The governance reform effort which will kick into high gear at this month’s NCAA convention has been based around two assumptions. First, that larger schools should not necessarily be bound by limits based on competitive equity with and financial restrictions of smaller athletic departments. And second, that athletic directors rather than university presidents should take the lead when it comes to the day-to-day governance of the NCAA.
It is undeniable that too much was expected of university presidents, especially over the last few years. Presidents already struggle to balance keeping tabs on athletics with the running the rest of the university. Many complain of spending 10–20% of their time on something which amounts to less than 5% of the university budget. A single athletic department can overwhelm a college president. It is no surprise they struggled to oversee hundreds of other athletic departments in their spare time.
Beyond the time demands, presidents were ill-suited to craft nuts-and-bolts rules because they are in many cases out of touch with the realities of what goes on in an athletic department. They rarely feel the issues facing coaches, student-athletes, and administrators. The results are initiatives which are grand, potentially transformative, but which run into issue with implementation by those on the front lines. The proposed solution is to put much of the authority for translating the details of broad policy dictated by college presidents into the hands of athletic directors.
But the ongoing review of transfer rules is an example of the folly of putting too much authority in the hands of any one of the NCAA’s constituent groups. Athletic directors, being closer to coaches, athletes, and critics, were put in charge of determining whether changes needed to be made to the NCAA’s transfer rules and what those changes should look like.
Last year, the subcommittee of the Division I Leadership Council working on the issue came up with a transfer model which would have radically altered the landscape in Division I revenue sports. It would have created a general transfer exception based on academics, lessened the penalty for any athlete transferring, and potentially done away with athletes needing to ask permission from their current institution to be recruited by another.
A few months later, faced with research that transfers only account for a small minority of student-athletes, the new model was scrapped. Instead, permission-to-contact became the focus, although talk of a self-release seemed to have ended as well. At the very least though, the subcommittee was questioning whether one school should be able to prohibit another school from giving a student-athlete financial aid.
Fast forward to now and all talk about loosening transfer restrictions is gone. Instead, the transfer subcommittee is now looking at tightening up waivers and graduate transfers. A general transfer exception (which might have solved many of the waiver problems) is off the table for now, as it seems are changes to permission-to-contact (which many argue is a bigger problem with transferring than athletes having to sit out a year). Instead the focus is on abuse and inconsistent decisions in the waiver process as well as the perceived “free agency” created by the graduate transfer exception and waiver.
The change in tune from the subcommittee tracks closely with the criticism of the NCAA’s transfer rules over the last couple of years. When the subcommittee was coming up with the initial model in Fall 2012, two summers of intense debate over transfer rules had just ended. While most athletes transferred without incident, there were multiple high profile battles between institutions and student-athletes over permission-to-contact and support to play immediately. By April 2013, much of the venom was gone, but opposition to permission-to-contact remained strong.
The summer of 2013 was quieter in terms of transfer debate. The most intense criticism of schools restricting athletes was aimed at the National Letter of Intent and incoming prospects, not transfers of enrolled student-athletes. Critics of the transfer process focused on waivers, which seemed to be more common and more inconsistent than ever, although the NCAA would likely dispute both those claims.
It is impossible to separate the path the transfer subcommittee has taken with the waves of criticism. If this were in the hands of the presidents on the Board of Directors, a proposal resembling the model initially outlined a year ago would have gone to the membership. It might have been defeated, overridden, or caused chaos if it had been adopted. But the presidents would have been much more likely to at least put the initial model to a vote, even if it was out of touch with what coaches and administrators knew was happening with transfers.
If this is any indication, it does not bode well for athletic directors as a transformative force in the NCAA. They are too close to the action to ignore what is in favor of what should be when necessary. Giving too much authority to athletic directors may mean a return to one of the reasons the NCAA Manual got so big in the first place: putting rulemaking in the hands of people trying first and foremost to protect their own turf or get a leg up on their neighbors.
Rather than trying to find the one group that should run the NCAA, the national office and the members need to find a way to make sure presidents, administrators, coaches, and athletes all have a voice in governance. The challenge is to make that happen while still keeping the legislative process nimble enough to respond quickly when needed.