ANAHEIM, Calif. — The annual NCAA convention will play out here this week, in fitting proximity to Disneyland. The centerpiece of Walt Disney’s original theme park is Sleeping Beauty’s castle, and this convention may mark the slumbering NCAA’s wakeup call.
If it sleeps through this alarm, the credibility hit could be irreversible.
This year, the governing body of college sports must show it is awake, alert and adroit enough to get a handle on two things: a new approach to compensating student-athletes and an effective means of administering justice in the wake of the college basketball scandal.
The first of those two topics will dominate the convention—specifically, discussion of a modernized framework for name, image and likeness funding.
The NCAA has been put on the clock by various state legislatures—most notably California, which passed a law last year, plus several others that have proposed bills that would open revenue streams long denied to athletes. Sensing the chaos that would be caused by a dozen different states' applying their own compensation standards, the NCAA created a working group to address NIL alternatives and increased its dialogue with Congress about potential national legislation that would supersede the state laws.
“Federal legislation must make sure the athletes who are drawing all the fans, viewers, and endorsements receive a portion of the bounty the industry of college athletics accrues. College athletes are getting robbed, and this is exactly what I told Dr. Emmert when I met with him last month. I’m grateful the NCAA has been at the table with Congress to help make reform a reality, and I hope to see serious, real proposals to compensate college athletes coming out of the NCAA conference this week,” said U.S. Senator Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), who created a working group in Congress with Senator Mitt Romney around the topic of NCAA student-athlete compensation.
This convention marks the first time since then that the vast, sprawling NCAA membership—Divisions I, II and III—can come together and discuss the course college sports should take toward student-athletes' getting more of the pie. And virtually everyone understands that staying with the status quo is not an option.
“We are going to do something here,” said one official who has been briefed on expected actions. “We are definitely going to have change, permissive change, for student-athletes through name, image and likeness. We can hold to our principles and still change with the times.”
Before anyone gets their hopes up, understand that the NCAA’s definition of change means setting in motion a ponderous machinery that will take a year to enact new rules. Whatever comes out of this confab in Anaheim will be the beginning of turning a battleship in a bathtub, not the end.
There will be more discussion, more debate, more committee meetings over the next 12 months. The payoff in new legislation likely will come at the 2021 NCAA convention in Washington, D.C.—an apt locale, given the expected involvement of Congress in crafting what is to come.
Keep this in mind as well: The NCAA is not willingly abandoning its most ossified and entrenched position. That would be the amateurism model, which is the single most controversial element of college sports. When NCAA president Mark Emmert makes his annual address Thursday, expect a willingness to change—and an unwillingness to fully make college athletics a professional endeavor.
Somewhere in between doing nothing and a radical remodeling is the sweet spot the NCAA will try to find. The hard part is agreeing where that spot is and how to get there.
“How far along the (compensation) spectrum are people willing to go?” said one official who will take part in some of the key discussions this week. “That piece will take some time.”
They have a year to figure it out. If the NCAA doesn’t emerge from the 2021 convention with a new NIL policy, the failure will be profound.
Similarly, the association is on the clock to turn a 28-month-old basketball corruption scandal into meaningful enforcement of its bylaws in 2020. The federal investigation that exposed the sport’s underground economy has come up woefully short of substantive consequences for involved coaches and programs—and it will be up to NCAA enforcement to change that.
Thus far, at least five schools have received Notices of Allegations in relation to the scandal: North Carolina State, Kansas, Oklahoma State, USC and TCU. Creighton will not confirm or deny whether it was the sixth school charged. Investigations are ongoing at Auburn, Louisville, Arizona and LSU, with charges potentially filed in the first half of 2020.
Thus the 2020 NCAA tournament will include several teams either formally charged with major violations or under investigation for major violations. It will be an awkward Big Dance, especially if any of them advance to the Final Four (Kansas and Louisville look like legitimate Final Four contenders at this point, and in this wide-open season other implicated schools could make a run to Atlanta).
That should increase the urgency to complete investigations, hold Committee on Infractions hearings and resolve the most advanced of these cases before the 2020–21 season begins—and certainly resolve all of them before that season ends. If the NCAA is handing out penalties that affect the 2022 tournament for revelations that came to light in September 2017, it would intensify complaints about the protracted crime-and-punishment process.
There is a legion of cynics out there who have been saying since the scandal broke that the NCAA would never punish involved schools—especially the power programs. If enforcement charges 10 schools—and the charges stick, and they include the likes of Kansas, Louisville and Arizona—then the cynics will have to find something else to complain about.
But the time to act is now—in terms of both student-athlete compensation and exposing corruption. The NCAA can’t afford to keep snoring in its castle while its walls are under assault.