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Overreaction Monday: The NCAA is no Longer the Answer to Governing College Sports

In a world that needs leadership and oversight, the NCAA provides neither.

NCAA Men’s Final Four - Previews
If the NCAA isn’t going to guide schools in a pandemic, when will it?
Photo by Maxx Wolfson/Getty Images

If the events of the past several months, as well as the current situation we find ourselves in, have taught us nothing else, we’ve at least come to learn just how flawed the current NCAA governing body truly is.

Just over four long months ago, the Big Ten Tournament was called off. Or perhaps more accurately, the Big Ten Tournament was started, then halted so it coule be played without fans in the arena, then called off altogether. Within the day, the NCAA Tournament was also called off.

The week of March 11th was a wild one. It will be one we tell our children of. But it was also just the first of many examples the demonstrate the NCAA is no longer equipped to handle the world in which we live.

That week, every major conference that hadn’t already crowned a champion was forced to cancel their tournament. But a good number of mid-major conferences were able to finish their tournaments and were in the process of preparing for the postseason when the fallout from COVID-19 really started (in terms of cancellations - we’ll leave the debate about when the health impacts began stateside for another time and place). Even within the power conferences, a slew of teams had actually finished their seasons, including those guys in Ames.

Ultimately, the decision to try to move forward without fans and ultimately cancel was left to the individual conferences. The same can be said for the decisions all summer regarding student-athletes on campus. For the Big Ten’s part, they have allowed athletes to return for “voluntary” workouts and at Iowa, both the football and basketball team are now on campus performing offseason work.

While the NCAA has mandated a recruiting “dead period”, prospects have continued to visit Iowa City on their own dime (and without access to any of the facilities). But the body that governs all of college football has not been able to provide any guidance or set any standards for either participation in those offseason workouts or the upcoming season.

Now, less than two months from what would have been the start of the season, the Big Ten has announced the conference will not be holding football games this fall against non-conference opponents. The PAC-12 has followed suit and the ACC is believed to be close behind. The Ivy League has already decided note to play sports in the fall, though they may play football in the spring. The NJCAA has done the same. The SEC and Big 12 have not made decisions and all we really know about the FCS and non-P5 conferences is they are losing millions of dollars by missing out on pay games against P5 opponents.

The underlying theme here is there is no underlying theme. Conferences are doing what they think is best for them. Right now, that largely means buying flexibility rather than wins. The Big Ten’s primary reason for going to conference-only schedules has nothing at all to do with travel, the opponents or shortening the season and everything to do with the fact the conference commissioner can make decisions for the schools with only those schools’ interests in mind.

And there-in lies the problem for the NCAA as a governing body. The conferences are being forced to take things into their own hands at a time when leadership from the top is of the utmost importance.

The NFL is going to play football this fall. There are myriad differences between the NCAA and the NFL, but chief among them are that NFL players are being paid to play and they are represented by a players union to a singular governing body which controls everything from scheduling to rules and punishments.

College football players are considered student-athletes, but that facade is likely to prevent college football fans from watching their favorite teams this fall. College football players are athletes first, but are also required to maintain good standing as students. They are unpaid, aside from a free education they likely don’t have time to actually take advantage of and ancillary benefits which pale in comparison to the money being made on the product they put on the field and our television screens.

Now, those “student-athletes” are on college campuses around the country for “voluntary” (in the sense that you don’t have to be on the team, and you likely wouldn’t if you chose not to attend) workouts to prepare for the upcoming season. Meanwhile, the employees of the schools these athletes attend are not allowed on campus. They are working from home and preparing to record lectures for the rest of the student population, which will not be allowed to gather in large groups for lectures or classes and in some cases, will not be on campus at all this fall.

They’re preparing because if they don’t play this fall, the budgets of every athletic department in the country completely falls apart. Administrators, coaches and staff have salaries that will go unpaid if these college kids don’t step on the field. Student-athletes in other sports will find themselves without scholarships or perhaps without a team at all if the football team can’t find a way to play a season. Programs and entire athletic departments will cease to exist if college football is not played.

But the NCAA isn’t making the call on whether football will be played. Instead, individual conferences are opting to cut ties with other conferences for the year so they can actually control their member institutions as the situation evolves.

This is the time for change.

We are seeing the landscape around NIL rules shifting with players likely to have some form of compensation in the near future. We’re going to see some non-P5 schools forced to cut programs in their entirety. Now is the time for the P5 conferences to align to form a new governing body which will create the uniformity and the authority the schools need to move forward.

In a world where the QB at Alabama is likely to cash in on his name, image and likeness at a level completely unimaginable to anyone on the roster at Northern Illinois, the Power 5 (or 6) conferences need different things than the G5 and FCS. There is a need for emphasis on uniform rules for those schools which will have real dollars on the line vs. the rest. There is a need for continuity in scheduling, compensation and rules enforcement. And there is a need for a central authority figure the member states institutions will actually obey and respect.

There will be lasting changes in the college athletics landscape as a result of COVID-19. Those changes may be exacerbated by the implementation of new name, image and likeness rules. One of those changes needs to be to the structure of the NCAA and it’s governing authority. The power 5 (6) conferences need to be governed by their own rules with a central authority for uniformity and continuity with the remaining schools under their own governing body which can act in their best interests. With each passing day those interests diverge.

Until then, we’ll see some conferences play conference games. Others will pay their schedules with FCS opponents in November. Others still won’t play games at all. Some will cease to exist. And none will act in the best interest of the student athletes.