If the NCAA can’t pass reforms to give the Southeastern Conference and the four other equity leagues “autonomy” to make their own rules, “the next move would be to go to a Division IV,” SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said this afternoon, according to Macon Telegraph reporter Seth Emerson. This makes explicit the implicit threat that the power conferences have held over the NCAA since at least the mid-1990s, and it is the strongest sign yet that the very capable commissioners of the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 intend to make sure that they can garner enough power to get rid of rules intended to level the playing field among schools as quickly as possible.
To me, the funny part is why everyone wants to call it Division IV. Wouldn’t that be lower than Division III? Dick Farley, the legendary former football coach at Williams College, had a T-shirt pinned to a bulletin board on his wall bearing the words “Williams: Because There Is No Division IV.” But I digress.
Getting rid of the hypocrisy over “level playing fields” would be a great step for the NCAA to take. Most of the rules we love to ridicule in the NCAA manual, like defining a bagel with cream cheese as a meal, but one without as a snack, are powerless and inscrutable attempts to make it look like the Georgia’s of Division I can’t lavish extra benefits on recruits and make the Georgia States look like paupers. (Though Georgia State has some tricks of its own to play.)
And creating a new elite division of the NCAA likely would be a positive for the arms race in spending. If there is a clear division between the haves and the have-nots, with only the scantest of possibilities of jumping from the latter to the former, then what incentives do the outsiders have to transfer funds from academics to sports, or to charge students exorbitant fees to support athletics? Of course, it probably puts even more pressure on Rutgers and other bottom-feeders among the Big Five to find some way of turning their programs around, but that’s a relatively small number of institutions. And it may well increase debt among the top tier of institutions, but so far nobody seems very concerned about that.
What it probably does—and what I expect Mike Slive and his colleagues fully intend—is to give the top tier of institutions the freedom to spend more money on athletes as a means of persuading them not to join unions, sue for a share of broadcast revenue, or otherwise demand to be treated like employees instead of amateurs/indentured servants/insert your simile here. Quite simply, if the power conferences can provide the vast majority of athletes with a lavish experience that keeps them content, then they can maintain the same basic structure of college sports: major spectacles for the networks, minor sports for the collegiate experience, and excellent salaries for everyone but the athletes.
The problem is that they don’t always conclude the article for which I’m writing them.