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The Myths of Presidential Control

Andy Staples excellent reporting of the frustration of athletic directors over the current legislative agenda and process of the NCAA appears to be the final step in picking a scapegoat for the NCAA’s troubles. It is all the fault of university presidents. Whether it is the university presidents who decide to change conferences, university presidents who sit on the most powerful NCAA committees, or university presidents who are hired to run the NCAA, they are screwing things up.

Perhaps university presidents are not the right group to be in charge of the normal operations of the NCAA, conferences, or even their own athletic department. There are problems with putting any other current group in college athletics in charge, but they could be empowered. But blaming presidents and presidents alone requires believing in a series of myths about what has happened in the NCAA since presidents took over in the late 1990s, and especially what has happened since the Presidential Retreat in 2011.

Myth 1: Athletic Directors Have Been Frozen Out

In 1997, final legislative authority in Division I was handed over to the Board of Directors, composed of presidents. But the Management Council, a hodgepodge of athletics administrators, continued to pass most of the legislation which was rubber stamped by the presidents. In 2008, when athletic directors were given their own group, the Leadership Council, they could still be part of its sibling, the Legislative Council. ADs just choose not to.

Still, the Leadership Council is handed some of the toughest problems and biggest decisions. The ADs recently completed work on recruiting models for men’s and women’s basketball. Currently the Leadership Council is working on a football recruiting model and new transfer rules. Even in the Presidential Retreat working groups have a strong AD presence. The Rules Working Group, producers of this reviled recruiting deregulation, had three athletic directors, who when combined with other athletics and conference officials outnumbered presidents.

The big change since August 2011 is that instead of referring big issues to groups composed entirely of athletics administrators with a faculty athletic representative here or there, groups of more diverse backgrounds were used. Much of the recruiting deregulation backlash would have been eliminated with one tiny change: referring just the football part to the ongoing review of the football recruiting model by the Leadership Council. Not a major shift in control or agenda, but merely throwing the athletic directors a bone.

Myth 2: Presidents Can Relinquish Control

Even if college presidents were to step back in the governance of the NCAA, there is still the pesky fact that they are the athletic directors’ bosses. If athletic directors do something presidents disagree with, or which causes grief for the presidents, they can and will jump back into the fray. As athletics grows, especially relative to universities facing continued economic challenges, athletics will demand more attention from presidents.

Authority cannot go back down, it can only go up. Technically, final control of athletics rests with governing boards. Trustees, governors, regents, curators, whatever a school wants to call them. They ultimately employ the president and dictate the policy of the university, which includes the approach to athletics. To date they have taken a relatively hands off approach with the day-to-day running of athletic departments and the NCAA, but there are rumblings that could change.

This history lesson from John Hoover of the Tulsa World is illustrative of the problem:

One-time Big 12 commissioner Kevin Weiberg thought it prudent to create a Big 12 Network. He had the backing of almost every athletic director in the league. But Big 12 presidents voted it down. Weiberg quit, took an associate commissioner’s job at the Big Ten, launched the Big Ten Network, and now has helped the Pac-12 Conference do the same.

The creation of a television network is a major decision for a conference and its members, just like realignment. No way would athletic directors ever be authorized to make this sort of decision without the advice and consent of the president, if not the governing board.

Myth 3: Many Things Would Be Different

The argument for more presidential control assumes that college athletics would be a vastly different place if athletic directors had more final say. Those arguments take aim at two issues: realignment and NCAA rules.

Blaming presidential control for realignment requires a number of assumptions. Like assuming that athletic directors would not be impacted by the same economic factors. Or that boosters can put more pressure on the president than the AD. Or that presidents would not have intervened when realignment was in their interests. The AD who hangs on to conference affiliation for history and tradition while other schools pass them by in terms of revenue and exposure is an AD who won’t hold that title very long. Not to mention you have to ignore that colleges have joined and left conferences since the creation of conferences no matter who was in charge.

In terms of NCAA legislation, most of it has come from the bottom up or policy decided by the presidents has been handed off to the Leadership Council (ADs) to execute. Even in the Presidential Retreat era, athletic directors have exercised veto rights through the override process. If athletic directors had been more in charge the whole time we would have gotten … pretty much the same environment we have today.

The major exception is academic reform. Athletic directors might have introduced the APR and increased initial and continuing eligibility requirements, but it was much more likely with presidents in charge. But even with academic reform, college athletics is under fire for not doing enough to educate athletes. Without the efforts of the last 15 years, the push might be even stronger and from more powerful entities like the federal government.

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