The Changing Face of College Sports

Recent conference and divisional realignments, and a push to restructure the NCAA’s governance authority, auger a momentous shift in the balance of power.

The newspaper clipping bears the title, “What’s the Future of the NCAA?”, and if you had any doubt about where Dave Nightingale and The Sporting News stand on this one, consider the letters that make up the 89-year-old association’s name are crumbling and falling off the page.

Cover of the Sept. 1994 edition of Athletic BusinessScared by the NCAA’s imminent demise? Don’t be. The story ran more than nine years ago, and the torn and yellowed newsprint attests to the strength and cohesiveness of that august body — above all, its absolute permanence.

Or does it?

The rumblings this time around are more distinct and ominous than ever before. The association’s growth — 103 institutions have been admitted in the last six years, a 13 percent increase — has primarily boosted membership in Divisions II and III, at a time when many Division I schools are increasingly frustrated over what they perceive as their disproportionately low voting power. Add to this an atmosphere of heightened financial anxiety, resulting from the necessity of adding programs to comply with Title IX requirements on the one hand and contain costs in an uncertain economic climate on the other, and you’ve got the mix for a potentially damaging explosion.

This year’s watchword is ‘restructuring,’ both in terms of conference and divisional alignments, and of governance authority. Such a reorganization is seen by some as a mere adjustment to, and to others a momentous shift in, the balance of power. But while fears of the NCAA’s balkanization have occurred at regular intervals over the last two decades, this round has seen something close to the real thing — widespread conference shifting, institutional shuttling and wholesale jockeying for control. And no one can say for sure where it will end.

All this movement has had consequences for others outside the NCAA umbrella. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has been dealing with the restructuring issue for the last several years, successfully enough (one supposes) that the NCAA has been examining the NAIA model to see if any of it is applicable to its membership.

Unfortunately, the restructuring of the way the NAIA is governed may come too late for the organization, whose numbers have dropped from about 500 mainly small, private schools to fewer than 300 in the last five years. Entire conferences have left to join the NCAA, and a few individual NAIA schools have even jumped all the way to NCAA Division I — a surprising occurrence given the philosophical differences between the two. Three years ago, there were about 70 NAIA Division I football schools. Now there are fewer than 30.

“It could come to the point that the NAIA, because of a lack of numbers, just will not exist anymore,” concedes David Johnsen, AD at NAIA-member Iowa Wesleyan and a member of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics’ (NACDA) executive committee. “I think the NCAA needs to come up with some type of plan to bring in the rest of the NAIA schools. Where are they going to go if the NAIA folds?”

NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey has himself asked this question, and the ranks of Divisions II and III have swelled with NAIA converts, but there seems to be a backlash against bringing even more NAIA schools into the NCAA fold. Some ADs in NCAA Division III have suggested a three-year moratorium on any more NAIA schools joining, and there already exists a three-year transitional period between acceptance and official membership.

Several factors have helped create the impasse. Each additional NCAA member is essentially another mouth to feed, one more school to share in the bounty that comes mainly from Division I football and basketball revenue. To those universities, meanwhile, each private, low-enrollment school potentially represents one more member of the large voting bloc preventing the big-time schools from achieving autonomy within the NCAA. And to both groups, each new member represents a potentially competing philosophy, one more voice to reckon with come voting time.

Johnsen believes in the proposition that there is strength in numbers, and disagrees with the notion that schools making up the NAIA are any different from those belonging to the NCAA.

“Most of the NAIA Division II schools are very similar in philosophy and practice to NCAA Division III,” Johnsen says.

“Most don’t offer athletic scholarships, and those that currently offer very limited scholarships would have no difficulty in dropping them if they were to move to the NCAA. NAIA Division I, meanwhile, is very comparable to NCAA Division II.

“Iowa Wesleyan is surrounded by NCAA Division III schools, some of whom are very strong, and to me there’s not a lot of difference. We com-
pete against some of them in sports, and we definitely compete with them in recruiting.”

In that case, why switch? Part of the reason, naturally, is money. NAIA schools traveling to championship tournaments pay their own expenses; NCAA schools get paid to go. In addition, the NCAA has acquired a certain prestige over the years — and on the most basic level, of course, it is thriving while the NAIA appears to be dying.

In spite of growing evidence that this is so, Johnsen is not quite convinced it’ll happen.

“It’s hard to say what will happen,” he says. “I think it depends on what the NCAA does in regard to their restructuring. If enough NCAA Division II and III schools were to see the advantages to being in the NAIA, I could see the NAIA getting back to where it was 10 years ago. There hasn’t been an awful lot of movement in that direction, but there have been two or three schools who’ve moved from the NCAA, either because of the NAIA’s higher academic standards or perhaps because they were surrounded by NAIA schools and couldn’t find any NCAA members to play.

“I think it could go either way. Probably it’ll move to the point where there’ll be a merger between the two.”

A merger, he is asked, rather than the NCAA merely swallowing up the smaller organization?

