-dozen (if that) teams worth ever paying attention to. Nobody cares about those guys anyway. Except in rare instances where the fanbase of an upstart institution is stuffed full of insufferable twits, people pull for the underdog when it's not counter to their own interests. When TCU challenged for a spot in the BCS Championship Game, debate raged between the guys who stood to lose out on one side, and damn near everyone else on the other. Even when the team in question has always been part of the recognized power structure but hasn't ever won the title, it's the same thing; Oklahoma State vs. Alabama was an Internet war waged between SEC folks and everybody else.

That drive, that desire to see a team that hasn't achieved ultimate greatness before finally add the hardware to the trophy case... that's part of what makes college football tick. That ideal isn't football's to own; there's a reason Cinderella is a thing in March. There are people who will try to argue that a 32-team tournament with only the best teams from the best conferences would be more lucrative, and they're wrong. The number of people who remain glued to their televisions in March just for the opportunity to see Lehigh send Duke packing is massive, and there's literally nobody who turns their television off in March because North Carolina isn't playing UCLA. If you don't think the efforts on the part of the Power 5 themselves to get what they want without completely separating from Division I is entirely and completely related to the value which Cinderella provides to March Madness, you're deluding yourself.

Greed

And yet, here we are. The guys who are responsible for everything else that's wrong with college athletics, the guys nobody wants to directly blame because it's so much easier to just blame "the NCAA"... they're out to screw everyone but themselves. Why? So that non-profit, state-run, federally-funded institutions can rake in more money, so that they can spend more money, so that they can continue to out-swag their competition.

The galling thing? They'll sit there in front of a microphone and kvetch about how things have gotten out of control. They'll talk about their educational mission, and how it's important to remember the part of their invented term for "employee" that precedes the hyphen. They'll remind us all about how important it is to train these young men and women to be citizens, and prepare them for a life without sports.

And then they'll go back to the office and start calling donors, because they need to raise money to build a new facility which will cost enough money to pay an entire department of professors for a decade.

"Amateurism", for the sake of amateurism, is an ignoble concept.

I am in favor of providing athletes with compensation above and beyond the value of their scholarship. I will insist that the scholarship in question is of nearly immeasurable value for virtually every Division I athlete who actually provides more value than merely wearing the uniform, because most of those players simply cannot afford to attend college otherwise. (No, loans aren't the answer, but this isn't the venue to discuss the Ponzi scheme that is our higher education financial aid system.) In an environment where you simply cannot get a job that will meet your needs without that diploma, one cannot discount the value of being given a free education rather than having to pay for one possibly for the rest of your life. But that in no way changes the fact that there's really nothing wrong with giving them extra, and most certainly allowing them the right to profit from their own likeness is not only justified but mandatory. "Amateurism", for the sake of amateurism, is an ignoble concept hatched by stuffy aristocrats who didn't think earning a living from sports was dignified.

It's important to make that distinction before proceeding, because all too often the response to the following is a rant about old white dudes profiting off the labor of teenagers.

Universities are not minor-league sports franchises. They are, well, universities. Their purpose is to provide education, and while the amateurism angle in and of itself is abhorrent and venal, the idea that these are supposed to be students playing sports rather than athletes pretending to study still has relevance. This is an important point, because for some reason Joe Sixpack seems to think that everything the administrations at our largest institutions is doing here is perfectly acceptable because otherwise they're leaving money on the table. The idea that maybe, just maybe, treating college athletics as an amateur pursuit -- not in the "don't compensate the labor" sense, but in the "quit chasing money" sense -- seems absolutely foreign to these people.

College athletics is not, at least in the absence of schools actually offering degrees in football, an end unto itself. It is, and always has been, intended as an adjunct to the educational experience. The "it's big money now and whatever blah blah" argument is flawed on its face, because it ignores the underlying issue:

Taking Nyquil doesn't cure your cold, and "fixing" big-time college athletics by ignoring the fact that all the money is being wasted won't cure the industry's ills, either. Letting the Power 5 go off and make their own rules isn't going to help. It's just going to concentrate the money even further, while downgrading the educational experience at countless institutions.

Thursday's vote was precisely the wrong message. It's time to restore some sanity, and stop trying to fix things which are only broken in the eyes of entitled outsiders who place far too much importance on the success or failure of Old State U's eleven. Let's worry about fixing the real problems instead.