At Red Square, on the University of Washington campus, students are staging a benefit car smash. Overlooking that demolition on the third floor of Gerberding Hall, UW president Michael Young is discussing the gathering tumult in college athletics.
Perhaps it’s straining a metaphor to suggest that the NCAA is under siege like that of beleaguered GMC, but maybe not. These are turbulent times for the governance of college sports.
Northwestern athletes got the go-ahead from a National Labor Relations Board officer to unionize if they choose. Five “power“ conferences, including the Pac-12, are pushing for greater autonomy within a voting structure in which Quinnipiac University has as much sway as USC.
And hovering over the landscape are several lawsuits, including the Ed O’Bannon antitrust case.
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Into this brewing storm, the Pac-12 presidents recently unfurled a 10-point reform agenda, a mission statement for where they would like to take college athletics. Some of the planks seem rooted in common sense, some are quixotic and others appear an attempt to coax toothpaste back into the tube.
The Seattle Times asked Young and his counterpart at Washington State, Elson Floyd, to assess the college climate and the Pac-12’s campaign statement. They agree that it has the feel of a watershed time.
“You have those inflection moments,” Young says. “It feels like one of those.”
Skeptics might say that it has taken the debate over unionization at Northwestern to rally the presidents, but Young scoffs at that notion. The ruling applies only to private schools, he notes, “but more importantly, I think the kids are going to vote it down. My prediction is, it (unionization) isn’t going to make any difference in my lifetime.”
He says the Pac-12 initiatives gathered steam over the past six months, spearheaded by Stanford president John Hennessy and his colleagues’ shared concerns. One is that without some progress toward Big Five autonomy, the NCAA — in which Division III schools with 1,000 students have equal voting muscle with the University of Texas — will continue to be a cumbersome, unresponsive behemoth.
“I don’t think the Big Five are going to break away from the NCAA,” says WSU’s Floyd. “I think they’ll always be part of the NCAA. But they’ll begin to set a standard for how other conferences respond to issues related to intercollegiate athletics. I think that’s a really, really good thing.”
Exhibit A in the Big Five’s quest for autonomy is the so-called cost-of-attendance issue. The law has long recognized incidental expenses as part of federally funded full scholarships, but NCAA rides allow only tuition, room and board and books, and the bigger schools would like to close that gap.
Young believes that inequity has something to do with indiscretions like the two Oregon basketball players who sold apparel for cash last season, and before that, the Ohio State case in which football players exchanged clothing and memorabilia for tattoos.
“This is not kids going out and getting $50,000 under the table and buying a Hummer or Land Rover,” he says. “Most of the time it’s kids selling their jersey for pizza, and that just isn’t right.”
But when an NCAA measure for a $2,000 stipend to athletes passed administrative hurdles, it was rejected by the full membership. Some smaller schools can’t afford it.
“If you’ve got a $6 million athletic budget, you shouldn’t be worrying about what I do,” Young contends. “You’re never going to compete with us. We don’t recruit the same players. We don’t even play on the same field. It just doesn’t matter.”
The posture of those 65 Big Five schools will depend heavily on what happens to their push for relaxed voting procedures. Change now requires a two-thirds vote of the 65, and four of the five conferences, but the SEC, for instance, is seeking something like a 60 percent approval, with only three of the five leagues assenting.
Predictably, there is blowback. Boise State president Bob Kustra, referring to cash-consuming measures like cost-of-attendance scholarships, told CBSsports.com, “This is one more step away from amateur athletics and to professionalism and commercialism. If you don’t slam the door shut, it will drive the next generation of presidents.”
The Pac-12 proposals go much further than the debate between big and small schools. They reflect concern about where the athletic enterprise fits in the academic world.
One proposal questions “voluntary” workouts and activities that circumvent the 20-hour rule that in theory puts a ceiling on the time athletes can spend on their sport in a week.
But can the presidents call for a cutback there when they’re signing off on fabulous new football-centric buildings all over the Pac-12?
Says Young, “I don’t think it’s a diminished commitment to athletics (questioning time spent by athletes) as much as a re-balance, to try to make sure there’s at least as much emphasis on the academic side as the athletic side.”
Floyd says that in the evolution of rules governing the student-athlete, “Everything has been done in a very piecemeal or incremental way. We need to step back and look at the total picture associated with the life of an athlete, and what institutions are doing to make sure they’re successful off the field and that they have a healthy environment.”
The presidents are nothing if not bold. They broach the idea of returning to freshman ineligibility in men’s basketball, and they want to liberalize transfer rules, which would piggyback on the NCAA’s kinder-gentler move that allows immediate eligibility of graduate transfers.
Young notes that in law, his academic pursuit, students commonly transferred based on available curriculum or the departure of a Ph.D. professor. Referring to Bellevue recruit Budda Baker’s change of heart from Oregon to Washington, Young says, “I think he changed his commitment because I think he saw Chris Petersen was passionate about discipline and that was exactly the same way he was. If Chris had left and somebody came in whom Baker didn’t think he was going to thrive under … I don’t know if kids should be held to that.”
He concedes that without some restrictions — perhaps on transferring within the conference — the roster churns could be problematic.
“One possibility is, like the pros, you get to designate a franchise player or two,” Young said. “(Or) five kids who can’t transfer, or if they transfer, they have to sit out a year, and the whole rest of your team is OK. I don’t know, I’m just making that stuff (up). We’ll have to figure that out.”
As for the onerous one-and-done-to-the NBA phenomenon, Young says it “profoundly distorts the nature of the university and the university experience and whom we ought to be attracting.” Asked if he cringed when UW guard Tony Wroten Jr. opted for the NBA after one season at the UW, Young says, “Yeah, I did.”
The presidents thus birthed their most eye-catching proposal — “considering restoring the freshman-ineligibility rule in men’s basketball.” Young acknowledges, “It would be most usefully combined with the NBA kind of lifting its restriction on drafting out of high school.”
That one would be highly controversial, if for no other reason than NCAA freshman eligibility has been in place since 1972-73. As for the singling out of one sport, Floyd says, “I think we’re going to begin to look at individual sports in a somewhat different way. It has to be customized, in my judgment, in each of the sports.”
Customized — you might think of the Big Five campaign for autonomy in the NCAA in the same way, marking one more pivotal juncture in college athletics.