35 years later, time for college sports to take next step

09/26/2013 4:51 PM

09/26/2013 6:48 PM

Doesn’t this sound familiar?

The schools with big-time football programs — the Ohio States and Michigans of the nation — had become increasingly agitated by restrictions placed on them by other Division I football schools which were not as dedicated financially and, perhaps, philosophically, to the big time. Arguing for a case of self-determination, the “super powers” threatened to bolt from the NCAA and form their own governing body unless they could have their own special niche in Division I football.

The story appeared in The Washington Post in January 1978, and the big boys got what they wanted then. A new classification called Division I-A was born, and less-ambitious programs were labeled Division I-AA. The same structure exists today by new names, Football Bowl Subdivision (I-A) and Football Championship Subdivision (I-AA).

Today, the same discussion is happening in college sports. Boil down some of the biggest gripes, and we arrive at the same, simple place.

The greatest money makers want to control the wealth they create.

Some of the rich programs want, in essence, to pay athletes, whether that’s through a stipend, offering the full cost of scholarship or allowing players to cash in on their image.

These programs don’t want to hear what those that can’t afford the same benefits have to say.

Not every major program agrees on this. Southeastern Conference football coaches have proposed expense money for players so families could attend games. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier suggested a high-end price tag of about $4,000 per football player.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany shared a different vision on Wednesday, one that doesn’t include income for players but the creation of a minor league, or agent-funded training program.

“They can get as strong and fast in that environment as they can in this environment, plus they don’t have to go to schools,” Delany said. “They can sell their likeness and do whatever they want to do. We don’t want to do that. We want to do what we’ve been doing for 100 years.”

The face-value problems are obvious. First, there is no NFL D-league, like in the NBA. Perhaps a viable professional minor football league can be created, but it’s difficult to envision a market supporting the product.

Also, Delany clashes with the SEC coaches. Spurrier, earlier this year, said coaches were willing to pay the expense from their pocket.

The lifelong college sports fan in me cheers Delany’s ideals. For more than a century, college sports have developed their brand, and participation is about so much more than football and men’s basketball. If you attended the Division I women’s volleyball championship at Sprint Center a few years ago, a Fall Classic football game at Arrowhead between Northwest Missouri State and Pittsburg State or an NAIA basketball tournament at Municipal Auditorium, you know what I mean.

In 2012, some 450,000 men and women played an NCAA sport, fewer than 15,000 played FBS football, and 5,300 played Division I basketball. But that small percentage of football and men’s basketball players generate the $10.8 billion contract the NCAA receives over a 14-year period for the rights to television March Madness and are the reason the major football conferences have signed multi-billion media rights deals.

They’re why coaches are paid in the millions, athletic administrators live in high-rent districts and facilities are plush.

It’s also why a handful of players, most notably Northwestern quarterback Kain Kolter, wore the initials A.P.U., on a wristband or other clothing or equipment last weekend. It stood for “All Players United,” and served as an effort to raise awareness for athletes’ financial situations and injuries.

Earlier this week, NCAA president Mark Emmert said he expects “a lot of change” to the Division I governing structure over the next year, and on Friday the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics, with Missouri’s Mike Alden serving as president, is expected to share its idea of possible change.

What we might hear soon is a separation of the richest football conferences — SEC, Big Ten, Big 12, ACC and Pac-12 — from all the rest, where those conferences form their own governance structure, a breakaway of the upper class that share like revenues and missions. It’s not a new idea. Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby articulated the notion in July.

But to the list of issues like athletic compensation, I’d add investigation and enforcement powers, even scheduling mandates. In many surveys, college football battles Major League Baseball as America’s second favorite sport behind the NFL, and this happens without its own governing body.

Thirty-five years ago, college sports took a first step in that direction. The time has arrived to take the next one.

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