College sports have reached a tipping point, and perhaps nobody understands that better than Missouri athletic director Mike Alden.
The nation’s five largest conferences are in the midst of a power play designed to break up NCAA bureaucracy and allow the richest programs to expand student-athlete benefits.
The so-called Big 5 conferences — the Southeastern Conference, Big 12, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten and Pac-12 — even have threatened to break away from NCAA Division I if reform isn’t satisfactory.
Of course, it all comes against a backdrop of legal machinations — including Ed O’Bannon’s antitrust lawsuit and Northwestern athletes’ unionization efforts — that has the NCAA on its heels.
Alden finds himself squarely in the center of the storm. He serves as president of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and has helped spearhead the effort by athletic directors to reshape the NCAA’s governance, along with Purdue’s Morgan Burke.
“I think when we roll that out in August, it’s going to be something that’s better for student-athletes and something better for the NCAA,” Alden said during an hour-long meeting with reporters Thursday at Mizzou Arena. “I think it will be more efficient and effective.”
Alden expects the NCAA Board of Directors to vote on the new governance model in August and, assuming something passes, begin implementing changes in January.
Hurdles remain, but Alden is confident that the Big 5 ultimately will remain part of the NCAA.
“The goal that everybody has is for the NCAA and Division I athletics to stay together, everybody stay under the big tent,” Alden said. “I believe that that’s going to happen.”
But it will only happen if those five major conferences and their 65 members are granted greater freedom to shape the college sports landscape.
“The key piece on that is the ability to be able to have the autonomy to make some decisions to benefit student-athletes,” Alden said.
Business is booming for major-conference programs because of massive TV rights contracts.
“People see the growth of college sports, the growth of television contracts, the growth of salaries, and they’re saying, ‘Hey, isn’t there something you could be doing here to benefit your students as well, too?’” Alden said.
More lucrative deals — including the SEC Network, which launches in August — are on the horizon, ensuring deeper and wider revenue streams.
The Big 5 aims to carve out a few new benefits for student-athletes, including expanded post-college medical care and lifetime educational opportunities, as well as scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance.
That term — the full cost of attendance — hasn’t been defined yet, but the bigger schools want it to include money for laundry and travel home for the holidays among other expenses normally incurred by students.
“If there are five conferences that have the ability to do that, great,” Alden said. “And if there are other schools that want to have the ability to do that, no problem. Everybody will have a chance to do it.”
Alden said there are some areas that will be protected for all Division I members — access to championships, keeping the current revenue distribution formula and maintaining transfer rules.
“Beyond that, it will evolve, but these other things are going to be sacred,” Alden said.
He’s hopeful many of the smaller Division I conferences and programs — the have-nots among the 351-school membership who’ve blocked similar proposals in the past — will be more agreeable now.
“I do believe there’s a way for all us, all 351 institutions in Division I, to coalesce around the fact that we want to do what’s best for our student-athletes,” Alden said. “We want to provide them with as much as we possibly can to be able to improve their experiences.”
While much of the NCAA’s future remains unclear, Alden didn’t equivocate on the issue of paying players.
“They’re not employees,” Alden said. “They’re just not. They’re students. … It’s a privilege to be a student-athlete. That’s a choice. When you make that choice, there are opportunities there.
“When you start to enter into an employer-employee relationship, that’s a whole different model that I’ve never seen in higher education. … We are not there at all.
“But our thing is, are there more things that we can do for our students to help them have an even better experience, whether it has to do with education or health care or opportunities for personal growth?”