Autonomy movement at hand for ACC & partners
Posted August 4, 2014
Barring a sudden schedule change, the process to initiate athletic autonomy for the ACC and four other college conferences will be sanctioned by the NCAA’s board of directors on Thursday.
That the board will give its permission to this historic and sweeping landscape change is a virtual given. But where the movement goes next – and at what speed – isn’t clear at all. ACC commissioner John Swofford said on July 20 that he anticipates a quick pace.
After Thursday’s vote by the NCAA, the ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC and Pacific-12 will have until Oct. 1 to present a definitive agenda.
Three of those changes are all but certain:
1. Full-cost of living scholarships, a move that likely will require the involved schools to invest an additional $2 million to $5 million annually in their scholarship budgets.
2. Four-year scholarship guarantees. Under the current policy, athletic scholarships are annual agreements between the school and player, running from July 1 through June 30.
3. Long-term medical insurance security, which will require another huge financial investment by the schools. This aspect of autonomy will be among the most complex to negotiate.
Dozens of questions and plan options will have to be researched in depth, not to mention terms of coverage and medical expense limits.
Some of the ramifications of the autonomy movement cannot be known until at least 2-3 years after the changes are officially implemented. The earliest that could happen would be for the 2015-16 school year.
Will scholarship limits change?
The assumption among the leagues not included at this point is that it will be become significantly more difficult for those leagues and schools to successfully recruit.
On paper, that theory makes sense.
After all, if a school in one of the so-called “Big Five” leagues can offer a grant worth two or three thousand dollars more annually, why would a scholarship offer from an outsider even be considered?
That also makes sense, but remember that the NCAA limit on scholarships per sport hasn’t changed – yet. In football, that limit is still 85 total grants – the same total for Clemson and Florida State of the ACC as for ECU and Central Florida of the AAC.
But that raises another concern among the non Big Fivers. What would happen if increased scholarship limits eventually would be included under the autonomy umbrella? That could lead to an arms war the schools with smaller bank accounts probably could never win.
Most fans don’t recall it, but there was a time when the NCAA had no scholarship limits. There were years in the 1960s and ‘70s when some of the football factory schools had up to 120-150 players on scholarships regularly. It was routine for Nebraska to bring in 40-45 scholarship football players during that era.
As late as 1977, current ACC member Pitt had 130 scholarship football players.
The movement to reduce scholarships didn’t begin in earnest until late in the 1970s, when NCAA member schools gradually voted to reduce the football limit from 110 players to 105, then to 95 and eventually the current 85.
NCAA schools set the limits in part to create a sustainable financial equation in football. But an even bigger factor was Title IX, a 1972 federal law that set in place a process to evenly distribute scholarship money between male and female athletes.
Men’s non-revenue sports could suffer
Since that Title IX law hasn’t been rewritten and isn’t likely to be, the autonomy movement of 2014 can only go so far.
If football and basketball players are given extra spending money, the courts will demand that all other scholarship athletes get the same amount.
If Big Five league schools want to increase football scholarship numbers, a corresponding increase would have take place in women’s sports.
But another option could be reducing the scholarship investment in men’s sports other than football and basketball.
And that is something we very well could see some day – a college sports world in which there are only three or four scholarship men sports and a dozen or more female sports.
NCAA rules presently allow for the following men’s sports limits: baseball (11.7 scholarships); basketball (13); track/cross country, lacrosse (12.6); swimming, wrestling, soccer (9.9); golf, tennis, volleyball, water polo and fencing (4.5); ice hockey (18); skiing, gymnastics (6.3) and rifle (3.6).
For women, it’s basketball (15 scholarships); track/cross country (18); field hockey, volleyball, softball, gymnastics, rugby and lacrosse (12); ice hockey (18); rowing (20); swimming and soccer (14); tennis and water polo (8); skiing (7); beach volleyball and golf (6), fencing (5), equestrian (15), bowling (5).
Schools can pick, play and pay from the menu as they choose, but the annual scholarship payroll has to even out among men and women. If the football scholarship price tag increases enough, it’s entirely possible that some schools would elect to offset the increase by dropping other men’s sports.
But one thing we are very unlikely to see is any sort of radical change in the football pecking order, and that’s even with the growing playoff format.
The majority of the 65 schools in the “Big Five” conferences will have no more chance of winning a national football championship than they have now. That reality won’t change if the rank-and-file “Big Five” schools opt to pour millions more into the scholarship ante or if they do not.