The coming divide in college athletics

semerson@macon.comMay 7, 2013 

ATHENS -- The idea is so drastic it seems far-fetched. An emotional reaction, some say, and cooler heads ultimately will prevail. It will all just end up a lot of talk about nothing.

Then again, a few years ago, those same people said that about conference realignment, and in short order Texas A&M was in the SEC, the Big East split in two, and only now is the smoke clearing.

Now an even bigger change, talked about for years, could be afoot.

Will the NCAA as we know it be blown up? Will the bigger conferences break away and form their own union, so they can play by their own rules, compensate their players and not have to worry about being out-voted by the smaller schools?

The BCS conference schools in one organization. Everyone else in another one. It could happen.

“I think in time if things don’t change, you’re gonna have four or five superconferences, and they’ll separate,” said John Calipari, the national-championship winning head coach of Kentucky men’s basketball team. “There’s common sense stuff that (needs to be done), so you almost have to blow this up and start it over. I know I aggravate everyone by saying it, but I’ve been saying it for four years.”

Actually, no one’s very aggravated anymore. The possibility of the BCS schools breaking away is now quite out in the open. The creation of the SEC Network, announced last week in a lavish Atlanta ceremony, was another opportunity to discuss it. It was another example of the rich getting richer, while the smaller- and mid-sized schools basically are left in the financial dust.

“It’s gonna accentuate the division between the haves and the have-nots. I don’t think there’s any question about it. And you might as well just admit it,” said Michael Adams, the outgoing Georgia president. “But the divisions already exist that are pretty pronounced. So I think the 65 schools in the big conferences are going to separate themselves even further from those schools that are not.”

The core issue, according to big schools, is the desire to pay their athletes a $2,000 stipend, for what is called “cost of attendance.” SEC commissioner Mike Slive proposed that two years ago, among other measures, and at one point, it was set to be adopted. But smaller schools, worried how they would pay for that, led a fight against it, voting it down.

Slive, frustrated about the voting, has raised the possibility of separation but also called it a “hypothetical.”

“I’m not looking for change in the organization. I’m not looking for new divisions,” Slive said. “But I do feel strongly on this particular issue -- and there are a few others -- but this one that those of us who want to do that ought to have the ability to do that. And if we believe that’s in the best interests of the student-athletes, then we ought to be able to do that. If other leagues don’t do it, then just don’t do it.”

But it’s not quite that easy.

Mercer was among the many smaller schools that voted against the $2,000 stipend. Athletics director Jim Cole said it wasn’t because he was philosophically opposed to it, but it needed time to be analyzed.

“That’s a big deal to my budget, when you compare apples to apples. (Big schools) can add $400,000 to their budget, just like that,” Cole said, snapping his fingers. “That’s a tougher one for me.”

So what if the stipend happened? Cole fears, as many in his position do, that it will create an imbalance within the same conference, with schools that offer the stipend having a clear advantage.

As for Slive’s suggestion that some conferences adopt it and others don’t, Cole fears the “trickle-down effect.”

“I think over time you would see this pressure building, where the SEC does it, the ACC does it, then Conference USA does it, the Colonial does it,” Cole said. “Then it would become, ‘Gosh we’ve gotta do this to stay competitive.’ ”

Eventually, Cole thinks he could do it, but it would have to be phased in sport by sport, and comply with Title IX. In the meantime, there would be internal issues, as coaches of non-stipend sports complained.

In other words, the whole thing gets messy. That’s why the big schools creating their own separate union could end up being the easiest solution. It would allow the big schools to have the rules they want. As for the rest of the country, they will be fine as long as they can still schedule games against the big schools and as long as the NCAA basketball tournament is still open to everyone in Division I.

“From Mercer’s standpoint, as long as I can associate myself with peer institutions, and like schools, as far as their athletic budgets, I’ll be fine,” Cole said.

So then it becomes a matter of whether the big schools ultimately decide to pull the trigger.

There are a lot of factors at work. The conference networks (the Big Ten and Pac-12 also have them, while the ACC is exploring it) are bringing in more money. That’s not a resource for other conferences.

There’s also the four-team playoff, in which an emphasis on strength of schedule could encourage big schools to play each other more. Adams also thinks that if the SEC goes to nine conference games, there will be fewer non-conference games against smaller schools. Those are big pay days for the smaller schools.

“This whole process further separates the 65 largest programs from the other programs,” Adams said.

So what does separation ultimately mean, if it happens?

“I don’t know what you’d call it,” Adams said. “And I think some of those other conferences, like the MAC, like the West Coast Conference, what’s now gonna be Conference USA, those schools bring a lot to the NCAA. And I think the reality is that the 65 schools are not gonna want to be bound by some of the rules that those other conferences are gonna want to impose on us, like the $2,000 payment to athletes, for instance. I do think, again, whether you call it all Division I, or sub-divisions, I think that’s something for somebody after me to decide.

“But I don’t think now with these big-time programs, particularly when you look at the strength of the Big Ten, the Pac-12, the SEC, I don’t think you’re gonna put those genies back in the bottle. And you add in the Big 12 and the ACC, those places, they’re going to compete and play and fund at a totally different level.”

Is this a good or a bad thing?

“Well it probably cuts both ways, to be honest about it,” Adams said. “We can yearn for the days of the ’50s and ’60s, when things seemed to be a little more stable and there wasn’t the conference movement, and the SEC was 10 schools forever. But I think all in all we’ve been strengthened by the process. I think there’s more good than bad in it.”

And perhaps the next step is on the way.

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