DALLAS -- Bob Bowlsby may be the newest commissioner in the five megabucks conferences, but he served notice Monday that he will not be the quietest. The head of the Big 12 said something today that his four colleagues have been hinting at for almost two years. The difference? Bowlsby said it boldly, directly and without prompting.
The former Stanford, Iowa and Northern Iowa athletic director fired a shot across the bow of the NCAA and the more than 200 schools that belong to Division I but don't rake in significant revenue from big-time football. Bowlsby said the schools that generate the bulk of the revenue want to govern themselves because they're tired of getting blocked every step of the way by less financially successful programs that want to maintain the illusion of parity. "Relative to the legislative process, we are very much at a point now where we can't get anything that's transformative through the system," Bowlsby said. "I think that's particularly felt by seven or eight conferences and the five major conferences in particular. It is just very difficult to do anything that would benefit our student athletes or our institutions that doesn't get voted down by the larger majority." Bowlsby, who has been on both sides of this equation, said he understands the have-nots' point of view, but it doesn't change the fact that the chasm between the classes has caused gridlock. "Northern Iowa and Texas aren't much alike," Bowlsby said.
Such reform can be accomplished within the NCAA, Bowlsby added. While secession from the NCAA by the money leagues is a romantic notion, it's terribly impractical. Setting up an entirely new governing body would be a massive undertaking. Schools can agree that they fundamentally disagree on certain issues and stop trying to live in harmony without a complete break.
At issue is Division IV, or, probably more realistically, a new subdivision within Division I containing the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC and possibly the American Athletic Conference. Currently, Division I is subdivided into the FBS and FCS in football. Let's call the proposed new subdivision the F$S. Bowlsby also suggested the creation of federations within the NCAA to make unique rules to govern each individual sport. This is intriguing but complex. The simpler solution is a new subdivision for football, which is where the greatest differences between haves and have-nots exist.
In the F$S, if leagues wanted to toss an extra $2,000-$4,000 into the athletic scholarship package to account for the full cost of attendance, they could. They can all afford it, after all. The money leagues have been trying to do this for two years, but they've been blocked by the have-nots, who correctly realize this would create an even greater recruiting advantage for the money schools. Last week, SEC commissioner Mike Slive made a veiled threat to the have-nots over this very issue. "Conferences and their member institutions must be allowed to meet the needs of their student athletes," Slive said. "In recent conversations with my commissioner colleagues, there appears to be a willingness to support a meaningful solution to this important change." But Slive, always careful with his words, did not rattle his sabre any more.
Bowlsby had no such issue Monday. He went after the programs that have jumped to Division I thinking the move will automatically raise the profile of their entire universities, soaking taxpayers and bilking students with high athletics fees in the process. Many of these schools have found the going in Division I quite difficult, and their interests are squarely at odds with the interests of the schools that have had successful athletic programs for decades. "I think we've permitted or even sometimes encouraged institutional social climbing by virtue of their athletics programs," Bowlsby said. "And I think the fact is we've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there."
Bowlsby also ripped the NCAA's enforcement strategy, which has been largely ineffective. "I think CEOs and ADs and commissioners and others have to really thoroughly engage and effectively restructure the enforcement process," Bowlsby said. "Without the power of subpoena or the weight of perjury, we are not getting to the bottom of anything." Deregulation could help streamline the process, but the blocking of such deregulation isn't limited to the have-not schools. When the NCAA tried to deregulate football recruiting, the coaches in Bowlsby's league freaked out right along with their less fortunate colleagues. So Bowlsby will have to get his own house in order on that issue, but his boldness suggests he will.
While Bowlsby's fellow big-money commissioners have not stated their goals so plainly, know that Slive, the ACC's John Swofford, the Big Ten's Jim Delany and the Pac-12's Larry Scott fundamentally agree with their Big 12 counterpart. Delany's Big Ten already has struck one blow, agreeing not to schedule FCS football opponents beyond games already scheduled. Such games represent huge paydays for lower-income athletic departments. Now imagine if all five money leagues threaten to make that same choice. Or, if less wealthy FBS schools want to keep fighting their wealthier counterparts, the big five could decide that they'll only play the big five in football. That would rip a lot of money from the coffers of some of the have-nots, who now command more than $1 million to travel to, say, Alabama, to get creamed. So the big five have leverage even if they don't threaten to leave the NCAA.
The other leverage is the NCAA men's basketball tournament. The public loves Cinderella, but the tournament, which under its current contract generates an average of $770 million a year in television rights fees, probably would draw almost as much if the money schools formed their own division and only played one another in their championship. We love when Florida Gulf Coast wins, but we tune in to see Kansas, Ohio State and Kentucky. The have-nots don't want to lose their access to that cash cow, which is why allowing the money leagues to form a separate football subdivision makes more sense.
That separate subdivision also makes more sense because it would allow the money schools to develop a better form of revenue distribution to athletes. If the NCAA loses the federal lawsuit filed by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon -- and joined last week by six current college football players -- schools would likely be forced to share a big cut of television revenue with players. The leaders of the money leagues understand this. It's why they've been trying so hard for two years to give players more money. Cost-of-attendance stipends would cost significantly less than a court defeat. If the wealthy schools can govern themselves, they might be able to negotiate a settlement that would make the players happy and keep them from paying out significant damages in the event of a loss in court. But that will never happen if the bottom portion of Division I keeps blocking the top.
Bowlsby was not the first to point out the need for major changes. He just said it the loudest and in the plainest language possible. If his fellow big five commissioners truly share his wish, they need to speak up in clear language that everyone can understand.
The Big Ten's Delany will take to his pulpit later this week at his league's media days in Chicago. Bowlsby warmed up the crowd Monday. Delany, if he isn't still worrying about his league dropping to Division III, can drive home the point and continue a dialogue that could lead to meaningful change.