Make no mistake. The real issue in the conflict between the NCAA and its 61 rebellious Division I-A football schools—collectively known as the College Football Association—was never over which of the TV networks would be allowed to heap millions of dollars on the big-time football powers. Sure, it may have seemed that way, what with all those reports that the NCAA had struck a $263.5 million, four-year deal with ABC and CBS and that the CFA had worked out a conflicting $180 million, four-year arrangement with NBC. But those were mere diversionary tactics; in fact, neither side had finalized a television contract. What the two outfits were really arguing about was whether there would be a reorganization of the NCAA that would give the big-time schools firm control of big-time football.
Well, for all practical purposes the battle has ended, and to determine who won, one needs only to know that two weeks ago the NCAA put in a rush order for a special convention of all 907 of the association's members in December to consider, you guessed it, reorganization.
And the NCAA Council has endorsed what Executive Director Walter Byers, himself a longtime advocate of reorganization, calls a "well-thought-out" plan that presumably will sift from Division I-A (currently composed of 137 schools) those institutions that don't have any philosophical or fiscal business playing Big Football—at big expense and for big bucks. At the same time, the new scheme will make Division I-AA, which would grow from 50 schools to about 90, a bigger and better place to play. In other words, the arrangement will bring compatibility and a measure of ballot-box consistency to the divisions. And a new harmony all around. One hopes.
Byers is the first to admit that the plan isn't new; it's the same old NCAA 1978 reorganization scheme stripped of the provisions, notably the so-called Ivy Amendment, that thwarted its passage three years ago. After the smoke had cleared from the '78 convention, the Penn State and Ohio State and Louisiana State lions were still lying down with the Appalachian State lambs. And hating it. There's nothing wrong with Appalachian State's having a stadium that seats 18,500 and drawing an average of 14,192 spectators a game, as it did in 1980, but the figures reflect all too clearly what amounts to a modest commitment to football. Compared with, say, Penn State with its 83,770-seat stadium and $9 million athletic budget, Appalachian State is a lighted match next to a forest fire.
September 20, 1981
The issue isn't whether Penn State's or Appalachian State's approach to football is better; there are arguments in favor of both. The issue is control. "Too many of the matters that affect us are voted on by people who have no empathy for us," says Joe Paterno, Penn State's football coach and athletic director. Indeed, as the workings of the NCAA stand now, Penn State and Appalachian State have the same voice, despite the great disparity in the size of their football programs, in how the sport is conducted at its topmost level and how the TV loot is divvied up.
It was out of frustration with this system and the failure of the drive to reorganize the NCAA in the late '70s that the CFA, as a group within a group, was born. But the association made little headway toward getting the NCAA to redress CFA grievances until July of this year, when NBC-TV offered its contract to televise CFA games beginning in 1982.
Despite threats of punitive action by the NCAA, which contended that the CFA was about to act in violation of the NCAA constitution, not to mention about to undermine the NCAA's deal with ABC/CBS by drawing off 61 of the 81 really big football schools to play on another network, the CFA membership voted to accept the NBC contract on Aug. 21. But final approval was postponed, ostensibly to give CFA schools a chance to weigh the merits of the two TV deals, but effectively to give the NCAA an opportunity to ponder the consequences of an all-out, blood-guts-and-lawyers confrontation.
Three CFA conferences, the Big Eight, WAC and ACC, then called for a special session of the NCAA to implement reorganization immediately. And to cover the CFA's flanks, one member, Texas, filed a class-action suit in state court in Austin, and two others, Georgia and Oklahoma, filed a similar action in U.S. District Court in Oklahoma City. Each suit called for a ruling that the individual schools, not the NCAA, hold the property rights to football games and, therefore, may sell those games to TV. In each court the plaintiffs also asked for a temporary restraining order to prevent the NCAA from taking punitive measures against the CFA members who went through with the NBC deal.
The NCAA quickly quit harrumphing and threatening and got busy. On Sept. 2 Byers wrote to a select number of NCAA leaders. He urged the calling of a special convention and the necessity of a reorganization, and stated his belief that "football television policies should be determined by the institutions who conduct intercollegiate football programs." In other words, that Division I-A football schools alone should have the say on I-A football contracts—within the NCAA framework, of course. NCAA President Jim Frank then called a meeting of the NCAA governance committee, which he chairs, to begin the formal procedure to implement Byers' suggestions.
