Could the NCAA Be On the Verge of Creating a Fourth Subdivision?Posted by Chris Johnson on June 3rd, 2013
Chris Johnson is an RTC Columnist. He can be reached @ChrisDJohnsonn.
Imagine trying to lump wildly financially disparate athletic programs with different issues and different monetary imperatives under one legislative agenda. Imagine trying to hold that infrastructure together with vague terminology and philosophical principles and vexingly byzantine legalese. Imagine that organization asking an enforcement staff that can’t even police itself to make sure everything runs smoothly – no questions asked, no willingness to adjust. Imagine a near-universally loathed ruling figurehead, whose tenure has been besieged by near-constant turmoil on college campuses, wielding unseen legislative power, refusing to cooperate with influential school athletic directors, eroding public trust every step of the way, and doing it all while publicly casting himself as some enduringly unimpeachable monarch – untouchable, unimpressionable and, most recently, resentfully bitter to any and all external questioning or proposals for change.
The public approval rating of NCAA president Mark Emmert, were there such a measure for the organization’s embattled leader, would not inspire confidence for election day. The rightful scorn and growingly pervasive critiques can’t be (or shouldn’t be) shoved on Emmert’s doorstep; his actions are merely a particularly irksome embodiment of the entire NCAA’s morally and ethically dubious ruling construct. Either way, his spot isn’t up for contestation, so Emmert doesn’t have to worry – even as swaths of media call for his resignation and athletic directors lose confidence in his ability to navigate the NCAA’s hazardous future. Emmert isn’t completely blind to the boiling discontent within his membership, and at the Big 12 meetings in Irving, Texas, last week, he made an important concession that shows he’s open to the concept of realigning the power structure to accommodate more-monied (and thus more powerful) programs.
The idea that Louisiana-Monroe, who registered the smallest sum of total athletic revenue among FBS schools in 2012 with $11.3 million, and Texas, who lead all programs with $163.3 million, can coexist under the same rules with the same financial restrictions and legislative barriers has long been recognized as one of the NCAA’s biggest definitional quandaries. People have floated the concept of a fourth subdivision where wealthy athletic departments like Texas and Ohio State could exist under the auspices of their own rulebook, and exclude smaller programs like LMA – schools that can’t realistically compete in the same competitive environment, offer the same financial benefits to student athletes and generate the same exorbitant revenue from intensely passionate colony-sized fan bases and annual merchandise retail. Emmert isn’t dumb, just doggedly headstrong and condescending and power-drunk; but not even his domineering and change-resistant mindset could shoot down what sounds and feels like an altogether sensible way to legislate a cleaner and more sensible organization of FBS schools.
“That’s not my decision,” he said. “That’s the members’ decision. And I hope they look at it. I think it would be healthy and the right thing to do.”
How close are we to the creation of a fourth NCAA subdivision (to go along with the current D-1/D-II/D-III arrangement)? The Houston Chronicle got Big 12 AD Bob Bowslby to offer his opinion, and despite acknowledging discontent among presidents and athletic directors, there seems to be a shared commitment to the NCAA as currently constructed. Bowlsby mentioned “general uneasiness” while reassuring he hasn’t encountered “much talk about the major programs taking their ball and pursuing some other option.” Which is basically another way of saying you shouldn’t be expecting a fundamental structural change, like a completely new subdivision, any time soon. A workable three-division model is in place, Emmert and school presidents are committed to making every necessary tweak and minor change to dust up the cobwebs and dreaming up radical alternatives, or anything beyond a minimally revised version of the status quo – perhaps in the form of a $2,000 student-athlete stipend – is jumping the gun.
But it would be foolish to completely write off Emmert’s comments. For one, most, if not all, hints of philosophical or systemic changes to date have been met with uncompromising rejection. Emmert wants things done his way, under his strong-handed agenda, and implying otherwise will leave you at the mercy of one of his bitter dais-side tirades or a Cyclops laser-beam eye glare or a wry presser-walkoff mic-drop. Emmert is, at minimum, admitting the existence of real, severe, not-media-constructed financial problems, and he’s open to letting schools discuss a sensible plan to alleviate those issues. Why now? The impending O’Bannnon lawsuit – which has the potential to tear down the NCAA’s existing amateurism model and irrevocably redefine college athletics, creeps closer and closer every day (an important hearing on whether the plaintiffs will be granted class action status is set for June 20) – might just be chipping away at the ruthlessly unyielding public wall of resistance Emmert has hid behind for most of his tenure. Maybe he’s feeling some serious heat, or has finally come to the realization that a healthy working relationship with school presidents and ADs will actually help, and not impede, his ability to pursue progressive changes and attack his frequently cited “change agenda.”
Even crazier than Emmert opening up to a significant structural change? Not only did he expressly allow for the possibility of a fourth subdivision, he flatly encouraged his members to explore the idea. “I think it would be healthy. I think it would be the right thing to do,” is hard to distort, or spin away from its blanket forthright interpretation in any meaningful way. It almost sounds as if Emmert, maybe sensing the organization’s growingly unsustainable financial orginazation, actually wants a fourth subdivision. But I’m probably getting ahead of myself. This is Mark Emmert — an impenetrable stone-faced gargoyle of graceless defiance, an irritably stubborn media troll, an organization leader who’s watched all of the positive academic reforms passed under his watch drowned out by botched investigations and inconsistent punishments and undeniably hypocritical public denials and explanations.
The time to celebrate positive change is when that change is permanently etched into the NCAA rulebook, and at no point before that. Emmert is showing a willingness to move forward by encouraging a discussion of reasonable solutions. Until further evidence proves otherwise, his intentions haven’t changed – Emmert is the same obtusely arrogant and inflexible power creature he’s always been. He needs to show me and everyone else why we should think differently.