Thursday, August 11, 2011

When an overhaul isn't an overhaul

This NCAA "retreat" that just wrapped up in Indianapolis was supposedly the greatest thing that's ever happened in the history of amateurism. Everybody who went came out of it talking about the "urgency" to make "major" changes because of the "boiling point" the NCAA has reached.

Among the most noteworthy proposals (at least one of which was voted on today):
  • Cost-of-attendance scholarships that add expenses for books, computer costs, food, etc.
  • Making scholarships valid for more than one year (sorry, Nick Saban)
  • A simplified rulebook that eliminates some outdated limitations on texts, emails, etc.
  • A tiered system to more accurately categorize violations (something better than just "major" or "secondary")
  • A set of "sentencing guidelines" for the aforementioned levels of violations
  • Increasing the APR threshold from 900 to 930 and including postseason bans as a regular punishment for not reaching the minimum number (this one has already been approved and will take effect starting with the 2014-15 school year)
There's a lot of good and useful stuff in there. For example, cost-of-attendance scholarships probably should have been phased in years ago (although figuring out the financial logistics at places that don't have piles of athletic-department money will be interesting, to say the least) -- they basically just bring athletic scholarships in line with full-cost student loans. And requiring scholarships to be something more than just one-year contracts has been on the horizon ever since oversigning came to light in the mainstream media. SEC coaches everywhere will have to revamp their recruiting strategies once they can't just send guys off to Northern Alabama to clear a scholarship for The Next Big Thing.

I'm also a big fan of those hypothetical sentencing guidelines, although I'm not sure they'd be as useful as I'd want them to be. The Committee on Infractions is a freakin' mystery in the way it goes about determining penalties for various levels of violations, but it's really not that hard to look at past precedent and get a reasonably accurate estimate of what each school is looking at. The problem (IMO) is that the investigators often look at similar sets of circumstances and come to wildly different conclusions: How does USC get hit with the dreaded "lack of institutional control" while North Carolina and Ohio State get away with equally (or more) egregious penalties? Regardless, having more specific definitions for various types of violations and having a system in place to dictate the penalties would help in a lot in terms of transparency.

Howeva ... take a look at that list above and find something that drastically changes college athletics. The fact that the NCAA thinks "wow, we're at a critical juncture in college athletics and have to do something significant" and then comes up with those fairly minor suggestions says a lot about the organization and/or the people in charge. When I look at the NCAA and its bureaucracy and outdated understanding of pretty much everything, I see a smaller but equally messy version of the federal government: Change is fine as long as it doesn't really change anything.

Getting an extra $60 a week (roughly, depending the guidelines) is great when you're a poor college student, but it won't change the fact that Terrelle Pryor has access to any/every car he wants to drive and that A.J. Green can sell his jersey for $300 and that college kids will gladly take money from anybody who will give it to them. There will still be street agents, there will still be real agents, there will still be under-the-table recruiting shenanigans and there will still be impermissible benefits available to Star Quarterback Joe Blow on every street corner.

And even a small tweak to the financial structure will -- there's no question about it -- further exaggerate the differences between the top half of Division I and the bottom half, where most of the schools don't come close to breaking even now and will never be able to offer COA scholarships (which have to be offered across the board in every sport, male and female, revenue and nonrevenue). I'm not sure it'd be a terrible thing if the BCS schools end up playing in a different division (they basically already do), but I'm also not sure it benefits college sports as a whole if schools like Toledo and San Diego State and Central Florida have to start hacking programs so the guys who sit behind a desk can say they provided Matt Barkley and Andrew Luck enough spending money to buy a couple extra pizzas each week.

But my point isn't to make this a 3,000-word monotribe about amateurism and the NCAA's weird system (I'll save that for another day when I have gobs of free time). My point is that giving everybody a slight scholarship bump will equate to a minor improvement in the lives of the athletic population but won't have any impact on the supposed "crisis" surrounding amateurism right now, and everything else on that list represents a welcome but relatively small adjustment to the system. Most of it would barely raise an eyebrow if it came out of any other annual NCAA meeting.

The idea that this is a massive systemwide overhaul that is going to drastically change college sports is a ridiculously idealistic one. You can call it an overhaul if you want to -- there's a lot of stuff being addressed here in a short period of time, especially relative to the NCAA's typically glacial pace -- but that just shows how little the NCAA has traditionally done to keep up with the times. I'll call it a bunch of well-intentioned upgrades that probably aren't worthy (even collectively) of multiple columns on every major sports media website.

In a nutshell: Meh.


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