I covered the 1991 NCAA convention in Nashville, which became known as the touchstone for president-driven reform in college athletics. It was the one that implemented the 20-hour rule for athlete commitment in a week’s time, it cut back on the size of coaching staffs and eliminated athletic dorms. It was the convention that would get athletics back into perspective.
I distinctly remember writing that “college athletics will never be the same.”
Well, after what happened last Thursday and Friday, let me amend that: College athletics will really never be the same.
Thursday brought the NCAA board of directors’ approval of the big-five conferences push for voting autonomy, which allows them to shed the influence of the smaller schools and set their own course.
Friday came the thumbs-down-to-the-NCAA ruling in the courtroom of Judge Claudia Wilken, in which she held that student-athletes do have rights to their name, image and likeness, opening the door to trust-fund payments to athletes in football and men’s basketball of as much as $5,000 per year upon completion of college.
I sat down Wednesday morning with Washington State athletic director Bill Moos, who has perhaps the Pac-12’s longest, broadest view of the goings-on. He was an All-Pac-8 football player at WSU in the early 1970s and, between Oregon and the Cougars, has more athletic director tenure than any of his counterparts in the league.
He called the O’Bannon decision upon which Wilken ruled “one we’re still working through. I’m not going to touch that one yet. My jury’s still out.”
Moos did say that the Pac-12 had a conference call earlier this week including Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott and the league’s general counsel, Woodie Dixon, to spell out some of the possible implications. There’s a subsequent meeting in San Francisco next Tuesday to discuss the topic further.
Moos called the teleconference “very productive,” while conceding that there is a wide range of possible outcomes.
“We’re still trying to consume it and digest it and see where it all leads,” he said. When I asked what the temperature was among his peers, Moos said it was more a case of them “intently listening” to the parameters Dixon laid out.
Estimates have the annual cost of the Wilken decision – if it stands at $5,000 a year per scholarship athlete in football and men’s basketball – approaching half a million dollars a year for athletic departments.
Moos emitted an audible groan and said, “That sounds heavy. Factor in, whatever the number is for cost-of-attendance (the value of scholarships will rise due with the autonomy move), and then the three meals (the NCAA earlier moved to allow unlimited meals), and there’s considerable expenses awaiting us.”
A couple of major takeaways from last week’s events:
In the debate over paying athletes, not far from the surface has always been the thorny issue of whether, or how, athletes in non-revenue-producing sports will be paid. And that has inevitably encircled women’s sports, which don’t garner revenue.
Wilken’s decision, since it was trained on the economics of the NCAA, managed to sidestep that whole issue. And suddenly, you’ve got the mandate generated by her decision, alongside the thrust of Title IX.
(Cue the litigation from Title IX advocates.)
Moos, an athletic administrator since the early ‘80s, recalled how Title IX considerations were always at the forefront of policy-making. WSU revised its fundamental approach after a lawsuit by female athletes decades ago.
“It’s always on our radar,” Moos said, referring to Title IX. “When I first came into the industry in the ‘80s, it was the radar. We’ve worked through all these years to address it, kept it every-present in our minds.
“Is this going to stir things up in the Title IX world? Don’t know.”
Second, my thoughts wander to Mark Emmert, the former Washington president, who took over the presidency of the NCAA four years ago. One of his goals was to create a more “nimble” NCAA. Don’t know whether autonomy is what he had in mind, but that’s certainly going to serve that notion.
Suppose he ever could have dreamed of the turn that the organization has taken? With other important lawsuits still pending, it could be that he’ll be essentially presiding over the dissolution of the NCAA.
The NCAA has said it will appeal the Wilken ruling, even as it can be reasonably argued that it ought to be spending the time and money accommodating what seems a new reality.
“Pretty powerful entity, the NCAA,” Moos said. “Just to go lie down, that ain’t going to happen.”
I asked Moos how he thinks Emmert will be remembered.
“I think the jury’s still out on that,” he said. “If he can direct all these new things, get them in place and get a comfort zone back, he’ll be able to finish his tenure on a positive note.”
That’s hardly going to be easy. Moos pointed out that NCAA enforcement issues have plagued Emmert, from Penn State to Miami, so he’s hardly gained favor in that arena.
“I do applaud him for embracing the input of athletic directors more,” Moos said. “We were out of the loop for quite some time. It was primarily done with the presidents and chancellors, and though all of them are our bosses, they’re not as engaged in the day-to-day operations of intercollegiate athletics.”
But given the sea change that took place last week, especially Friday, that looks a lot like grains of sand on a vast beach.