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New Governance Plan is the First Step Toward Division I Split

Cooler heads have prevailed and after a summer where a split of Division I into separate divisions or subdivisions seemed inevitable, it now looks like more incremental change is likely. Most of the NCAA constituents seem to agree that Division I should stay together and that many of the core rules should stay the same. No longer do schools outside of the highest level of football need to worry where they will end up, at least in the short term.

But one significant change keeps being brought up again and again:

The groups showed consensus on a number of issues, including the need to rebuild trust in the governance structure, more transparency in the governing process and the ability for some schools to have autonomy to make decisions about how they financially support student-athletes. [emphasis added]

So far there have been no details about how this might work in practice. But a possible scenario can be imagined, and it shows while Division I might not be breaking up in the short or medium term, the big tent is doomed to break apart eventually.

Some Are More Equal Than Others

The NCAA already has a process where some conferences vote independently from the rest of Division I on some issues. This is a critical component of the FBS and FCS subdivisions. Only football conferences vote on legislation which is limited to football. And typically FBS and FCS vote separately. A recent example are the new football recruiting changes announced yesterday. The expanded dead period in December and January was supported by FBS but not by FCS. So FBS coaches will be stuck at home December 16-January 15 while FCS coaches will follow the existing recruiting calendar.

Football subdivisions vote independently on issues much larger than the recruiting calendar. Three times in the past decade, one or both of the football subdivisions has proposed allowing football players to play five seasons of eligibility. The most recent, in 2011, was limited to just FCS. But it shows the thinking of football institutions, that almost anything is on the table when it comes to football-specific changes.

What makes this all work is that FBS and FCS schools compete for separate championships. It does not matter that FBS awards 85 full scholarships and FCS divvies up 63 equivalencies. Beyond one or two games for each FBS and FCS team per year, the two subdivisions are essentially different sports.

What is being proposed now is something much different. The largest schools and conferences would be allowed to pass their own rules on some topics. But everyone will compete together for the same set of prizes. Postseason access and revenue distribution are not to be touched. There will be two classes of institutions competing against each other based on two different sets of rules.

That cannot stand forever. It is one thing for schools to have inherent advantages, especially in financial resources. It is entirely another to enshrine that advantage in rules, thus putting everyone else at a disadvantage. Imagine if MLB had a rule that everyone has a salary cap except for the AL East. The Yankees can outspend everyone now, but such a rule would prohibit most teams from outspending the Yankees. And why do Tampa Bay, Toronto, or Baltimore get the benefit of the rule, for no reason other than being in the right division at the right time?

Consolidation of power, revenue, market share, and profit is the natural trend in any industry. But until this summer it did not seem like the mechanics of splitting up Division I had started. Now that train has all but left the station. The only question is how long it takes, and that will be driven by the new legislative process that comes out of governance reform.

But Today I am Still Just A Bill (for the Have-Nots)

With few details, we are left to speculate about what type of process can balance the goals of shared governance including all and autonomy for some. It might look something like this:

  1. A piece of legislation is proposed, Division I votes on it.
  2. If it gathers enough votes in all of Division I, it passes for all of Division I.
  3. If the proposal is defeated for all of Division I, the votes of just the largest schools/conferences are counted to see if it passes for just those institutions.

The haves might have their own ideas, so another process could be used instead of or alongside the one above:

  1. The largest schools/conferences vote on a proposal separately.
  2. If it passes, it is referred to the rest of Division I, who votes separately to adopt or defeat the proposal.

If the process looks more like the former, the biggest question will be whether the smaller schools also have some autonomy. Say a conference proposes that scholarships must be awarded until an athlete graduates or exhausts his or her eligibility. Also assume that this proposal has slim majority support amongst all the conferences and institutions outside the autonomous subgroup. But say the subgroup almost uniformly opposes the measure. Does it pass for just the smaller schools and conferences?

Change the facts a bit and assume the rule has slim majority opposition amongst the smaller schools. Could the larger schools use their votes to get the proposal adopted for all of Division I, then use the second process to exempt themselves?

It is one thing for a rule to have loopholes that invite abuse. It is entirely another to have a legislative process that does the same. A broken rule can be fixed relatively easily, but a broken system of adopting rules can only be fixed with overwhelming support for a reform effort.

And while the governance reform effort was sparked by the inability to push through an increase to the value of a full grant-in-aid, do not expect it to stop there. The NCAA release mentioned autonomy for some institutions regarding financial support of athletes. But the presentation by athletic directors vaguely asked for autonomy on “some issues.” And Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany mentioned academic standards, recruiting rules, and lifetime scholarships as issues needing separate governance.

If all these issues are worthy of separate rules, it is hard to think of a rule that should not be included. What if the haves decide that they can afford more baseball scholarships? Or that the ability to charter means more basketball games can be crammed into the schedule? Or that they should be able to give athletes the best possible coaches by not limiting how many they can employ?

Eventually, Division I will end up with two largely separate rulebooks. At some point this will impact the play on the field or court, especially in the men’s basketball tournament. If fewer mid-majors are making fewer deep runs, any impact on the tournament’s ratings and revenue can be blamed on them. If it is flat or goes up, it shows mid-majors were a drag. If it goes down, it is precisely the excuse needed to justify the risk of a new basketball tournament.

This is not a matter of if, but when. How long will be determined by a number of factors:

  • The size of the autonomous subgroup;
  • The exact process used to allow the subgroup to vote independently;
  • Whether the rest of Division I has similar autonomy; and
  • Which topics are included for rules that apply only to the subgroup.

If a very small group of institutions can propose their own rules on virtually any topic and the rest cannot, this process will be swift by NCAA standards, maybe a decade or so. A larger group of schools making separate rules on a limited number of topics with the same privilege afforded to the rest will make this change slower, a generation or more. But barring a last minute change of heart, it appears that a split of Division I is not just inevitable down the road but we now know how it will happen.

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