Autonomy for Major Conferences Approved by NCAA

Earlier this week the NCAA Division I Board of Directors approved a measure to let the five strongest football conferences to set some of their own rules regarding a number of things. You can find an article in the New York Times here, with links to a few related articles. The only dissenting voices out of the 20 members were from Dartmouth and Delaware. While some of these areas of autonomy seem like common-sense changes that maybe should apply to all schools (better insurance) others allow for the removal various barriers set up to prevent schools from clandestinely paying athletes or allocating extra academic resources to athletes that aren’t available to others (this is already allowed but apparently the rules allow for more changes).

I think this is a terrible idea.

Currently, the five biggest conferences more or less have a monopoly on the Div. IA/BCS championship despite only representing about half the schools. BCS schools also have a vastly oversized influence on the Div. I board, holding more than half the seats but only comprising a third of the schools. So, the current setup of Division I already affords the traditionally strongest schools a vastly outsized amount of influence. This would remove any potential moderating influence from other schools and potentially lead to major changes that, while good for the top few teams, may be bad for college athletics in general. We’ve already seen that it essentially does not matter how good a team in a mid-major conference is. They will probably never play in the national championship game and may not even get enough games from other ranked teams to get a spot in one of the major bowls. The entire bowl system is set up to provide the maximum amount of revenue for the top conferences while setting up unnecessary barriers for everyone else.

By setting their own rules, the major conferences could create a sports arms race that no other conferences can afford. Things are already trending this way anyway, but the changes could create an environment where the major conferences can relegate everyone else to second-class status even outside football. It would be a shame if schools that are traditional powerhouses in minor sports lose that status because they are unwilling or unable to spend as much money or compromise their academics as much as the major conference institutions. I wonder if schools in the lesser conferences will start dropping football and basketball or even dropping out of Division I altogether. The proposal just seems like a covert attempt to create a four division system anyway.

If enough of the rest of Division I opposes these changes they can block it, although the strongest conferences may split off from the NCAA. I actually think that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as they are also generating much of the corruption in college athletics. I would guess that we can count on the Ivy League, probably the Patriot League, and many of the basketball-focused conferences to oppose these changes. My preference would be for the more academically-oriented conferences in all divisions to split off from the NCAA. Having the Ivy League, NESCAC, Centennial Conference, UAA, etc leave the NCAA to form a new association that eschews the corrupting influences of major conference football and basketball would send a powerful message to the remainder of the NCAA. It could even put an enormous amount of pressure on schools like Stanford and Notre Dame to cut back on revenue sports, just as the Ivy League and schools like the University of Chicago did decades ago. What I would really like to see is the abolition of athletic scholarships and the removal of most of the money from revenue sports, but I do not expect that this will ever happen.