BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In May, during a virtual call with his conference football coaches, Greg Sankey spoke with such discontent for the NCAA that his tone startled many of those listening.
Sankey, largely known for guarded and cautious comments, even those made in private, doesn’t often admonish organizations, entities or people in such a way. Yet, here he was, the SEC commissioner skewering the association within which his league operates, this time over policies that his conference opposes.
“He was hot,” says one listener. “He ain’t happy.”
The anecdote is merely a window into the feelings of one of college athletics’ most powerful figures, a slice of what Sankey has revealed in increments publicly: He’s disappointed in and frustrated with the governing body of college sports.
In interviews with Sports Illustrated over the last several weeks, the commissioner has suggested the need for a new governance model, has lobbied for more autonomy for the Power 5 conferences and has chided the top policy-making group in the association, the NCAA Board of Governors, for its lack of transparency and resistance to change.
His frustrations have boiled over, producing shots that, for some, have left holes in the NCAA’s broadside, jabs at the organization’s accountability, pace and leadership. For instance, he described the College Football Playoff governance group as “productive and constructive,” and then quipped, “It ought to be a model for the NCAA to follow.”
The association, he contends, is failing in three areas. Its enforcement staff is not producing timely results. Its governing committees, made up of various school administrators, are not adopting policies he believes are necessary in a changing world. And even the NCAA’s crown jewel—operating championships—is in question after some gender equity missteps this spring.
“We’ve got to have better outcomes from our governing structure. I am highly concerned that we are not as effective as we need to be in our current environment,” Sankey tells SI.
“Driving things at the Board of Governors level is not making this enterprise more healthy and continuing along the same thought, assigning things to big committees that take two years to come to conclusions.”
Even before last week, when NCAA president Mark Emmert expressed his interest in a decentralized NCAA in comments to three select media outlets, wheels behind college athletics’ most powerful people—the conference commissioners—were already turning. Some commissioners were planning to open their individual media days this week with remarks about this exact subject—that NCAA governance change is needed—but Emmert leapt ahead of them, a potential act to save face in a battle he lost long ago.
Here from Hoover, a suburb of Birmingham, Sankey will give his annual state of the league to kick off SEC media days. Later this week, commissioners in the ACC, Big Ten, MAC and others will do the same.
All around them, the chorus of change is louder than ever, administrators say. In fact, one athletic director believes that a new governance model can be created and adopted within two years.
“The leaders in the industry are becoming much more vocal about it,” a high-placed NCAA official tells SI. “That tells me something. That tells me that maybe things are moving behind the scenes faster than you think.”
Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby has historically been involved in NCAA governance more than anyone. Even he says the current model has “flaws,” most of them tied to the disparate array of programs within the organization.
In Division I alone, there are more than 350 schools across vast geographic terrain with differing financial situations and interests. Schools such as Texas, Georgia and Ohio State, with athletic budgets of at least $170 million, operate under the same policies as Winthrop, Chicago State and Alcorn, with budgets of less than $13 million. And while the Power 5 programs hold autonomous powers to push through some legislation, they are restricted in using that autonomy in any legislation related to scholarships, prohibiting them from providing more aid to athletes.
Frustrations are boiling over. That’s especially the case in the SEC, a league so flush with cash that it distributed an extra $23 million to its members this year after borrowing the money against a new television deal the conference signed with ESPN, rumored to be worth nearly a half-billion dollars.
“We’re tired of being told by some small school up in the northeast that we can’t do something,” says one SEC school administrator. “Why is Alabama and Binghamton in the same division? We continue to put those two on equal footing and it’s about time that all of us admitted that.”
This is nothing new. For years, this has been a festering problem for the upper echelon of college sports. But such an eventful year—COVID-19, athlete compensation, etc.—has further fractured an association along geographic and economic lines, unearthing the disparate nature of this governing model.
Even those from non-Power 5 conferences believe a new way is necessary.
“We have to figure out how to be a little more adaptive as an association,” says MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher.
In the last year, the NCAA—with little guidance—has placed the responsibility on leagues and schools for both COVID-19 protocols and, now, name, image and likeness rules. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court smashed the organization's amateurism pillar, a 9–0 defeat in the Alston case.
In short, the NCAA eviscerated its own authority and then had its fangs removed by the highest court in the land.
