Copyright 2014 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
The most powerful man in college sports has put the NCAA on notice. SEC commissioner Mike Slive said last week --- and Slive isn't known for voicing idle thoughts, or threats --- that his and the other four major conferences need to be accommodated. If those five leagues don't get their collective way ... why, they'll build a new highway.
Speaking at the close of the SEC meetings in Destin, Fla., Slive said: "We want the ability to have autonomy in areas that has a nexus to the well-being of student-athletes. I am somewhat optimistic it will pass, but if it doesn't, our league would certainly want to move to a Division IV."
At present, there is no Division IV. But Division I has grown so large as to have lost all shape. One hundred twenty-eight schools are scheduled to play football in the highest classification (FBS) next season. Roughly 125 others will play in FCS, once known as Division I-AA. All those Division I schools get to vote on how Division I should be regulated, which leaves the 65 Big Five members in a peculiar place: The biggest money-makers are also subject to being outvoted.
The reason for Slive's declaration of semi-independence is that the Big Five want to stop short of paying athletes a salary --- which, in the wake of Northwestern football players' attempt to unionize, is suddenly on the table --- but want to reimburse players for what's known as the full cost of college attendance. (This has long been a Slive hobbyhorse.) But the smaller Division I programs aren't apt to permit it.
Thus might the five biggest leagues be moved to break away, much as the 60-some members of the College Football Association did more than 30 years ago. Back then, big-name programs were tired of the NCAA negotiating TV contracts for everyone, and two of the biggest names --- Georgia and Oklahoma --- teamed to sue the NCAA. Said Vince Dooley, then the Bulldogs' coach and athletic director: "Oklahoma and Georgia asked the question, 'Was this a violation of the Sherman antitrust laws?' The answer (delivered by the U.S. Supreme Court on June 27, 1984) was yes."
That led to bigger contracts, as negotiated by individual conferences. The NCAA's grip on the most profitable college sport --- and given that the NCAA never showed an inclination to touch the bowl system, its hold was always tenuous --- was broken. The leagues became the seats of power. Today Slive, who speaks for 14 programs, holds greater sway than does NCAA president Mark Emmert, whose constituency numbers more than 1,200 schools.
"It's a repeat of history," Dooley said Monday. "The NCAA went to divisions because schools wanted the autonomy ... . The Big Five are going to have to have some flexibility to get things done, such as the cost of attendance. Because if you ever crossed the line (of paying players), you might as well fold the tent. I'm very much in favor of the conferences having the flexibility."
When we think of the NCAA in stage-managed March Madness mode, it's astonishing to realize how little it has to do with the running of major-college football. The BCS was a function of the big conferences. The new College Football Playoff is an entity unto itself, based not in Indianapolis, where the ham-handed Emmert and Co. are headquartered, but in Dallas. After losing before the land's highest court, the NCAA has essentially left King Football to its own devices, which is why Slive and like-minded folks are asking: In this particular sport, do we even need the NCAA?
Unless the Big Five get their way and voting bylaws are relaxed/amended, the NCAA could well collapse. As Florida president Bernie Machen told reporters last week: "The whole thing could go up in smoke if the lawsuits come down or with the unionization rule. The whole intercollegiate model is at risk if we don't do something."
Said Dooley: "So many smaller schools have fought to become Division I. But we need to let those five conferences be allowed to vote on issues important to them. The smaller schools will not be able to pay the cost of attendance."
This might seem a case of sports mirroring society --- the haves want to make money without interference from those who have less --- but there's also a fairness component. Georgia State football is not like Georgia football. The SEC is not like the Sun Belt. All programs are not created equal.
We can argue at length over whether the five big conferences are too big. We cannot, however, deny reality. They have the power to get what they want. And they will.