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NCAA World Evolving but Toward What?

2012 June 15
by Brian Goff

As Skip reminded readers in his recent pieces on realignment, the current drama fits into a larger historical framework. I thought it useful to review some of the major developments of the last 25+ years that are still working themselves out in the issues that Skip discusses and in other ways.

Football Unleashed
Love it or blame it, but almost all of the recent machinations can be traced to the 1984 Supreme Court decision in the case of Georgia and Oklahoma v. NCAA that set free money to flow football — the expansion of the marketplace as Skip noted.  No more Saturdays with a single national “game of the week” and a lame conference game on TV.  In the 1970s, the growing basketball tournament and money spurred formation of conferences like the Sun Belt and Big East hinged on basketball reputation and strength (hence, WKU gets to join up with a bunch of metro schools) with conferences like the ACC already well-positioned.  The 84 decision and subsequent football contracts reversed the hinge.  When Notre Dame signed its big deal with NBC in 1991, everyone, including me thought, “wow, how can anyone compete with that”.  Instead, the ND deal was only a leading indicator of the money opportunities available to conferences and realigned conferences with football as the driver.

The Palace Coup
Up until the late 1980s, the executive staff of the NCAA and particular its Executive Director, Walter Byers, dominated the organization in ways that channeled Kennesaw Landis, or maybe even J. Edgar Hoover.  Nominally, he answered to the schools, but he wielded power like a dictator-for-life with his political backing seeming to come from the Big Ten and maybe a few other specific institutions,.   Whether because of the OK/GA decision and its implications or merely coincidental to it, institutional presidents staged a coup in the late 1980s with the executive staff practices falling into line (although the internal politics became quite complex depending on the specific issue).  While still subject to inconsistencies and politics, the enforcement practices began to evolve.  The one-time experiment with the Death Penalty for SMU never surfaced again.  The conference-wide enforcement jihads slowed or stopped.  Many remember the widespread actions against Southwest Conference schools, but similar missions against the Big 8 and ACC had preceded it.  In the 1970s, the entire Ohio Valley conference was put on probation (ironically, not long after WKU’s 107-83 beat down of  UK in their first-ever basketball meeting).  Beyond enforcement, the presidential takeover opened up a new phase of politics within the NCAA that has and continues to have many complexities with regard to different coalitions and interests.

Now and the Future
In 1991, some sports economists (including me) wondered if the Notre Dame deal signaled the beginning of the end for the NCAA.  Many times since, I’ve considered that judgement wrong in that the NCAA still tightly restricts payments to labor.  Considering other developments over the past 20 years, however, the ND deal (and, really, the 1984 decision) may well have signaled the beginning of the end — it’s just taking a long time to play out (and may take quite a while longer).  In terms of the NCAA politics, at least with respect to football, everything has turned on its head since the Byers era.  Instead of institutions subservient to a strong central staff and director, now the major football conferences dictate most of their own destiny.  They still find it useful to align with the NCAA in other sports, but they are already only an inch away from running football on its own legs independent from the NCAA.  Even the labor restrictions are showing more vulnerability.   Have the discussions about stipends for players only opened the door?  Certainly, the topic of payments to players has expanded way beyond the few economists and journalists that mentioned it 25 years ago.  I’m not expecting any big changes by next year, but I do wonder where all this is leading over the next 25 years.

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