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USA TODAY
Nancy Armour, narmour@usatoday.com, USA TODAY Sports

Ignoring a problem and hoping it goes away is no way to get things done.

The NCAA has managed to turn it into an art form.

Four university presidents, along with Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby, showed up Sunday to provide cover for Mark Emmert as he gave his annual state of the NCAA address. But for all of their reassurances that they're serious about fixing the NCAA -- pinkie swear! -- their words rang as hollow as ever.

They completely ducked the question of how the recent decision to allow Northwestern football players to unionize could impact the NCAA. They revealed no concrete deals about governance restructuring, other than to say it is coming and the five power conferences likely will be given more clout.

They couldn't even guarantee the membership would sign off on the reforms, no small thing considering it has rejected efforts in the past.

"Most of Division I members see that we're standing at a fork in the road," said Kirk Schulz, president of Kansas State and a member of the NCAA's executive committee. "I think at the end of the day there's a realization that if you don't do this we could be in some real trouble."

Given the NCAA's history, I'll believe it when I see it.

For years, the NCAA has ignored obvious signs of trouble. The true cost of an education isn't a new issue, it's just the gap that's widened. The Fab Five were griping about Michigan and the NCAA making money off them before Johnny Manziel was even born.

Now the unions are circling, and the NCAA isn't taking that threat seriously, either.

"This will probably be a long, drawn-out multiyear debate that goes on," Emmert said. "As far as contingency plans, no one has sat and figured out what a contingency plan would be. To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union-employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems.

"It would blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics," Emmert added.

Emmert likes to remind everyone that the NCAA isn't like other sports leagues, that decisions -- and indecisions -- come from the 300-plus "member institutions." The problem is it's easier to herd cats than to get that many schools, each of which has a different agenda, to agree on anything, especially if it means giving up any of their power or control.

The idea of letting schools make up the difference between the value of a scholarship and the actual cost of going to school has been on the table for several years now. This isn't a huge chunk of cash they're talking about, mind you, but enough money so the kids who generate billions for the NCAA have enough to do laundry or go out for a hamburger with their friends.

But the smaller schools torpedoed it, saying they didn't have the money. It wasn't until the five conferences that generate the most revenue in Division I started making noise about taking their brands and going home that the members got serious. In a matter of months, the framework was in place to give those conferences and their 65 schools more leeway in financial matters.

In exchange, Division I would remain one big, happy family. The men's basketball tournament, which provides the NCAA with the vast majority of its funding, would continue to exist in its current -- and lucrative -- form.

"Our world is not the same in a small program. We don't have the resources," said Rita Cheng, chancellor at Southern Illinois. "As long as we know that we can be competitive in the tournament and that our athletes can have opportunities, it is appropriate for us to say, 'Your world is different than our world.'"

But allowing one group special privileges has never worked very well. At best, it breeds resentment and insecurity. At worst, it leads to lawsuits.

The NCAA needs to be fixed, no doubt about it. But it needs to be done right, in a way that not only addresses issues big and small but will withstand the test of time and outside interests.

If the NCAA members can't do it, be assured that a judge or union will.

April 7, 2014

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