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A few moments before taking the podium Monday for his annual state of the conference address, Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby insisted he wouldn't be unleashing anything explosive.
It was a reference to a year earlier, when Bowlsby issued a clear call for "transformative change" in the NCAA -- which now, with a vote next month to give the Power Five conferences the ability to provide athletes with unprecedented benefits, is on the verge of occurring. But while generally satisfied with the progress toward that change in the form of legislative autonomy, Bowlsby painted a bleak bigger picture of the future.
"If you like intercollegiate athletics the way it is, you're going to hate it going forward," he said. "There's a lot of change coming."
Like everyone else associated with the NCAA, Bowlsby awaits a federal judge's decision in the O'Bannon antitrust lawsuit; it could be issued within days. Although it will be appealed regardless of the ruling, several other lawsuits are churning through the system. There's also the unionization effort by Northwestern football players that's before the National Labor Relations Board. Combined, the external pressures could "radically change" the entire NCAA system, Bowlsby said.
"I expect to be in court most of the rest of my career," he said.
And he didn't sound optimistic. Although Bowlsby said "much more is right about (college athletics) than there is wrong about it," he spent the majority of his address, as well as formal and informal interview sessions that followed, outlining problems he described as significant.
He pointed to expenses that are trending upward faster (4.5% a year) than TV revenue are rising (2.5%), warning, "When those lines cross, they're going to stay crossed for a while."
All of that is before increased costs from new rules passed once autonomy kicks in (it's estimated that paying the full cost of attendance scholarships, for example, will annually cost schools millions of dollars) or from changes to the system that could be mandated by the courts.
Bowlsby said later that his intent was to sound an alarm on the consequences, intended and unintended, of those potential forced changes. He said they might lead to cutbacks in men's sports other than football and men's basketball and to the elimination of some sports, though requirements of Title IX would prevent elimination and cutbacks to women's sports.
"There's only so much money out there," he said. "I don't think that coaches and athletic directors are likely going to take pay cuts. I think that train's left the station. ... I think over a period of time what we'll find is that instead of keeping a tennis program, they're going to do the things that it takes to keep the football and men's and women's basketball programs strong."
What, if anything, Bowlsby and others can do to prevent those outcomes isn't clear, but it's why, in the smaller picture, he and other Power Five conference commissioners are focused on reform within the system via autonomy. Like his peers in recent days, Bowlsby said he was satisfied with the final proposal that has been submitted to the NCAA Division I board of directors, which is expected to give its approval Aug.7. He reiterated his endorsement for enhanced benefits, including scholarships that would cover the full cost of attendance, and said the transition to autonomy should cause the 65 schools from the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences and independent Notre Dame to re-evaluate everything.
His strongest words came on the subject of NCAA enforcement. Echoing comments made last month by Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany, Bowlsby said the entire process of investigating and penalizing rule-breakers needs to be overhauled.
"Enforcement is broken," he said, noting the Committee on Infractions hasn't held a hearing in more than a year.
"I think it's not an understatement to say that cheating pays, presently," he said.
There has been talk of outsourcing the enforcement model, but that wouldn't solve the problem already faced by the NCAA's investigators, who are limited in their ability to compel cooperation from anyone who isn't employed by or a student at a member school. Bowlsby likened it to fighting with a BB gun against opponents "with a Howitzer" and suggested federal legislation as a potential remedy.
"I am really not that far from being of the mind that some sort of federal statute isn't a good idea," he said. "It would say it's against the law to influence where a student athlete would go to school, to influence the outcome of a contest, to provide a benefit that is outside the (NCAA) rules."
Enforcement isn't an area in which the Power Five would have authority under autonomy, though Delany, who chairs a subcommittee of his Power Five peers that is focused on the issue, told USA TODAY Sports recently it could be added at a later date. For now, it is well down the list of immediate priorities for reform.
Bowlsby said the idea of asking for a legislative remedy is simply a concept. "I don't know what the appetite is for it on Capitol Hill," he said.
Nor does anyone know what to expect from the future, given the various issues confronting college athletics.
"There are all kinds of Armageddon scenarios," Bowlsby said, shortly after outlining several. "I don't think people understand how much potential these lawsuits have to radically change what we know as intercollegiate athletics."