Johnsen laughs. “I’d like to think of it as being a merger,” he says. “But it’s kind of a cloudy issue right now. Where is the NCAA going to go with its restructuring? The NAIA is kind of sitting here holding its breath, hoping that the NCAA can come up with a solution.”

About as far away on the collegiate athletics spectrum from the NAIA as is possible, the Big Ten Conference’s commissioner, Jim Delany, awaits the next few months with great anticipation. Delany believes he and his fellow Division I-A commissioners have arrived at a workable solution, and now it’s up to the NCAA membership to develop rival plans (the association’s deadline was Aug. 31) for the entire membership to review and discuss between now and the annual convention in January.

Although many are informally calling the I-A commissioners’ restructuring concept unveiled at last January’s NCAA Convention “the Delany proposal,” he is quick to point out that the plan was drafted by the commissioners from seven conferences, including the ACC, SEC, Pac-10, Big Ten and Big East, and was largely put together by the ACC’s Rick Crist. “I think tying it to one person is unfair,” Delany says. “Believe me, if I were the only player, we
wouldn’t be having these discussions at every level.”

At the Division I level, the discussions have fixed on a reality of the democratic process that is both simple and, for the largest universities, increasingly problematic: One institution, one vote. This would be fine with the Division I schools if they felt that each NCAA member institution had an equal stake in the decision-making process. However, Delany says, the institutions that “have the broadest-based programs, have made the largest financial commitment and have achieved the most competitively over time,” feel like they have too little say in legislative matters. “The question is,” he asks, “should Central Michigan, Western Michigan and Eastern Michigan have three times the voting authority of the University of Michigan?”

To combat what Delany calls “an environment where those who contribute 80 percent of the revenue and competitive success get 30 percent of the voting power,” the commissioners’ proposal would grant legislative authority to a board of directors (as well as give voting rights to a small number of schools from the other divisions), shifting the NCAA from a democratic to a representative system.

“You’d be shifting to giving Division I schools maybe 50 to 55 percent of the political authority,” Delany says. “There would be representation for everyone, except that those who were once the majority would no longer be the majority.”

That possibility is serving as a wake-up call for smaller institutions, who under the current system have wielded their considerable power to block Division I policy initiatives that they felt weren’t (for them) philosophically defensible or financially feasible. And yet, despite smaller schools’ fears of diluted powers, the system to a degree already skews power toward the larger institutions.

For example, Division I schools receive 22 votes on the President’s Commission and NCAA Council to 11 each for Divisions II and III. Says John Harvey, AD at Division III Carnegie-Mellon University, “When the Football Rules committee voted to change the goal posts, we got all ticked off in Division III because it was going to cost us all more money, but we got outvoted. So the fact that our membership is the biggest doesn’t necessarily give us more weight.”

Although Delany likens the NCAA to other organizations “where you might have preferred stockholders and common stockholders,” he says that the issue is control, not money. “The major conferences are willing to continue to share revenue as they have in the past,” Delany says. “I was with the Ohio Valley Conference for 10 years, and when I arrived there in 1979, we received $40,000 from the NCAA through an automatic bid. In 1991, they received $1 million. So I don’t think anybody can argue that the NCAA structure has not been generous. We’re willing to maintain that generosity, that sharing. But there’s a fundamental feeling that there needs to be a shift of governance authority to the members who provide the largest contribution, commitment and investment.

“I think that’s a self-serving statement,” he adds, “but I also feel it’s a realistic statement.”

Former NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz, now president and CEO of Global Sports in Westwood, Kan., is widely credited with leading the charge toward a more federated system within the association, and feels the fears of the smaller schools are unwarranted.

“In most conversations I’ve had with Division I people, they’re not saying they want to take the money and run,” says Schultz. “The commissioners’ plan is an interesting one; it would basically change the NCAA from a democracy to a republic. A lot of people are going to take a look at it and say it’s a real power grab, but people really have to step back and take a long look at it. It deserves a fair amount of study.

“The good thing is, it’s the kind of concept that people will react to, and will stimulate other people to come forward with other proposals.”

Delany says he’s looking forward to reviewing those other proposals, but that he and his fellow commissioners remain steadfast in their desire for more autonomy.

“We should have the right to address the problems we have without being held captive by another majority,” he says. “You can’t ask someone to share the revenue, competition and so on, and then to be the secondary player politically. That’s not right. And I think we would be wrong to be satisfied with that.”

Perhaps the other divisions’ reaction to the commissioners’ proposal was just a matter of semantics. As Carnegie-Mellon’s Harvey says, “When they started using the word ‘equity’ to determine who swings the weight, that bothered quite a few people.” The simple truth is, though, that no matter how reasonable the Division I members’ position is to them, Division III schools have problems of their own to consider.

Each of the divisions has a wide array of member institutions, but none is quite as diverse as Division III. With schools boasting enrollments of 500 to 35,000 and a steady influx of former NAIA schools, Division III as it has grown larger has begun to mirror the larger association and the diversity that occasionally threatens to break it apart. For this reason, Division III has been at the forefront of the restructuring movement, beginning at home — separate division committees have begun to revisit Division III’s philosophy statement and to look at ways the division might regroup its schools, perhaps as Division I already splits its schools into three subdivisions.