The 22-member NCAA Council, a ruling body that has always been a bone in the throat of the Big Football schools, because it seems to be made up mostly of guys from Pomona-Pitzer and Southwest Missouri State, voted by conference call to approve the governance committee's recommendations: 1) to hold the emergency convention, 2) to sponsor the reorganization proposals and 3) to seek a restructuring of television jurisdictional rights by division.
According to the reorganization plan, a school would qualify for I-A based on several considerations, including the size of its stadium—minimum capacity: 30,000 seats—or its average home attendance over four seasons—minimum: 17,000. Other options would permit a school to be I-A if its four-year attendance average, home and away, was 20,000 or more, or if it belonged to a conference in which more than 50% of the members qualified for I-A. The plan pointedly excludes the Ivy Amendment, which provided I-A status to any school that participated in 12 intercollegiate sports, regardless of the scope of its football program.
Based on current attendance patterns, under the new plan I-A could be reduced to 97 lions by 1984. Five conferences would likely be reclassified I-AA in the process: the Missouri Valley, the MidAmerican, the Southern, Southland and Pacific Coast. The Ivy League probably would drop down, too—a move, says one NCAA source, the Ivies are "leaning" toward anyway.
According to the convention format, 150 I-A votes (representing 137 schools and 13 conferences) will decide the issue in December. The first question to be answered, then, is why should the CFA, with only 61 members and a residue of skepticism from past setbacks, expect a positive result now? "Whenever they [the Division I-A schools] vote," says Alabama's Bear Bryant, "we [the CFA] lose." The special session is "encouraging," says CFA Executive Director Chuck Neinas, "but reorganization has come up three times and never made it." How, indeed, can the CFA hope for the 76 votes needed to pass the plan when most of the schools in the Big Ten and Pac-10 conferences voted for the Ivy Amendment in 1978, chose not to join the CFA then and, in fact, still side against it?
The answer: NCAA officials have had their ears to the ground, and they say reorganization is now a shoo-in. "Both the Big Ten and the Pac-10 will go for it almost 100%," says NCAA Public Relations Director Dave Cawood. Says Big Ten Commissioner Wayne Duke, "We're committed to reorganization."
Paterno, the most prominent voice among CFA coaches, says there is now a growing "sentiment" to wait for the December vote before taking final action on the CFA contract. The need for reorganization, he says, supersedes the need to sign a television contract before this or that network's deadline. And the reorganization figures to brighten the TV picture all across Division I-A, because it would allow for a more uniform distribution of television money to schools that dare to compete at the highest level—and at the greatest expense.
A fallacy that has had a long, unchallenged life is that TV contracts save the day for everyone. They don't. Oh, they're dandy for the Notre Dames and Oklahomas, who get big television bucks that they can shovel back into their programs. But what about schools that rarely appear on TV or compete in conferences that spread the television money around—but don't get many TV checks to spread around? They're actually worse off because of the NCAA's network contracts; if they intend to remain competitive, they have to match the big TV revenues of the Notre Dames and Oklahomas by coming up with money from other sources. That's never easy.
The single most compelling feature of the NBC deal with the CFA is that it guarantees every one of the 61 schools $1 million over a four-year period. Conceivably, the $263.5 million ABC/CBS package could, after reorganization, result in a similar redistribution plan that would be worth even more for the 97 members of I-A. And that kind of "financial relief," says Paterno, would allow everybody "to compete and recruit without having to cheat."
But why should NBC agree to wait for the NCAA vote? It doesn't owe the NCAA anything. It has, in fact, less than the best of feelings for the NCAA—"a pathological hatred for us, actually," says one NCAA leader. That leader portrays NBC executives as guys in motorcycle boots with grease in their hair who have "tried to stampede the CFA into a decision on a contract that has more flaws in it than a $10 diamond—including the fact that it's pretty tough to play Saturday night games in stadiums that don't have lights." The NBC "hatred," he says, stems from its being outbid by CBS on the NCAA basketball tournament and by CBS and ABC on the NCAA football package. So, in addition to grease in their hair, NBC officials presumably have egg on their faces. Why, then, should they do the NCAA a favor and wait?
