The NCAA sounds serious this time. President Mark Emmert is convening university presidents and chancellors in Indianapolis to discuss reforming college athletics. In the effluent-filled wake of the most scandalous year in the history of college sports, the gesture is both noble and timely.
But productive? That all depends on whether they're willing to face reality and propose the kind of reform that might actually hurt.
The harsh truth: Nobody really wants to reform college football and college basketball. Coaches, players, administrators, fans, media -- to this point, there's not a serious reformer in the group. It's too comfortable for everyone. As long as it remains a billion-dollar business and until the NBA and NFL show an interest in training their own workforce, we're left with a flawed system that we love and love to criticize.
Mostly, the problems in college sports can be distilled to one word: image. It's not amateurism or academic integrity -- it's how things look. University presidents want to rid themselves of the problems that the current system created, but that's because it's difficult and embarrassing to deal with the aftermath. Ohio State president Gordon Gee came close to admitting as much in Seth Wickersham's story in ESPN The Magazine.
To be sure, there was plenty of embarrassment to go around last year, the NCAA's worst ever. From Cam Newton to USC to Tressel/Pryor to Oregon/Willie Lyles to Bruce Pearl to Butch Davis/UNC, images were hit from coast to coast.
For the most part, we all subscribe to the see-no-evil concept. Everybody wants to watch the big games on Saturday evening, and nobody wants to think about whether LSU's running backs or Florida's middle linebackers went to class during the week. Nobody cares about Matt Barkley's GPA. You don't really care about academics.
That's right: You don't really care about academics.
The underlying theme of Emmert's summit meeting is making the "student" part of the "student-athlete" a bit more prominent. Give Emmert credit, he's willing to broach some necessary and long-overdue topics: competitive equity, five-year scholarships tied to the cost of attendance and maybe even tougher academic standards that could lead to freshman ineligibility. Each of those taken alone would represent a good first step. Collectively, depending on how they're interpreted, they could represent something approaching reform.
David Ridpath, an Ohio University professor, member of the rebellious Drake Group and a longtime voice for reform in college athletics, is surprisingly upbeat about Emmert's ideas. "I haven't been very kind to Mark Emmert," he says. "But I'm going to give him credit for at least trying. He's getting this group together and talking -- it's a noble idea.
"He said something that I've been waiting to hear for years: We have to redefine competitive equity. That's huge."
Emmert wants ideas, but how about radical ideas? How about realistic ideas? If he believes there's a chance to adopt a proposal requiring a 2.5 minimum core GPA for freshman eligibility in college basketball, he might as well save everybody the bar tab and call off the summit. In the world of the one-and-done -- a world created by the NBA with the NCAA's compliance -- there's a better chance of John Calipari leaving Kentucky to coach at Cal Tech.
So how about this: less emphasis on academics at the highest levels of college football and basketball. You want radical change? Stop the charade. One of Ridpath's many ideas: create another tier of Division I college football (the revenue and competitive disparity in basketball isn't as great) by separating the BCS schools (the ones that actually make money from football) from the schools that rely on excessive subsidies (often from hidden student fees) to play games they can't afford to play.
In other words, get rid of the system that makes it necessary for San Jose State to play at Alabama for a paycheck. Make the San Jose States and UNLVs and Toledos -- and maybe even the Washington States and Iowa States and Vanderbilts -- understand and embrace their status as mid-major football programs. Reduce their scholarships, make conference affiliations more geographically sensible and promote the pride of playing for a national or conference championship at a less-than-BCS level. With fees rising and tax revenues shrinking, it might be the only way to save these programs and take a stab at Emmert's "competitive equity."
As it stands now, schools in the WAC travel from Hawaii to Louisiana for conference games, and many of them are forced to cash big checks and take big losses in nonconference games to propagate a failing enterprise. Unlike in basketball, there's only an infinitesimal chance of victory -- to save you the effort, FCS school Appalachian State beat Michigan once upon a time -- but a real chance of injury.
"I don't see a whole lot of value in getting your butt kicked for a million dollars," Ridpath says. "And there's nothing wrong with winning a MAC championship. If you take the guaranteed money away, these schools wouldn't die off. It would force them to use their funds better. They'd make hard decisions to manage their finances in a manner more in line with the mission of the universities."
Here's an exaggerated but real example of the disparity in competitive equity: When Ohio University played Ohio State in Columbus last year, Ridpath estimates that well more than half of the Ohio U student body was rooting for Ohio State. Football teams like Ohio State and Nebraska are ingrained in the community in a way that Ohio U or Bowling Green never will be. And that's OK.
The universities that have the resources to compete at the BCS level -- maybe 60 tops -- would have the option of privatizing their athletic departments. If they can't make it in the free enterprise system, they can't make it. For schools that choose to privatize, players would have the option of going to classes, but it would be clear that athletics is their job.
(And the season would end with a 16-team playoff. Fantasy land? Maybe, but Emmert says he wants ideas.)
Would the mid-major programs in this new division see any appreciable change in their attendance by dropping to a lower tier? Doubtful. Except for the ritualized slaughters -- Cal versus Presbyterian on Sept. 17 might represent a new low for the genre -- they'd be playing the same teams, keeping the same rivalries. The bonds created by college athletics, within the university community and without, would remain viable and strong.
And the big boys would remain the big boys. We'd continue to watch and root, the money would continue to flow and every young man who wishes to be a true student-athlete would have that opportunity.
You want radical reform, Mr. Emmert, here it is: Instead of railing against the hypocrisy of the system, eliminate it.