Power Five passes on tackling big NCAA issues to help athletes

Power Five conferences pass on tackling big NCAA issues to help athletes, sleep through Year 2 of autonomy

Jon Solomon
January 15, 2016

The Power Five conferences slapped themselves on the back in January 2015 for passing cost of attendance. Given the pressing litigation facing the NCAA and its major conferences related to the issue, there was a collective cry of "hallelujah" that extra stipends to players finally got passed.

Cost of attendance was deemed a historic moment to show that big and meaningful things could actually get done by the NCAA. It was considered the first major step on "modernizing the collegiate model." It was supposed to set the tone for the future as the real work began to tackle other big issues.

Instead, NCAA autonomy in Year 2 looked a lot like the old NCAA governance structure and Congress. You know the drill: Table proposals that don't have enough votes to pass and create resolutions promising you'll get to them next year.

In changing how the NCAA governs, the Power Five demanded more flexibility to create legislation for pressing issues. It's funny how things don't seem quite as pressing after the U.S. Ninth Circuit's mostly favorable Ed O'Bannon ruling for the NCAA, or the National Labor Relations Board's decision that Northwestern football players can't try to form a union. It almost feels like the schools hold back some of their cards until they really need to play them.

What major issue did the Power Five address this year with comprehensive reform? They kicked the can down the road on multiple big topics:

  • Find ways to reduce athletic time demands for players, some of whom say they're putting 40 hours a week into their sport.
  • Allow athletes to profit off their own name, image and likeness, even if it's for non-athletic ventures.
  • Require schools to cover medical bills for sports-related injuries while an athlete is in school and for a period after college.
  • Create enforcement rules and penalties for schools that violate their own concussion protocol.

There is no doubt some of these issues are complex. But with just a few notable exceptions, the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 showed no urgency in the past year to dig into these issues and collectively find solutions.

"I feel like this should be done already," Oklahoma football player Ty Darlington said about no resolution on time demand proposals, according to the NCAA. "This is frustrating for us. What are we doing today that's significant? When I leave here today, what have I done to significantly impact the student-athlete experience? Nothing."

Relatively speaking, there was nothing. Tabling seemingly sensible proposals -- such as one true day off per week and creating certain hours when coaches can't make players practice -- became the convenient thing to do at the NCAA convention.

"The norm is there's always something on the table but rarely it gets off the table," said Ramogi Huma, executive director of the National College Players Association. "The five major conferences are supposedly united, but I wonder how much unity there really is. They say these are complicated matters. Not for the most part. A lot of these are pretty straight forward. They don't want to put in the money or the effort. It's refreshing to see players like Ty Darlington stand up and say this isn't enough."

Darlington called for more focus on the name, image and likeness debate. "For a lot of us, the peak of my popularity is probably in college," Darlington said, according to USA Today Sports.

The Pac-12 proposal that would have let athletes make money off their own name for non-athletic business ventures -- you know, like any other college student could do -- got tabled. The NCAA put out a statement that said it will continue to grant appropriate waivers consistent with the Pac-12 proposal and that athletes should have similar opportunities as their campus peers for entrepreneurial aspirations.

Translation: No one wants to get into the weeds of actually passing a rule so they'll let the NCAA handle these questions on a case-by-case basis. The logical follow-up question: If the NCAA plans to grant appropriate waivers consistent with the Pac-12 proposal, why can't this be a rule?

The Power Five passed a "rule" giving athletics medical personnel unchallengeable authority on medical decisions. This means an athletic department's administrative structure should ensure that no coach serves as the primary supervisor for any medical provider, nor have hiring or firing authority over that provider. This is, of course, a very good thing.

NCAA Chief Medical Officer Brian Hainline told the Chronicle of Higher Education's Brad Wolverton that the bylaw is "the most important in the history of the NCAA" and that the "implications of this are profound." Hainline has the best of intentions and here's hoping he's right.

But the fact that this authority structure even needed to be spelled out in 2016 speaks to how some schools continue to struggle with managing concussions. So what happens if a school's trainer doesn't have authority on medical decisions? Nothing. Just like nothing happens if the Power Five's concussion safety committee, which NCAA autonomy created last year, determines that a school violated its own protocol. Can we all at least agree not to call something a rule if there is no enforcement mechanism or penalties that can be attached to a violation?

"Time demands" for players is being dubbed the new buzzword for 2016. Except it was the new buzzword for 2015 -- remember the Big Ten's freshman ineligibility talk? -- and still nothing got done to address whether some college athletes are being hurt academically by spending so much time on their sport.

A new NCAA player survey showed that FBS football players spent 42 hours a week on in-season time commitments to their sport, up from 39 hours a week in 2010. FCS football and Division I baseball players also reported 40 hours or more a week on their sport.

So what did the Power Five do? Pass a resolution promising it will tackle time demands next year. That's right: Administrators need more time to study whether athletes have enough time for academics. The elephant in the room that no one will touch: Midweek, late-night games all across the country for TV purposes. These games surely aren't ideal if the NCAA is being sincere about its educational mission.

To be fair, some athletes supported tapping the brakes on time-demand proposals. Minnesota football player Chris Hawthorne said he opposed delaying a vote because schools shouldn't kick the can down the road and the room was comprised with decision makers, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.

"Sometimes players want things that are bad for them," Huma said. "A lot of players wouldn't go to school if they didn't make them. We realize these are highly driven and highly-motivated athletes, and they're also young and sometimes you need to protect them. It's very convenient to say the players want this anyway. Let's poll their academic advisor and see what's best for them academically."

Among Division I male athletes, 81 percent agreed or strongly agreed that their coach cares about whether he earns his degree, and 75 percent felt the same way about their athletic director. That sounds good. Unless you reverse the stat and wonder why 19 percent to 25 percent of Division I male athletes can't say the same about their coach or AD.

"There could be more NCAA resources put into degree completion after a player leaves," Huma said. "Here and there, schools pick and choose the players to complete their degree after they leave school. That should be a matter of policy, not a preference."

The Power Five wanted autonomy to change the direction of the NCAA. Instead, they slept through Year 2 of this new authority. Who needs to make meaningful changes in 2016 when the legal decisions are currently going your way?