To anyone who has been paying attention, it has not been a good year for the NCAA.
The ruling body of college athletics has suffered a few body blows of late. From the bungling of the Miami (Fla.) investigation involving claims made by booster Nevin Shapiro of improper benefits to the black cloud provided by the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit that could change the entire landscape of college athletics, the big things don't appear to be going the NCAA's way right now.
On a smaller scale, the NCAA has also faced increased pressure that its current model simply doesn’t work for student-athletes, who in the eyes of many are not properly compensated for providing the labor in what has become a multibillion dollar industry.
In many ways, the future of the organization is in flux, but Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has a few suggestions about the way things should be – some of which would change the way the top level of college sports is run for good.
The main thrust of Smith’s argument is that the top 60 to 70 schools in Division I should be placed into a new division that allows those schools – the top revenue producers in college sports – to play by what he considers a more sane set of rules.
Smith presented his ideas to a group of about 80 athletics directors that met a few weeks ago in California and has some support for his theory.
“We talked about a lot of different things,” Smith told BSB as part of a wide-ranging interview that will run in full in the June edition of Buckeye Sports Bulletin. “It was kind of a summit to come together and talk about our issues, and one of them was governance. Out of that there’s been conversations about different models, so my idea that I’ve had for a while and talked about out there and some of my colleagues agreed with is that we need to find a way to look at the 60 or 70 schools differently when we do legislation.
“People have been talking about moving away from the NCAA, but I am not a supporter of that. That makes no sense to me, but creating a structure within the NCAA that allows us to legislate a new division where we come up with a way to identify those 60 or 70 schools – which is pretty easy – and say, you know what, we’re going to legislate them differently.”
There is already a similar structure in place within the NCAA when it comes to football. There are almost 350 schools that are full Division I members in all sports, but only 120 of those played FBS football a season ago, with four more reclassifying into the division.
What Smith would like to see is the schools at the top of the food chain in the biggest conferences have the chance to address problems and situations that affect them more than others, and if that means the others are left behind, that’s a reality Smith is willing to live in.
“We created this beast, and one of the flaws that we had early on in this business was having legislation to try to create a level playing field,” Smith said. “Now, I was at Eastern Michigan for 10 years and being at Ohio State, I can tell you that there’s no way you can legislate a level playing field between Ohio State and Eastern Michigan, or Eastern Michigan and the University of Michigan, which is 15 minutes apart.
"You can’t legislate that. You can do that in some sports, but you can’t do it in football, that’s for doggone sure, and you can’t do it financially.”
One of the top issues Smith points to as an example is the proposed yearly stipend of as much as $2,000 that would be provided to some athletes, including those in football and basketball that are already on full scholarships.
The current model at the college level includes only tuition, room, board and books but no spending money, leaving some athletes short of the true cost of attendance of a university.
Some have argued that the gesture would be a pittance compared to the money college athletics generates, while others say that increased scholarships to cover the cost of attendance would increasingly professionalize the sports. Smith, however, sees it as good business sense.
“Our scholarship model is old,” Smith said. “That model has been in place for 40 years, so to me, we have to go to cost of attendance. I’m fine with the $2,000 cap that has been identified. I’m fine if we just do it for need-based kids, but we have to do something. But we can’t get it done because all of Division I votes on that piece of legislation.
“So the 341 schools vote on that piece of legislation, and if you’re outside the 60 or 70, you can’t afford it, so of course you’re going to vote it down. I understand that and I accept that they can’t do it, so why should we hold back Tennessee, Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State and USC – why should we hold those schools back?”
There are other proposals out there to modernize the NCAA to deal with that issue and other governance concerns, and Smith said he has an open mind. In addition, there are questions of whether the new policies would take effect only in football or in multiple Division I sports, but Smith has a clear opinion on that topic.
“That’s one of the conversations,” Smith said. “For me, it’s all sports. For others, maybe it’s just football. That’s part of the conversation that is going on. I think you do it for all sports, but I’m open because some of my colleagues think we should just do it for football and some of them say just football and basketball.”
Extending a newer division like that could cause major disruptions, though. There’s no telling what effect it might have on the wildly popular men’s basketball tournament, where a number of Cinderella entrants to the Final Four in recent years have shown a more level playing field in that sport.
Then there are Olympic sports in which schools that are mid-majors in the more popular sports can excel. One of the best examples of that is just up the road from Columbus, where the Akron men’s soccer team is a national power, having won the 2010 national championship and sent a number of players to professional careers.
A new structure favoring the major conferences would make it harder for a program like that to succeed. Smith is sympathetic to that – “That’s why I have to be open to listen,” he said – but also sees a cold, hard reality to the situation.
“Right now, I’m kind of standing on, if I want to provide cost of attendance to soccer athletes and Akron can’t, don’t get in my way, you know what I mean?” he said. “Don’t get in my way. So that’s the issue that I deal with, so I think we need to think that through. If we want to be able to hire another coach in another sport to take it from three to four and Akron can’t, let us do it, but historically it’s not been a level playing field.”
Smith also pointed to other issues that major Division I schools face, such as needing personnel to keep autograph hounds, unsavory characters and others away from athletes, that require funding and manpower that smaller schools can’t afford.
“Our situation is unique, so if we want to put in place strategies in order to deal with that, and it requires legislation or modification or amendments to legislation, then let us do it,” Smith said. “That’s where I’m coming from. It’ll be an interesting debate over the next 12 months.”
Much like everything with the NCAA, indeed it will be.