RECENT CHANGES WITH regard to the NCAA’s Power Five conferences left more unanswered questions than plans or solutions.
Exactly how are those athletes going to be paid? Will athletes be allowed to sign with agents? Will health insurance benefits increase greatly? Will we soon have 15 or more full-time coaches on football staffs?
Aside from the questions, one thing became clear: The hierarchy of intercollegiate decision-making has changed drastically. No longer are college presidents making certain programs operate in the best interest of their institutions. Conference commissioners and television executives have wrested power from presidents, thus altering the course of college sports.
Not that long ago – two decades, perhaps – the decision-making hierarchy of the NCAA looked like this:
1. University presidents
2. Athletics directors
3. Television executives
4. Conference commissioners
5. Head football/men’s basketball coaches
As the NCAA embarks on a historic venture into the great unknown by allowing an elite group of 65 athletics programs autonomy in making rules, that hierarchy – at least among the select group – now looks like this:
1. Conference commissioners
2. Television executives
3. Head football/men’s basketball coaches
4. University presidents
5. Athletic directors
Of course, those rankings are a sweeping judgment, if not condemnation, of higher education and the role athletics plays in it. Yet when there were two dissenting votes among 18 college presidents and chancellors to allow autonomy among the Power Five conferences, it was a sign that those board members are now being told how to operate by conference commissioners.
So, how did we get to this point?
Let’s start with conference commissioners. They are the ones who orchestrated the shuffling of conference affiliations and expansion of the Power Five leagues. They are the ones who stood at the altar of the almighty dollar and pushed the agenda of TV executives.
When TV began paying outrageous sums of money to conferences for the right to televise their football and men’s basketball games, commissioners knew they had university presidents cornered. How else to explain that universities allow televised 9 p.m. and 10 p.m. weekday basketball games, or 8 p.m. football games on school nights?
It used to be that university presidents constantly weighed how athletics operated within the context of the mission of colleges, which was to educate students. The Knight Commission once was a viable organization that kept tabs on how colleges and universities adhered to that academic mission.
Today, unfortunately, we never hear from the Knight Commission. It has become a toothless organization that appears to have given up the fight. That has allowed university presidents to cave and now view athletics primarily as the face of the university.
Money from TV has forced university presidents to fall in line with the desires and edicts of conference commissioners. The collective hands of university presidents are tied.
The more money TV doles out, the greater chance athletics departments can produce additional revenue for the school. The greater TV exposure for athletic programs, the enhanced chances of recruiting students to the school. Time and again we have learned that the number of applicants to a school is directly proportional to the success of the football and men’s basketball teams.
University presidents also know they no longer are the most powerful person on campus. That belongs to the football or basketball coach at most schools.
A few years ago, Ohio State president Gordon Gee joked that his head football coach, Jim Tressel, might fire the president, instead of the other way around. It was funny at the time. No more. Now, presidents know they cannot afford a feud with the school’s leading fundraiser. When fans side with the football coach, everyone knows the president will be the one to lose his or her footing with alumni.
That leaves the poor athletics director, who essentially has been relegated to the corner office where he or she is required to balance the budget and keep athletes out of trouble.
It is a sad new hierarchy for college athletics, one that speaks volumes about how the tail wags the dog.