Frustrated by the glacial pace of progress toward a true college football championship, fans appear willing to settle for the four-team playoff now under discussion as the best they can do. So it came as something of a surprise when Mark Emmert, president of the NCAA, suggested the possibility of an eight-team playoff Wednesday during an appearance on the Dave Logan Show.
In fact, Emmert, who has been promoting a variety of reforms since taking over the NCAA 22 months ago, said “there’s a good probability” some form of playoff will be approved by the end of this summer.
“In 1A football, football at the highest level, there’s never been a championship, there’s never been a systematic way to determine who’s No. 1,” Emmert said.
“All the other college sports do have such a championship. The BCS was in my opinion a very good step in the right direction where we finally, after 80 years, had No. 1 playing No. 2. If the conferences and the university presidents that I work with would like to move toward a championship, and I think there’s movement in that direction, then we’re more than happy to run it for them. We know how to run championships. We’re really good at that.
“I think we’re likely to see some significant change to the BCS or movement toward a four- or maybe even an eight-team playoff system, but we’ll have to wait and see. It will probably be decided this spring and into the summer. There’s a good probability that we’ll get some kind of model like that, I think.”
As Emmert, the former president of the University of Washington, tries to drag the tradition-bound NCAA into the 21st century, he also faces a more complicated problem — whether to provide some form of revenue sharing to the collegiate athletes in football and men’s basketball who collectively generate billions of dollars in television revenue for the NCAA and its member institutions.
Emmert said he would never support paying salaries to players or making them employees because that would make them professionals. But faced with a particularly ugly season of scandals in 2011 — from a booster providing players with prostitutes at the University of Miami to athletes exchanging memorabilia for tattoos at Ohio State — Emmert has been pushing a proposal to enhance athletic scholarships with an extra $2,000 stipend.
That plan was tabled last month at the NCAA convention after many schools objected, expressing concerns about the cost. Another reform to allow multi-year scholarship commitments to athletes was approved, although that too had its critics among schools fearful it would tie the hands of new coaches.
“I’ve been really clear, as have all of our university presidents, that we should never, ever pay students to be athletes, that that’s not the business that we’re in,” Emmert said. “We’re in the education business. And our student-athletes should be just that, serious students who happen to also play sports.
“But on the other hand, we also want to make sure that they’re getting a fair shake. So we just, for example, last week approved a new policy that allows universities for the first time in 40 years to actually make multiple-year commitments to student-athletes, so they know that they’re going to have scholarship support for more than one year, assuming they do everything right in the classroom, assuming their behavior is right. They take care of their stuff, the universities will take care of them,” Emmert said.
“The other thing that we’re working on right now that’s still in the construction phase but will probably be rolling out here in a few months is the idea of covering the full cost, the real cost, of being a college student. A college athlete right now, if they’re on a full scholarship, they get tuition, fees, room, board, books and supplies, which any of us would love, but above and beyond that, we also know that there’s travel costs, there’s miscellaneous expense costs, there’s clothing allowances. And that shortfall between what an athletic scholarship is today and what (the real costs are) on average across the country is about $3500. So we’re looking at what we can do to close some of that gap, so that students who are spending so many hours a week and a year on their sport, who rarely have a chance to work part-time jobs, in fact have everything that they need to be successful in their university studies.”
It’s a complicated proposition. At the many schools where the athletic department does not operate in the black, adding $2,000 a year to the cost of every athletic scholarship would require cuts elsewhere. Critics point out that many of the same schools complaining about the cost pay enormous salaries to their football and basketball coaches.
Emmert seems aware that the NCAA has to deal with two growing problems. The first is a widely-held perception that all its high-minded rhetoric about amateur athletics and student-athletes conveniently allows it to collect and distribute billions of dollars in TV revenue to member institutions without sharing any of it with the athletes who generate it.
The other, more immediate, problem is that many of the athletes generating that revenue in football and men’s basketball come out of poverty, leaving them susceptible to boosters, agents and others willing to circumvent NCAA rules by providing cash and other benefits under the table. That, in turn, leads to a never-ending parade of embarrassing scandals like those at Miami and Ohio State last year.
The NCAA has always been reluctant to admit that the university system represents a de facto farm system for the NFL and NBA. As a result, some college athletes do not quite meet the “student-athlete” ideal. High school basketball prodigies, for example, could once jump directly to the NBA, as stars such as Kevin Garnett and LeBron James did. Today, such players are required to spend a year in college (or overseas) because of a minimum age instituted by the NBA.
Many college coaches, including Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski, have complained this rule leads to a “one-and-done” mentality among the nation’s top basketball players that takes away from college basketball and makes a joke of the “student-athlete” ideal.
“Coach K and I are in complete agreement,” Emmert said. “I want young men and young women who play our games to be in college because they want to be in college, not because they have no choice or because they see it as simply an intermediate step.
“I love when somebody has the skill and ability to go make a living playing sport. I think that’s fabulous. But to have them just come to us for one year — or, let’s be honest, one semester — simply because they have no choice and they don’t want to be there and they’re not serious students, I think that detracts from intercollegiate athletics and doesn’t help and I’m hoping that the NBA and the NBA Players’ Association can see clear to change that rule.”
Alas, that’s not likely considering the debate during the most recent NBA labor dispute was between maintaining the 19-year-old minimum age and extending it to 20.
The NCAA has long faced a dilemma it would prefer not to acknowledge. Among most of the 26 sports, 89 championships and 400,000 athletes under the NCAA umbrella, the student-athlete ideal is alive and well. But the constant stream of scandals in football and men’s basketball taints them all and makes the organization’s pious claims sound hollow.
There are certain contradictions that neither Emmert nor anyone else can do much about. College football and basketball are, in fact, the main feeder system for the NFL and NBA. That’s not changing. The NCAA and its member universities represent a free farm system for those professional leagues. Football and men’s basketball generate billions of dollars in commercial revenue that support many other sports and university expenses. So neither the pro leagues nor the NCAA are about to abandon the current system.
But the NCAA does have an interest in cleaning it up because the scandals, predictable as the seasons, are embarrassing and undercut the credibility of everything else the organization does. Since taking over the NCAA in April 2010, Emmert has aggressively pursued an agenda of reform and greater transparency. He deserves credit for doing so. How successful he is remains to be seen.
“I’ve been focusing on the integrity questions,” he said, “making sure that our rules actually make sense and that we apply them in ways that promote the kind of behavior that we’d all like to see around college sports.”
As part of his ongoing outreach efforts, Emmert will be in Denver on March 8 to speak to a City Club of Denver luncheon at the Marriott City Center downtown.