College presidents appear to have reached the “be careful what you wish for” stage in their control of college athletics. Outgoing North Carolina-Chapel Hill chancellor Holden Thorp has suggested that presidents are ill-equipped to control college athletics. And more direct presidential control through the Presidential Retreat and working groups that have been governing the NCAA since 2011 has been thrown back in their face when it was time to implement proposals presidents have passed.
Saying presidents “control” the NCAA is a bit of a stretch though. The ability of the membership to reject reform efforts like stipends and relaxed recruiting rules shows that presidents cannot simply impose their will. Prior to 2011, the Legislative Council (a group of mostly compliance professionals and faculty athletics representatives) did most of the work shaping NCAA rules. Contrary to Thorp’s belief, athletic directors still have a major role; look at the men’s and women’s basketball recruiting models created by the Leadership Council (all athletic directors) which were rubber-stamped by the Board of Directors (all college presidents).
The main problem with shifting control of NCAA back to athletic directors is that while they may be closer to the metal, governing the NCAA would still be done on a part-time basis. The same goes for any other group that might be involved, including athletics administrators or coaches. Governing boards already watch over their institution part-time, so the NCAA would get even shorter shrift than from presidents.
College athletics, especially in Division I, has simply gotten too large and complex to be governed in 8-10 days of meetings per year (plus a large of amount of outside work). NCAA members are highly unlikely to go to a professional sports model where a single commissioner makes most of the decisions. The only option that combines membership control with full-time attention to governing college sports is a full-time legislature.
Membership representatives appointed by conferences who live and work in Indianapolis at the national office solve a lot of problems. Legislation can receive quicker and more thorough consideration (most would still become effective at the start of the next academic year). It would formalize a point of contact between the membership and the national office. Legislators would fulfill other tasks as well, like filling the various NCAA committees and cabinets which study issues in college athletics, propose legislation, and hear appeals of NCAA staff decisions.
A legislature would not need to be just conference representatives. Student-athletes, industry groups like NACDA, coaches associations, faculty, and presidents could have a seat at the table. Particularly for coaches and athletes, having a full-time professional representative with a vote would calm many of the objections that those groups are not heard.
While adding a whole new wing to NCAA governance seems unwieldy, it has the potential to make the NCAA more efficient and nimble. NCAA staff members would be freed from much of the work of keeping part-time membership representatives informed and up-to-date. Appeals would not have to wait until a group of campus administrators can all clear enough time for a conference call. Legislation would hopefully not have to go through endless rounds of drafting, comment, redrafting, adoption, suspensions, and overrides.
It could also stress the importance of being an informed constituent. No group has to care about the existing legislative process. Ideas come up, in a year or two they become legislation. And if a group, like coaches of a certain sport for instance, do not like the legislation that was passed, they can raise hell and push for an override. A legislature that is passing new rules more regularly and in a shorter time frame (but not necessarily more rules) should promote paying more attention to what is going on in Indianapolis.
There is also something to be said about establishing or maintaining some distance between the people involved day-to-day in college athletics and governance of the NCAA. They may understand college athletics better, but also have more biases, pet projects, and personal objections to certain rules. A requirement that NCAA legislators have a certain amount of experience on campus and/or in a conference office will provide the background. Full-time work in Indianapolis provides the detached perspective.
Establishing a full-time legislature is a major endeavor for the NCAA. These people would need to be paid, given a place to work, and their jobs would need to be defined. Even with the cost savings from reduced membership expenses and NCAA staff, it would still be something the NCAA would have to invest money in. And it would need to be sold to the membership. But if the NCAA is in as deep of trouble as we are told, it is the type of bold idea that deserves consideration.