Already removed from involvement with the biggest event in college sports—the College Football Playoff—the NCAA finds itself removed from three of the most transformative issues in college sports: COVID-19 protocols, NIL and educational benefits tied to the Alston ruling. Schools and conferences, not the national body, have set or will set policies for such.
“The NCAA is a dog without teeth,” says one attorney who often argues NCAA cases.
Worse yet, the governing body has failed in its two most important arenas: Enforcing infractions cases and operating championship events.
Many of the enforcement cases tied to the sweeping 2017 Department of Justice investigation of corruption in college basketball have languished, allowing high-profile programs such as Kansas, Louisville, Arizona, Auburn, LSU and North Carolina State to compete without sanctions for years.
In March, a discrepancy between the weight rooms at the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, held at two different sites, made national news and had the governing body quickly enhancing the women’s setup, at first nothing more than a single rack of dumbbells—a striking disparity to the sprawling and lavish men’s facility. Later, Emmert said the space at the women’s tournament was never meant to be a weight room.
“You hear different perspectives,” says Sankey. “‘Oh, it was never intended to be a weight room.’ So there was never an intention to have a weight room? I was shocked upon learning about the failures. It shouldn’t happen.”
Other championship sites were embroiled in issues too. Coaches were publicly critical of the locker rooms at the Women’s College World Series and the playing surface at the women’s volleyball tournament.
“The frustration just builds and builds and builds to a breaking point,” says Greg McGarity, the longtime athletic director at Georgia who is now the CEO of the Taxslayer Bowl. “The tough thing is, what’s the alternative? If not this, what’s it look like? I’m sure a lot of smart people are looking at another model.”
Any creation of a new model is hampered by individual conference media rights deals, described by one high-ranking official as roadblocks to the “optimal solution.”
What’s the optimal solution? Some administrators believe it is a sweeping realignment, where the top football powers create a super league most similar to the Premier League in soccer. But that’s years, maybe even decades, away.
Most believe the NCAA should remain involved in any new structure, at the very least to run more than 90 championships.
Last October, the Knight Commission released a sweeping survey in which it polled college administrators on two potential future NCAA models: (1) create a fourth division made up only of the 65 Power 5 teams; (2) separate the sport of football for an FBS-only association. More than 60% of Power 5 administrators supported the first option, the survey said. Another 44% of all administrators said they support the second option. In its post-survey conclusion, the Knight Commission recommended the latter—separating FBS under a new governance structure that would only regulate football while all other sports remain under the NCAA governance.
Sankey has balked at any model that separates sports such as this one, telling Sports Illustrated, “if we can find a mousetrap to run football at the college level, then basketball is coming, baseball is coming, volleyball is coming and so on.”
The Power 5 seceding from the NCAA has its problems, too. That move may crater what is historically college sports’ most significant event, the men’s basketball tournament, as well as countless other Olympic sports championships in which non-Power 5 programs often shine and even win titles (this past year, for instance, six of those teams won D-I championships).
A compromise model may be to keep D-I under the same governance umbrella, but with more autonomy legislation granted to the Power 5 conferences. That includes, most notably, decisions related to scholarships.
NCAA championships could conceivably happen among conferences and teams operating under different policies with varying scholarship limitations, says Amy Perko, the executive director of the Knight Commission. That happens already, to an extent.
“There are a number of D-I schools that don’t offer the maximum number of scholarships in lower-profile sports,” she says.
Sankey believes the Power 5 should have more autonomy to create legislation that benefits athletes more, such as expanding upon scholarships and scholarship limits. In fact, over the last several months, NCAA governance committees have refused to adopt at least two pieces of SEC-sponsored legislation, most notably of which is a proposal related to COVID-19.
The league wants to exempt the financial aid of all athletes who participated during the COVID-19 pandemic from a team’s scholarship limit. In the current rule, only the seniors on a team last season are exempt this year, resulting in a roster pinch where coaches either must find space by cutting current athletes or not signing as many high school players.
“It’s going to cost a little money, but we ought to be spending that money on student-athlete scholarships,” Sankey says.
The NCAA D-I Council also declined to adopt a policy lengthening fall camp to allow for more days between practices, which SEC medical experts have recommended in order to avoid more concussion issues.
There’s more, too. Sankey has been publicly outspoken that the D-I Council needs to immediately adjust the annual 25-signee limit in football to reflect the high rate of transfers—something that leaders say is on the way.
