This week's NCAA convention is taking place just outside Washington, D.C., the capital of conventional wisdom. But there's revolution in the air, a revolt from above ushering in a new governing structure that's changing all of college athletics.
The meeting has representatives from all three NCAA divisions, including president Mark Emmert. But thanks to a power play in the past year by the major football schools, this weekend all eyes are on the 65 Division I colleges in the so-called Power 5 conferences: the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC, plus Notre Dame.
On Saturday afternoon, the Power 5, their pockets filling with new FBS playoff cash, will propose several new rules under a new voting system. A group of presidents, athletics directors, faculty and athlete representatives will decide on new concussion protocols, boosting scholarship grants to cover the "full cost of attendance," extending scholarship guarantees beyond a one-year commitment, and increasing players' options to buy insurance to hedge against career-killing injuries.
Also on the ballot: a slate of "general" proposals allowing the Power 5 to write their own rule book in a variety of areas. Meanwhile, the rest of the conventioneers will look on and try to figure out the fallout for their schools. "A great deal of work was done without a great deal of concern to the detail of this structure," said Vermont AD Robert Corran. "We're marching down this road without really knowing where we're going."
Though focused on the big-revenue football and men's basketball programs, the Power 5's moves will significantly affect women's programs at all levels, perhaps indirectly at first.
But just as with the men's programs, the new rules will likely produce big winners and a yet-to-be-determined number of losers. Here, then, is a guide to what this convention means, and its potential positive and negative effects on women's sports -- as well as their male counterparts.
WHY YOU SHOULD PAY ATTENTION: Everything from the structure of NCAA committees to athlete meals will be different than just one year ago. The biggest change, though, is money. The Power 5 now has more of it thanks to the new 12-year, $7.3 billion football playoff contract with ESPN, and they're revamping the structure of the entire NCAA as a result. Women athletes at elite sports schools are likely to benefit. (Some already have; as part of an NCAA's snap decision to pay travel expenses for parents to attend the Ohio State-Oregon football title game, the parents of women's basketball players who make this year's Final Four will have their Big Dance travel tickets paid for, too.) Who else benefits is an open question. "The new governance model represents a compromise on all sides that will better serve our members and, most importantly, our student-athletes," Emmert said last summer, after the Division I Board of Directors voted to adopt the new structure.The big schools have a term for this revolution: autonomy.
DEFINE "AUTONOMY," PLEASE: The short answer is the Power 5 conferences can now make more of their own rules and keep more of what they see as their own football money. They will share some of it with smaller Division I football schools in the next five conferences -- the MAC, the Mountain West, the American, the Sun Belt and Conference USA. But they'll share none of it with Division I schools that don't play football, though those schools are free to opt into any of the new rules they propose. For instance, all Division I programs would be welcome to help athletes, male or female, purchase insurance. If they can afford it.
WHY IT'S HAPPENING: The big schools sent a message in 2014: If the NCAA didn't allow them more leeway to make decisions, including how that football windfall is spent, they would break away from the rest of Division I. SEC commissioner Mike Slive led the charge, threatening to create a "Division 4" of mega-programs if the current autonomy proposals were blocked. Some non-Power 5 schools complained, and the nearly 350 Division I institutions had the option to kill the new autonomy structure if 75 of them petitioned to override the proposal and put it up for a vote at this convention. But only 27 schools requested an override. Why? "They were scared," said former Texas women's athletics director Donna Lopiano, now president of the consulting firm Sports Management Resources. "They think if the FBS schools were going to pull out, they were going to take the basketball championship with them."
Lopiano also says many administrators at smaller Division I schools didn't want to risk being blackballed by the major conferences and lose that guaranteed basketball payday for a sacrificial visit to, say, Kentucky, or that guaranteed nonconference W at Michigan. "That's why there were so few override votes," Lopiano said. "Absolutely."
AUTONOMY'S BOTTOM LINE: The rich will get richer.
WHAT ABOUT WOMEN'S SPORTS? Again, the rich will get richer.
HOW? If you're among the top 100 or so athletes at one of the top 65 schools, you're golden. Because Title IX means that whatever the 85 scholarship football players and 12 scholarship men's basketball players get, there must be equitable treatment for a like number of women athletes. So a lot of women's basketball, volleyball, softball and soccer players will benefit from things such as travel stipends and increased scholarship money when the full cost of attendance calculations come in. Colleges that receive federal funding have "an obligation to ensure that their athletics programs comply with applicable federal and state gender equity laws," said Title IX attorney Janet Judge. Increasing benefits to football players without increasing them for women most likely violates those laws.
