The term “level playing field” has been bandied about lately. Curiously, the expression itself is rather unlevel.
Southern Mississippi football coach Larry Fedora trotted out the words in Sunday’s issue of the Orlando Sentinel. Discussing the prospect of full-cost-of-attendance financial aid packages for Division I, he said: “It just has to be a level, fair playing field.”
Pac-12 Conference Commissioner Larry Scott also employed the concept during Pac-12 media days last week. Addressing how he would feel if NCAA rules changes didn’t reflect the differences between the six Division I power conferences and everybody else, he said: “I think that would represent a tremendous failure of the NCAA if it comes to that. I’d like to think that we are at a crossroads, and at this (Aug. 9-10 presidential) retreat they’’ll recognize one size doesn’t fit all anymore. There really is no such thing as competitive equity or even playing field. Certain schools obviously have more money than others and have better facilities and can pay more for coaches. Yet a lot of rules are based on one size fits all. That’s just something the NCAA leadership is going to have to get over. If that’s the standard by which any policy can get made, then I think it’s destined to be an ineffective organization long term.”
You get the idea. From one perspective, “level playing field” is a time-honored, admirable goal. From another, it’s a harmful illusion.
Even our old friend Ramogi Huma of the National College Players Association recently evoked the phrase: “I don’t think cost of attendance will pass, not at this rate,” he said. “Where will the votes come from? If it’s going to be a proposal to just pay if you can pay, then of course the smaller schools are going to be hesitant because of competitive advantages. But the smaller schools aren’t being honest as well because there isn’t a level playing field right now anyway.”
Clearly, the term depends on what you’re talking about. There are contexts − rules governing actual competition, for instance – where complete equality is not only desirable but essential. But that’s not what we’re discussing here. We’re talking about financial commitment, and though it pains me to write the words, I agree with Huma (ouch!) that the bigs and the littles of Division I do not have much in common.
This is hardly something new, though. The NCAA restructured its form of governance 14 years ago, largely in response to concerns about excessive legislative equity. Division I no longer casts original votes as a group, and various governing bodies are weighted to reflect the division’s power structure. The 11 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences have permanent representation on the 18-member Division I Board of Directors, and six of those are the so-called “equity conferences.”
So I disagree with Huma’s assessment of how smaller conferences or schools are likely, perhaps even eager, to somehow obstruct big changes that the power conferences want. It’s not true practically or politically. That ship sailed years ago.