The NCAA is Changing — With or Without a Division IV

Posted by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn) on November 4th, 2013

Division I college athletics are entering a period of change. Anyone who pays attention knows this to be true. And those who don’t, well, surprise! Acknowledging the prospect of change is one thing; knowing exactly how the NCAA will change is entirely another. As recently as this summer, conference commissioners hinted at the possibility of the formation of a new NCAA subdivision. It was to be called Division IV, reports suggested, and it would be created with the express purpose of allowing wealthier schools with more resources to operate under a different set of rules. The idea that all of Division I – whose institutions range from penny-pinching programs like Grambling State to, um, Texas —  should be forced to abide by the same rules always seemed silly. Conference commissioners were simply airing the obvious truth that’s been kept below the surface over years of clunky, uneven, inefficient NCAA governance.

Momentum behind the Division IV concept seems to have subsided. The possibility the NCAA will change remains high. (AP)

The big boys wanted their own sandbox to play in, somewhere the little guys couldn’t impede the passage of important measures such as cost-of-attendance stipends or unlimited training table meals. They wanted to be able to make decisions about rules and regulations without having to worry about smaller schools with comparatively microscopic budgets – including one so far removed from the major conference realm it asks its students to fork up extra money to help allay the “financial emergency” within its athletic department – getting in the way. All of this made sense. A new subdivision of college athletics was coming, and we were all going to need to learn how to live with it.The idea that bigger schools would like more rule-making autonomy hasn’t changed, but it appears conference commissioners are likely to stop short of creating a new subdivision. At Big Ten basketball media day on Thursday, commissioner Jim Delany, speaking to reporters two days after college athletics officials convened in Indianapolis to discuss possible changes to the NCAA rulebook, said conference commissioners did not consent to pursuing the D-IV concept. “We’ve at least preliminarily concluded we don’t want to leave the NCAA, and we don’t need a Division IV,” he said. There is widespread agreement that all Division I schools can function under the same NCAA umbrella, according to Delany, but that doesn’t mean the more-monied and better-resourced schools – like the 12 institutions that identify with Delany’s own league – don’t want to see changes. The desire for rule-making autonomy and empowerment that motivated the hypothetical creation of a Division IV will be refocused toward a new, and possibly simpler, goal. Create Division IV without formally empowering a select group of schools to operate under new rules – without drawing a box and telling other programs they don’t belong. “We can be in a big tent if we can get the appropriate matter of political redistribution,” Delany said. “We can have an [NCAA men's basketball] tournament, everyone can be in it. We can do revenue sharing. We can all brand together. We can all be Division I together. We can all have a big tent.” If smaller programs want to subject themselves to the same rules that the bigger, wealthier ones do, in other words, they’re totally within their rights to do so.

Evidence suggests many mid- and low-majors simply don’t have the resources to keep up. In 2011, following the initial approval of a cost-of-attendance stipend, enough schools voted against the proposal to prevent it from passing. Schools like Texas, henceforth, wouldn’t be allowed to give its student-athletes an extra $2,000 because schools like Grambling said so. That didn’t make sense then, and it doesn’t make sense now. Allowing bigger programs to operate under their own rules – the fundamental objective behind Division IV – theoretically solves this issue. It allows schools with the requisite cash and resources to offer their student-athletes benefits (not “impermissible” ones, mind you) that smaller schools, for various reasons, can’t. And unlike in the current NCAA’s governance model, those smaller schools wouldn’t have the power to influence what their more-monied counterparts could or couldn’t offer their student-athletes. The new rules structure would be exclusive, insofar as some schools, due to a lack of resources and finances, could not make productive use of its expanded financial and rule-making freedom. But unlike the Division IV hypothetical, there would be no structural separation between schools, no hard line drawn that would allow some leagues in and keep others out. The changes, if they happen, “would be, in many areas, permissive,” said Delaney.

This seems like a more palatable scenario than the one that appeared imminent this summer. How this would affect the balance of power in college athletics remains unclear, but it seems obvious the gap between the financial haves and have-nots would grow wider. Bigger programs will be able to offer prospective student-athletes certain things – money, resources, information, etc – that smaller schools can’t. When given the option, what high school recruit wouldn’t opt for an extra two grand every year, or more leeway with agents and third parties (another change Delaney said has been discussed), among other possible benefits? Another important question is what this would mean for the NCAA Tournament – namely, whether this could touch off a process that leads to the bigger schools, operating under different financial and legal restrictions, creating their own postseason tournament. Those questions should be resolved in time. For our sake, hopefully the doomsday scenario – goodbye Cinderella – doesn’t gain any traction.

The specifics should be ironed out in short time. Perhaps we’ll get an update at the next NCAA convention, scheduled for January. Amid all the uncertainty, we at least know the wheels are in motion to get this new rules structure up and running. USA Today reported a subcommittee has been authorized to work with NCAA commissioner Mark Emmert “over the next several months” to formulate a new governance model for college athletics. Watching this process play out over the next year should be fascinating. The concept is intriguing. The results could be drastic.

Chris Johnson (290 Posts)

My name is Chris Johnson and I'm a national columnist here at RTC, the co-founder of Northwestern sports site Insidenu.com and a freelance contributor to SI.com.


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