The retreat for college presidents, athletic directors and other "stakeholders" in college athletics, set up by current NCAA President Mark Emmert, is certainly not a new idea or novel concept. Such meetings have been held with similar urgency since Palmer Pierce sat in Emmert's seat when the NCAA was born in 1905. And similar calls for change have been heard since before the prohibition of football's flying wedge, and in every decade since.
The same laments can be heard now that were heard in 1905, or when the Carnegie Foundation Report was issued in 1930, or at any other period of challenge for the NCAA. One could easily read a quote from any NCAA president in any decade in the last 10 and not be able to tell from which decade it came. It would all sound exactly the same.
What will make this latest urgent meeting different from all the other urgent meetings of the past? With over 50 presidents, athletic directors and other representatives in attendance, the truth is, probably very little should be expected to be accomplished. Emmert has said that "incremental change" in college athletics is not sufficient to meet the current challenges. With such a large group of divergent interests in attendance, one wonders what other kind of change can be accomplished in just two days.
In my judgment, college presidents have been largely ineffective in managing intercollegiate athletics since taking over the enterprise in the mid-1980s. The driving force behind this call for change is fear, and that fear is very real. Unless the NCAA membership can come up with a more fair and reasonable manner in which to regulate the enterprise, there exists a very real possibility that the revenue drivers of the NCAA could decide to go their own way and start their own organization. Such talk was a pipe dream years ago, but it is now seems a plausible possibility out into the future.
Here are a few suggestions for those at the retreat to consider:
Identify exact issues and problems: In order to find solutions and implement change, the issues requiring action need to be identified and prioritized. If this retreat is simply a vehicle for presidents to give speeches, this will be yet another waste of time and money. This retreat needs to enumerate the exact issues and problems that need to be addressed, and precisely why they need to be addressed.
Develop a strong plan of action: These college presidents head up some of the finest academic and research institutions on the planet, and they also willingly accepted the charge of running the multibillion dollar business of athletics. We have heard enough hyperbole and high-minded speeches about the same topics over the past 100 years. Out of this retreat, the NCAA needs a detailed plan of action and clear timetables. If incremental change is not sufficient, then those involved should be prepared to implement substantial change, and to do so now.
Strong statement of fairness and reasonableness, not equality: The NCAA is made up of more than 1,000 institutions of higher learning. This retreat should unequivocally state that there is no such thing as a "level playing field" among such a large membership. We have rules for play so that all can compete fairly, but we cannot make everyone and everything equal. There is a difference between fair and equal. Different schools have different resources, mission statements and power in the marketplace. It is time to stop pretending that we can make everything equal and allow these institutions their own autonomy. The NCAA should concentrate on what is reasonable and fair, and strongly state that there is no way to make everything equal, nor does the Association wish to make everything equal.
Put someone in charge: There is no one in charge of college athletics. The NCAA president has no real authority in the NCAA bureaucracy, and has no actual authority to make genuine decisions. Until authority is reorganized and centralized in a single position or streamlined body, such as a commissioner of college football and a commissioner of college basketball, little real progress is possible. These sports drive everything and are huge businesses. Until they are treated as such, and run effectively as such, the NCAA is just spinning its wheels in this exercise. No other multibillion-dollar business would govern itself by the NCAA's byzantine structure. To find workable solutions, this retreat has to be prepared to change the way the NCAA does business, and it has to centralize decision-making authority.
Take amateurism out of NCAA bylaws: The Olympics took amateurism out of its charter in the 1970s. It is past time for the NCAA to do the same. Naysayers predicted that the Olympics would suffer dire consequences, yet none followed. And, no calamity will follow the death of amateurism in college sports, especially since amateurism is dead already. The blind adherence to an unworkable and illogical standard of amateurism needs to stop, and this retreat needs to step forward and allow athletes to benefit in the same manner that other students are able to benefit. The world will remain firmly on its axis. But if this retreat does not have the courage to do it, at the very least it should make a compelling, data-based case for why amateurism should be held by us all as such a cherished ideal. One often hears about the NCAA wanting what is best for the student-athlete. Well, make the case that strictly limiting the student-athlete, and only the student-athlete, to being a strict amateur is what is "best" for them. The truth is, no such compelling case can be made, even by the bright minds at the retreat.
Drop the term student-athlete: There is no such thing as a "student-athlete," just as there is no such thing as a "student-thespian" or a "student-musician." The term is useless, somewhat demeaning and needlessly separating. An athlete is admitted to a school through the admissions office and is required to complete the same degree requirements as any other student. What a student does outside his or her field of study is not and should not be a defining point.
Rewrite the NCAA bylaws and rulebook: There is no question that the NCAA rulebook is an extremely difficult a document to navigate, and to live by. This retreat needs to state unequivocally that the rulebook needs to be rewritten to emphasize what is important and what is reasonable. The rules need to be sport-specific, and the NCAA's judicial process needs to be modernized and taken out of the hands of the membership. Essentially, the rewriting of the rulebook will force the NCAA to decide exactly what is important and what is not. It is past time to take the focus off phone calls and extra benefits, and it is time to allow schools to pursue excellence on the field and off without expensive and unwieldy compliance staffs. These schools are not testing new drugs, drilling offshore or bringing potentially dangerous food products to consumers. They are educating students and playing ball. We need rules, but we don't need unreasonable and burdensome rules.
I am optimistic about this retreat. Although no meeting or similar retreat of the past has provided meaningful change, I am hopeful that this one will. If it doesn't, change may be forced upon those that do not have the courage to implement it now.