Phila. teams face tough choices in NCAA's power shift

Posted: August 09, 2014

Drexel athletic director Eric Zillmer had no doubt Thursday's vote by the NCAA Division I board of directors would grant approval for the "Power Five" conferences to gain the autonomy to chart their own course.

He also has no doubt this is the wrong course for college sports. He hopes schools override the vote, as Drexel plans to do.

Zillmer believes the Big Ten, Pac-12, Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, and Big 12 are grabbing fistfuls of more power by hiding behind what Zillmer calls "their version of enhancing student welfare."

Drexel's AD gets the floor here because his words make clear that even within Division I there is a wide gulf of opinion on the future of college sports. Football dollars have been in charge of college sports for years. Will those dollars now call all the shots? It's an especially interesting question in Philadelphia.

"I think this issue is a fight over the soul of intercollegiate sports," Zillmer said. "I think we're past the slippery slope and we're coming to an intersection where all the lights are green and there's going to be an accident."

In his view, the local Division I schools, which are not in the five leagues seeking this autonomy, will have very difficult choices to make if this passes. They'll have to decide whether they will agree to rules legislated by the Power Five schools, make up their watered-down version, or Zillmer said, "simply split off from the big five and create our own division of athletics."

Each local school has its own issues and opinions. Temple is in the sixth-largest conference, the American, which is making it clear as a league that it plans to compete with the Power Five, since it holds its own on the court, if not always in revenue produced. The American supports this new model and put out a statement Thursday saying it believes it will "enjoy broad acceptance."

After looking at all sorts of options in recent years, Villanova wants to be big-time in hoops but not in football. The new Big East Conference obviously is working furiously to remain relevant. The last thing Villanova wants is to be completely separate from the Power Five.

La Salle, Drexel, and St. Joseph's have to chart their courses especially carefully, with no football at all. Meanwhile, the Ivy League, Penn's league, has its own brand, which seems to offer protection of sorts.

The Power Five schools, which include Penn State and Rutgers, don't really care what the rest do. They're threatening to split off in the other direction if they don't get this autonomy.

Zillmer sees the whole thing as "doomed to fail" if, for instance, within one league there will be two or more sets of rules, tilting the playing field.

Possible unionization of Northwestern football players, Zillmer said, plays into the hands of the Power Five conferences since they can argue that they need to do more to enhance the financial reimbursements of student-athletes.

"But truly, they have created this monster and now they are trying to feed it," Zillmer said. "Instead of bringing under control runaway spending of coaches' salaries and facilities, they are trying to balance it by providing more to the student-athletes. However, those improvements are minuscule compared to the payouts to coaches and universities."

The Colonial Athletic Association, Drexel's league, has come out against this vote for Power Five autonomy, but now we will see whether the override vote is successfully used in the next 60 days, since this could be the last time that override is worth anything.

If 125 Division I schools - almost a third - call for an override, Thursday's action is suspended and then five-eighths of the D-I schools would have to override the board vote. The smart money says this won't happen, that Thursday's vote will stand. But Zillmer suggests it isn't a fait accompli.

"Only the 65 Power Five schools are slated to benefit from the new legislation," he said.

He's realistic, though. There is fear all over the landscape. Few want to see the Power Five break away. Idle or not, it's an effective threat.

When it comes to Drexel, Zillmer said, "if I wanted to spend more money on athletics, we would. I don't think it's a good business model. . . . A lot of schools in the Philadelphia area play at a very high level in some sports. I have five teams ranked in the top 20 right now. Lacrosse got to the elite eight."

He added, "I have 13 scholarships for men's basketball; so does Alabama. We get on the bus; they get on their charter. But when the ball goes up, people truly believe, anything is possible."

His point is that this move could end that.

"If this was a chemistry experiment, I think it would be an unstable series of events that would not last," Zillmer said of the future outlined by Thursday's vote.

NCAA Reform Highlights

Top change: The five biggest football conferences - ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, and SEC - will have more control over legislation on some of the most contentious topics in college sports, including adding money to scholarships to meet more fully the so-called "full cost of attendance" (money beyond tuition, room and board, books, and fees) and additional academic and career counseling.

Checks and balances: To gain control of such issues, a majority in three of the five leagues must agree along with 12 of the 20 presidents or chancellors on the expanded board of directors. All 65 schools and 15 student-athletes, three from each conference, would cast votes. Passage would require 48 votes, and a simple majority of support from school reps in at least three of the five conferences or a simple majority of all votes (41) and a simple majority from school reps in four of five conferences. The five major conferences have until Oct. 1 to create their first list of proposals.

Everyone else: All 32 Division I conferences would have a voice in legislative matters not deemed "autonomous." These areas include championship administration and policy, oversight of membership standards, and management of sports or topic-specific studies intended to formulate recommendations.

Red tape: The NCAA would reduce the large number of subcommittees to three: one focused on academics, one on competition and student well-being, and one to assist the council with its legislative role.

Oversight: University presidents and chancellors will maintain control on oversight and strategic decisions through the board of directors.

- Associated Press


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