Simply because it's good business to do so. If NBC goes along with the CFA now and reorganization once more goes down the tubes, the network could easily have an open dance card in December and 61 (or even 81, counting the Big Ten and Pac-10 members) angry football schools ready to waltz into its arms. As Paterno says, "We want to stay in the NCAA and if an open dialogue leads to a restructuring that is responsive to our legitimate needs, it'll be a big step forward. But if we're led down the garden path one more time, it may be the last time."
Conversely, why should ABC/CBS wait? Same reason. They have a contract with the NCAA, awaiting only Byers' finalizing signature. Bui even so, the terms are based on the NCAA's ability to deliver much more than just the Big Ten and Pac-10 games. A CFA bust-out in December would mean the ABC/CBS contract would collapse under its own weight (or lack of it) and have to be rewritten or scotched. There's just no percentage in a rush to judgment.
To understand, however, why the situation is so tense and why so many voices on both sides speak in guarded tones and in much less than absolute terms, one must be able to grasp what the NCAA is, essentially.
It is not a central office in Mission, Kans. dictating moves and decisions.
It is a big, brawling, proud, sensitive, testy, talented family of prodigies and prodigals. Like all big families, it's loaded with factions. But it's still committed to being family, and at a time when all its members are feeling a financial pinch, they realize the need for commitment to the family. In all discussions about the rift, CFA spokesmen consistently say, "We still want to be in the NCAA."
The reason the CFA went to court, Neinas says, is not because it advocates "no controls" over college football on TV, as some NCAA leaders would have the public believe. And not because the CFA would permit Notre Dame, say, to beam its games indiscriminately around the country on cable TV. The suit is intended only to establish who owns the property rights to college football games, and the temporary restraining order was filed, says Neinas, "to keep the NCAA from having that threat [of punitive action] hanging over our heads."
The most popular misconception of what the rift is all about, however, is the one that depicts the 61 CFA schools as a madcap group seeking to turn back the clock on restrictions and let the coaches run their football factories at full capacity. Not even Byers believes that.
Closer to the truth is the view that the rift has provoked unprecedented interest in athletic issues on the part of college presidents and academic leaders. They suddenly are making their presence felt, "being more involved than ever, and that's good," says Paterno. With the recent sad history of criminal acts and shameful academic abuses connected directly to big-time athletic programs and with inflation eating away at revenues, it's likely that tighter controls will be part of the restructuring. Don't look for a return to 120-man squads and 15-man coaching staffs. Or for lower standards.
The CFA's posture, in fact, has been quite the opposite. It has advocated stricter recruiting rules and stricter academic requirements. The membership has supported a revision of the 1975 NCAA decision that lowered minimum entrance standards to a 2.0 grade-point average. Since then, athletic programs have had to cope with a steady stream of scholastic misfits. The CFA has lobbied for a tougher minimum. Its recommendation and support resulted in a "normal [academic] progress" rule being established for the first time last year.
But over the years the CFA's interests within the NCAA have consistently run afoul of the voting blocs consisting of those whose budgets were so infirm that they felt the need to impose absurd prohibitions on the rest of the brotherhood: no blazers issued to members of the traveling squad; laundry money, etc., etc. Confused and confusing rules on recruiting—the. ever-changing number of allowable visits, and who could do the visiting, and when, etc., etc.—have made that part of the business even more of a swamp than it already was.
Scream all the CFA might, it did no good. "We got no real attention until the TV contract came up," says Dr. Fred Davison, president of the University of Georgia and chairman of the board of the CFA. "And when we realized how little control we had over some matters, such as property rights, it made us all begin to think about how these things hurt us financially. We have to have more of a say, because Byers isn't going to come down here and bail us out if we fail."
Reorganization will not change everything, of course, but it will "help put priorities in order," Paterno says. And it will allow those most heavily involved to get a better grip on the financial structuring of their sport, instead of being manipulated by it all the time. A congestion has grown in the chest of the NCAA and caused it to emit some noises that sound suspiciously like a death rattle. Reorganization could break that congestion loose. It might happen. It should happen. If it doesn't happen, what will break loose is all hell.