D-I schools cannot agree on a wide variety of enhancements to the game, mainly because of costs. As an example, one SEC assistant coach points to the NFL’s use of helmet technology. Pro coaches can communicate with their quarterback, mostly for play-calling, through an audio chip in the helmet.
The NCAA hasn’t approved the measure. SEC coaches have discussed using the technology in conference games only.
“We have the means,” says the assistant coach.
In short, autonomy legislative powers are a route to a quicker and better legislative process, Sankey says.
“It accelerated decision-making around cost of attendance and concussion protocols and post-eligibility medical coverage, which is at the center of discussions at Congress,” he says. “More of that type of adjustment is needed. People may not like the labeling and assigning of that authority, but that authority is supporting student-athletes.”
In the SEC, many administrators believe the conference can afford and should provide every athlete with a full scholarship, eliminating the partial scholarships that exist in many Olympic sports.
NCAA rules prohibit such a move. For many sports, the NCAA designates scholarships to each team to parcel over a certain amount of roster sports. While football gets 85 full scholarships, a sport like baseball gets 11.7 to spread across a roster size of 27. In men’s tennis the number is 4.5 scholarships over a roster size of about 10. Roughly half of the roster is paying tuition. In swimming, men’s teams get 9.9 scholarships over an average roster size of 30—a 3-to-1 tuition-to-scholarship ratio. Men’s soccer and wrestling have 3-to-1 ratios, and women’s soccer is 2-to-1.
The league will have plenty of cash coming its away—both from the new television deal and the revenue from an expanded playoff. Instead of spending excess revenue on coaching salaries, gaudy facilities and administrative bonuses, the league could funnel the money to athletes for educational expenses.
“The thing that amazes me is why we did not give every athlete in this day and time a full scholarship,” says Larry Templeton, a longtime SEC athletic director now in a consultant role with the league. “We missed the boat. We got equivalency sports busting at the seams. College baseball and softball, look at the viewership and excitement, and we’re treating them like second-class citizens.”
Bowlsby expects the Power 5 to abdicate this coming year for more autonomy. But he wonders if some legislative powers shouldn’t remain restrictive to preserve equity in the game.
“We could all solve our gender equity issues, the A5, by adding four women’s basketball scholarships and six more volleyball and five more softball,” he says. “All we would do is take players off other peoples’ fields and put them on our bench. It’s a great way to do it for us, but a terrible way to do it for others.”
In the meantime, some believe that a new model might not be the answer. So then, what is?
“Maybe the NCAA needs a new president,” says an industry source.
For months now, the confidence in Emmert among some of the most influential figures in college athletics has waned, moving from disappointment to disgust. They question his decision-making and are frustrated by his lack of communication, even with the game’s power players.
Emmert’s statements last week—in which he decentralized the NCAA—were met with a collective eye roll. Just two years ago, the president stood in front of athletic directors at a convention and described name, image and likeness as an “existential threat” to college sports. Now he’s bowing to its whims?
“It’s another thing that causes me to say, ‘How does this guy have a job?’” says a high-ranking college sports leader.g
The NCAA has denied multiple requests from SI to interview Emmert.
Earlier this spring, in a stunning move that baffled college sports officials, the NCAA Board of Governors awarded the 68-year-old Emmert with a contract extension through 2025. The Board of Governors, the NCAA’s highest-ranking governing committee largely made up of school presidents, is part of the issue within the association, some believe.
“There’s a lack of transparency at the Board of Governors level,” Sankey told SI.
Asked if there should be a leadership change at the top of the NCAA, Sankey sidestepped the question.
“I don’t want to answer that,” he says. “We make a mistake when we point to an individual and don’t consider the bigger reality. That’s too simple a question and answer. We have to be considering the big picture.”
Says Barry Alvarez, the former Wisconsin football coach and athletic director: “At times you scratch your head and wonder, ‘Where’s the leadership and decision-making?’ A new structure has to be looked at.”
So, the hunt for a new model begins. And no matter the outcome, there will be disagreements. Nothing is perfect.
In fact, Bowlsby has a word of caution for everyone. Be careful, he suggests, what you wish for.
“The trick is, if you really believe that some sort of restructuring or separate organization makes sense,” he says, “then you have to also think about how you structure that organization so you don’t make the same mistakes.”
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