Within the larger association, Division III treads a very thin line; because its schools do not give athletic scholarships, it sees itself as offering athletics in its most “pure” form, and yet it does benefit financially from its association with the rest of the NCAA. The Division I-A football playoff proposal, therefore — the committee reviewing playoff options disbanded without reaching anything close to a consensus — was an example of an area where most Division II and III institutions took a “hands-off” approach.

“I think the phrase we used was, ‘Let the big dogs eat,’ ” Harvey says.

Then again, there were fears as that drama played itself out that rejection of the playoff (which was estimated to be worth $80 million to $100 million in revenue) by the NCAA membership could hasten the big-time football schools’ departure from the association. That possibility, while remote, did lead to some soul-searching among the smaller schools. If approximately 80 schools brought in the bucks, what did the other 826 bring to the party?

“We think we bring a philosophical balance,” says Harvey. “There are occasions when Division III presidents and ADs point out certain philosophical principles that make even Division I administrators think a little bit. There definitely are some cases where we drag our feet and get Division I ticked off. In some cases, that’s the way it is. But in other cases, we feel 100 percent legitimate, because what seems to be foot-dragging is really putting forth principles that we really think are necessary to have in the balance. If it means sometimes that Division I isn’t allowed to forge ahead with some new initiative because of Division II and III institutions, well, so be it.”

If Division III sometimes stands in opposition to Division I as the NCAA’s conscience, Division II is left to grope its way in a vast gray area, usually splitting its 248 votes between both sides of an issue. Noel Olsen, commissioner of the Division II’s North Central Conference, uses both “caught in the middle” and “best of both worlds” to describe its place in the NCAA.

“We’ve got a lot of schools that are close to Division I and others that are closer to Division III, and our big problem is the cost of scholarships, mainly in football,” says Olsen. “There’s going to be a battle within Division II as to how to solve our financial problems. It all boils down to money.”

The diversity issue is beginning to haunt Division II, which has received more ex-NAIA schools than any other division. Breaking Divisions II and III into two subdivisions, possibly with football schools structured completely separately, has been discussed. “I’ll tell you, there’s no one change that everybody supports,” Olsen says.

Like Harvey, Olsen believes the majority of schools favor giving Division I more autonomy, even as they fear the potential loss of power.

“The big Division I schools want some autonomy in the decision-making, and they probably deserve that,” he says. “If you’re making all the money, you’d like to be able to control your destiny. I’ve always had the philosophy that if Division I wants something, I’ll vote for it, because I don’t want to cut off my nose to spite my face.

“There’s been talk of Division I seceding, but that’s died down. I certainly hope they don’t; we can’t survive without them.”

Harvey adds, “I suppose they could form an organization of 80 schools, do things their own way, get most of the television revenue and not be hindered by the rest of us. But I’d like to feel there are enough other advantages to being in the larger organization that they’d be sacrificing too much by leaving.”

“One of the association’s greatest strengths,” Cedric Dempsey said in his State of the Association address last January, “has been its ability to refine and adjust to meet the needs of the membership.” Certainly, the NCAA has continually subdivided as it has grown, from one division to two (college and university), then to its current three-division setup, then to the subdividing of Divi-
sion I into I-A, I-AA and I-AAA. The NCAA has hardly been a sterile, static entity.

But can it retool itself at a time when financial constraints force separate institutions and groups of institutions into entrenched positions where compromise is difficult, if not impossible, to achieve? Can — or even should — one association attempt to create a chorus out of the noise of a thousand separate voices?

“In all large organizations, there’s this constant tension between members with respect to whether or not an umbrella organization provides the necessary governance clout for those who have unique problems,” says Delany.

“We feel there’s a need for some type of umbrella organization, rather than just have each institution doing its own thing any way they want to,” adds Harvey. “You’ve got to have some regulatory structure, or you’ll have some institutions doing some ungodly things, I’m afraid. The main thing is to get something close to a level playing field.”

The odds are it will be a long process, given the number of schools and number of competing philosophies. (Iowa Wesleyan’s Johnsen says it took the NAIA, a significantly smaller and less diverse body, several years to overhaul its system of governance.) Dempsey and his predecessor point to the 1996 NCAA Convention as the first time any restructuring proposal could conceivably be put to a vote. Schultz is optimistic the association can meet the challenge, but cautions that change in the future may become even more rapid and necessary.

“As the association gets larger, you’re going to see this come up more often,” says Schultz, who has suggested a model where each division operates autonomously under its own executive director, with the association overseen by a chief executive officer. “There’s so much diversity out there, even within each of the divisions, that for a long time there will be constant calls for restructuring of the governance policies.

“I think the association can survive, but maybe not in its current form. My feeling is if the presidents and executive committee don’t provide leadership on the restructuring issue, there will be an opportunity for the whole thing apart.”


Andrew Cohen is the former editor of Athletic Business. This article was originally published in the September 1994 issue of the magazine.