Hey, NCAA, just go away

Proposing a new way to govern college athletics

Posted: April 11, 2014

ACCORDING to a Wall Street Journal report about his new book, Memphis coach John Calipari has the metaphor exactly right when he says that the NCAA is like the old Soviet Union in its final days: "It was still powerful. It could still hurt you. But you could see it crumbling, and it was just a matter of time before it either changed or ceased to exist."

This is correct. Here is the proposal:

That the NCAA put itself out of business.

What would replace it would not be a large umbrella organization but a series of individual sports/sports group organizations. There are any number of possibilities - as many as there are sports, actually. But it would not be hard to see separate organizations - at the minimum - for big football, little football, men's basketball, women's basketball, baseball, and then everyone else put together in a single group.

Each group would decide its eligibility rules and its championship format. Each group would decide what constitutes a scholarship in that particular sport, and what constitutes a permitted benefit. The big football players and men's basketball players would have different academic requirements and be treated like pashas. The volleyball players would be treated like students. The world would continue to spin on its axis, but maybe just a little bit more honestly. At least the hypocrisy could be acknowledged.

If the NCAA wants to have a legacy, it should be that kind of a setup - but it needs to hurry because that is not where this thing is headed. If things do not begin to change, and soon, the successor organizations will not be sport-based - they will be conference-based. (Which actually means that they will be television network-based.)

Specifically, the big football conferences will break off and organize themselves in everything - leaving 200-plus schools currently in Division I to play among themselves.

That is the most selfish route. It is the one that needs to be avoided.

To me, the standard is simple: any setup that kills the ability of all six Philadelphia schools to participate in the same basketball tournament as the biggest football schools is a bad setup. Because Philadelphia basketball is a decent proxy - imperfect, yes, but a proxy - for the whole Division I community: different schools, different sizes, different budgets, but all still able to compete on a credible level and all with the same realistic aspiration on Day 1 of practice. That is, to make the tournament.

But can it continue to happen? It has never been in more jeopardy. The latest concern is the whole question of whether or not Northwestern football players will be successful in forming a union.

The truth is, this is not the threat that some perceive. Let's say the football players at Northwestern were given the right to form a bargaining unit. At the table, here is how the conversation would likely go:

Union: We are here to bargain over wages, hours and working conditions. Let's begin with wages.

Northwestern: We can't pay you beyond the grant-in-aid that the NCAA permits.

Union: Why not? The school makes a ton of cash on football.

Northwestern: Because if we were to do anything more, the Big 10 and the NCAA would sanction us. We would cease to exist as an enterprise. We wouldn't have a team anymore because we wouldn't have any opponents anymore.

Union: No pay, no work.

Northwestern: Fine. We'll just open the doors to practice and play with whoever is willing to play for the scholarship, plus walk-ons. If you want to know how that will play out, google the 1987 NFL players strike.

Union: Oh.

That isn't to belittle the union movement. There are plenty of other issues that could come up in bargaining that would greatly benefit players - like practice time, and the funding of disability insurance for pro prospects, and the insistence that scholarships not be revoked for on-field performance reasons, and the ability to keep the tuition part of the scholarship for as long as it takes to graduate.

There are real benefits that could be identified during bargaining. The problem is not that the scope or cost of those issues - it is the fear among the big football schools that something bigger might happen - that is, the loss of control - and the feeling among at least some of them that they and their stacks of television money need to reorganize among themselves before anything crazy happens.

That is the pressure now. That is why the NCAA needs to act, and soon - first, by disbanding.

On Twitter: @theidlerich

Blog: philly.com/DNL

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