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Meet the New Division I, Same as the Old Division I

Warren Zola’s ideas for some of the rules in a theoretical new top level of college athletics sound nice. They touch on a lot of the buzzwords and pain points that have become prominent over the last few years. And increased financial aid, in the form of stipends or full cost-of-attendance scholarships, is the driving force behind the talk about a split of Division I’s big tent.

This post was originally supposed to be about the other changes that might differentiate “Division X” from Division I. A new division or even association would be the best opportunity to rethink the entire Division I manual. But every idea, like dropping the Eligibility Center, loosening academic requirements, deregulating coaching limits, and fiddling with playing and practice seasons all ran into the same problem. It is highly unlikely that the parties involved want that kind of major change.

Even most of Zola’s ideas would be quickly dismissed when the athletic directors, presidents, and conference commissioners convened to write the Division X rule book. If Georgia is afraid of letting Alabama have more recruiting staff, any version of professionalization is off the table. We might see expanded insurance and scholarship programs, but not to the degree Zola proposes. Agents for enrolled student-athletes is a nonstarter with that group.

Larger athletics scholarships are not a part of the push for a new division. They are not even the tipping point. It is the entire issue. Stipends may just be a MacGuffin, a way to give concentrating more revenue and exposure amongst a smaller group of schools a populist makeover.

Division X should not be thought of as a transformative movement in college athletics. Instead, it is rallying an elite group to the defense of the status quo. Splitting the revenue pie into fewer pieces means having a spare one ready if the O’Bannon plaintiffs prevail. A legislative process with fewer disparate interests can shape the rule book to respond to change with minimal disruption. A new association even reduces the possibility of that change (a surviving NCAA and a new association are a nice argument against antitrust claims).

If Zola’s more controversial (amongst NCAA members at least) ideas ever become the law of college athletics, it is more likely that they become rules in the current Division I with the current membership. Forcing through changes like detailed and expensive insurance requirements, school-funded postgraduate scholarships, cost-of-attendance stipends, even a version of professionalization would be excellent ways to make life untenable in Division I for the have nots.

But if the big programs have already disposed of the hungry mouths to feed, all that money comes out of their pocket and their pocket only. The smaller athletic departments in the BCS conferences go from still being near the top of the heap to firmly on the bottom. With the pressure to win and what would be at stake if you lose even higher, it would make little sense for any school to empower any other unless some outside event required it.

The changing media environment for Power 5.

Throw in the value still left in the NCAA Division I brand (higher than you might think when not discussing its regulatory operations) and what schools would be giving up by creating a new division or association and it begins to look more and more like simply a threat or negotiating tactic. Recent history suggests that even the schools with the most to gain have no appetite for radical change. Instead, they simply want to have the NCAA work as always, slowly and incrementally, except in the direction of their choosing, not the rest of the membership.


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