SANTA MONICA, Calif. -- As outgoing North Carolina chancellor Holden Thorp explained in Chapel Hill on Friday how ill-equipped most collegiate CEOs are to handle the issues surrounding major collegiate athletics, several dozen Division I athletic directors gathered at a beachside hotel probably nodded in agreement. The ADs came to Santa Monica not for the pier, but to discuss the major issues facing college athletics without anyone from the NCAA around. Besides, several athletic directors said, few people at NCAA headquarters seem to care what the ADs think these days.
And that might be the NCAA's biggest problem.
Under president Mark Emmert, the NCAA has aggressively embraced a model that puts all the power in the hands of university presidents and chancellors. That would be fine, some high-profile athletic directors said, if the presidents sought the advice of the people who work in athletics on a daily basis. Instead, Emmert and his hand-picked group of CEOs have rammed through rules and policies with only minimal consultation of the people who must actually implement those rules and policies. Why will much of the recently passed football recruiting deregulation package probably get tabled? Because no one bothered to ask the people working in athletics. If they had, they might have realized a relaxation on the rules that govern how often coaches can contact recruits would be fine with most ADs and coaches. They also would have realized a relaxation on the rules that govern exactly who may contact recruits could result in a hiring spree by the wealthiest schools that would leave everyone else going further into debt while trying to keep up. Why did the plan to offer athletes up to a $2,000 annual stipend to cover the full cost of attendance get scuttled after its passage at a 2011 presidential retreat? Because no one bothered to check with less wealthy schools to see how they felt about it. If they had, they'd have known it stood no chance of passing an override vote.
The athletic directors want to have an open dialogue with the NCAA about the pending Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, which could radically reshape the business model of major college sports. They want to talk about the potential impact should former football players sue over concussion-related issues. They want to talk about conference realignment, which has upended the industry in the past three years. They talked about all those issues Thursday and Friday in Santa Monica because the NCAA leadership doesn't seem to want to discuss any of it with them. And the people in charge of some of the nation's most powerful athletic programs are fed up.
Even Emmert himself has acknowledged his tactical error. "I think when we're moved toward a more presidentially driven decision structure, that's a good one," Emmert said at the Final Four. "But we shoved athletic directors, coaches to a certain extent, commissioners too far to the sides. So we haven't had enough conversations what policies and procedures mean on the grass roots level."
Upon hearing that statement, one athletic director at one of the nation's most successful programs reached out by phone. The AD wanted me to know the sentiment was stronger than outside observers realized. "It's not just the enforcement stuff, which is all anybody is writing about," the AD said, referring to the high-profile foibles in the NCAA's infractions case against Miami and the choice to circumvent the regular enforcement process to punish Penn State. It wasn't the first such phone call I'd received. While the ADs are glad Emmert has recognized his mistake, some question whether someone who would so quickly cut out the people on the ground has any business running the NCAA. At the meeting in Santa Monica, another AD said there is "zero confidence in the guy in that chair," referring to Emmert. While the enforcement issues have received the bulk of the attention, this issue may be the most critical for Emmert's NCAA. Because while problems with enforcement aggravate the handful of schools being investigated, the systematic shoving aside of some of the brightest and most experienced people in college sports aggravates people at every school. And, despite what has transpired in the past three years, the schools still ultimately run the NCAA. The schools want the NCAA to work. The wealthiest schools could strike out on their own, but that would require significant time and investment. They would prefer to create a workable system within the NCAA.
Why are these ADs -- all of whom work in BCS automatic qualifying conferences -- being quoted without their names attached? Still another AD explained the need for anonymity. "We don't want the NCAA getting back at us by going looking for one of our kids who might have gotten a free soda once," the AD said.
That may sound extreme, but that's how toxic the relationship has become. Respected professionals making six- and seven-figure salaries are afraid to speak out for change because they worry their governing body will take revenge on them by making a 20-year-old suffer. This doesn't necessarily mean the leaders at the NCAA would actually do that, but the fact that the fear exists is proof enough that the people running some of the nation's biggest athletic programs have lost confidence in the organization that governs them. That's why Thorp's comments Friday were so welcome to those forced to deal on a daily basis with the proclamations handed down by Emmert and his favorite CEOs.
"[Chancellors and presidents] don't have time to do what is asked of us by this presidential control idea ... We go to conference or NCAA meetings to discuss new rules and when we get home, our ADs tell us we were crazy to agree to these changes. And they're usually right," Thorp told the crowd Friday at a panel discussion of the role of athletics in college life. (His words were lovingly captured by Andrew Carter, who covers the Tar Heels for
Obviously, it's more than a little ironic that such a statement comes from a chancellor chased from his job by an athletics scandal, but Thorp is correct. University CEOs must deal with more pressing issues that, because of our out-of-whack priorities, receive far less attention. Athletic directors have plenty of time to deal with athletics issues, because that's what they're paid to do. They're the ones talking to coaches, compliance directors and athletes every day.
The problem -- and plenty of ADs will concede this point -- is that the membership in Division I is so diverse that the ADs usually have a broad spectrum of opinions on a given topic. While that makes for robust debate, it also makes meaningful progress difficult. "Our group probably needs to do a better job of having a consistent message," one AD said. "It hurts our ability to get some things done when we're not together with one voice." Emmert elected to go this route to cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape that bogged down the NCAA in the past. Unfortunately, passing rules without much input from the people on the ground has further bloated the process by forcing overridden rules back through the same bureaucratic process Emmert had hoped to avoid.
To help that, the ADs who met last week decided they need to form their own representative body of veteran administrators that can go to Emmert and company and voice concerns as well as help shape policy. That way, the presidents can still approve the creation or removal of rules, but they'll be doing so on the advice of the people who must deal with the fallout from any decisions. That's how it should have worked all along, but Emmert didn't always feel that way. "We need the NCAA," one AD said. "We need a body that can govern and keep everyone accountable. We want to make this work. ... If we can all listen to each other, we will be so much stronger at the end of the day."