IF YOU'RE NOT IN THE POWER 5, HOWEVER ... It's going to be a struggle for poorer schools, and even successful programs who aren't in a big football conference, such as UConn, which astonishingly says it loses money on both men's and women's basketball. With the Power 5 upping benefits to their athletes, schools without big FBS bucks will need to find money elsewhere to compete. Good luck. "When you look at legislative funding for higher ed, it's diminishing every year," said Vermont's Corran. "That means it's either coming from the institution itself through increased tuition and fees, or it's going to come from the existing athletic budget. And if it comes from the athletic budget, that means something is going to have to be cut."
Men's non-revenue sports are likely to go first, but women's programs won't be immune. Many schools will be forced to downsize departments from top to bottom, Lopiano says -- including their women's programs.
WHAT ARE THE BIGGEST POSITIVES HERE? The concussion discussion is long overdue and could be an important step in increasing safety while decreasing legal liability in many sports, including women's soccer. The big schools are addressing what's long been criticized as an injustice by making scholarships cover all four years, which would take away a school's ability to revoke a scholarship from an injured athlete. And for the first time, 15 college athletes will have a vote on these issues. "I'm a little nervous, actually," said Notre Dame senior Kaila Barber, a track and field athlete who will attend the conference as one of three athlete representatives from the ACC. Since no students have ever held these roles, "There's no one to ask how to do this or how to act during it. But it's going to be a good experience overall."
Barber has been briefed on the various autonomy proposals by her school's compliance officials and solicited input from athletes at other ACC schools to help her decide on how to vote. The cost-of-attendance increases were popular -- one in particular. "For the food one, I know every athlete wants all that passed," she said, "just because we like to eat. We're always hungry."
UNKNOWN UNKNOWNS: Experts predict the Power 5 autonomy proposals will sail through on Saturday, but expect mass confusion over the details. Case in point: the set of "General Proposals," which deal with "modernizing the collegiate model in accordance with the vision set forth" by, that's right, the Power 5. "It's so broad, it could mean anything," Vermont's Corran said. "It's, 'Well, we're gonna do some stuff. Are you guys OK with that?' It makes it very difficult for people to understand how it will work, what it will mean and even how to prepare for it."
RUMBLINGS FROM BELOW: The past year's upheaval angers many NCAA observers, including Lopiano, who calls the autonomy movement "pure and simple selfishness" on the part of the Power 5. But she and others see opportunities for changes that can benefit both men and women. Lopiano advocates Congress stepping in and reforming college sports the way it successfully overhauled Olympic sports in the 1970s. "I think the establishment of a presidential commission to look into this would have bipartisan support," she said, "because everybody agrees there's a problem, and it's not a political risk to say we should study this."
Economist Andy Schwarz, who consulted with the winning plaintiffs in the Ed O'Bannon case, sees a different opportunity, one in which the NCAA quits trying to strangle market forces and allows for more direct payments to athletes. He insists that with Title IX, women athletes will still be guaranteed an equitable slice of a bigger financial pie for athletes. As evidence, he points to an amicus brief filed in the Northwestern football players union case, in which attorneys for several NCAA schools stated that if unionized football players obtained greater benefits for themselves, Title IX mandates either decreasing other men's programs or "increasing benefits for female athletes." At the same time, market distortions such as skyrocketing FBS coaching salaries will naturally correct themselves. How? If Michigan could pay a direct salary to a football player, Schwarz believes, the school would also have to pay a proportional amount into women's athletics to comply with federal law. And it would have less money to pay Jim Harbaugh's huge salary.
More directly, the upheaval and the pot of football cash gives the NCAA a chance to enforce a 1992 rule to promote gender equity, said Nancy Hogshead-Makar, a former Olympic swimming gold medalist and the founder of Champion Women, a nonprofit sports advocacy group. She points out that men still receive $190 million more than women in athletic scholarship money each year. Part of the remedy involves collecting and presenting basic data on schools' gender-equity numbers transparently, Hogshead-Makar said, but the current Institutional Performance Program data are difficult to assess. "Why not make it easy on people," she said, "showing: Here's how you're doing on participation; here's how you're doing on benefits; here's how you're doing on scholarships. Make it all one tabulation -- one screen shows the whole thing."
Meanwhile, Corran said there's suddenly talk of looking at a whole sport-by-sport restructuring of college athletics, with more attention to regional cooperation and a shunning of the top-down NCAA model. Let women's lacrosse, for example, more or less govern itself, and allow nearby Division III and Division 1 schools to play each other in whatever sports they choose, something the current NCAA rules make nearly impossible.
It's early yet, and Saturday's meeting is just the beginning, but over time, the sword of autonomy might cut both ways.