Since the beginning, major college football has enjoyed a charmed life in the NCAA. It has the freedom to run its championship the way it pleases. It gets to distribute its revenue the way it sees fit. And the FBS membership has the freedom to carve out its own regulatory scheme, ideas that often get translated into the rest of the Division I Manual (e.g.: how football spring practice provided the model for fall softball).
At the same time, bowl subdivision football leans heavily on the NCAA. For starters, football student-athletes are factored into the calculation for distributing revenue like the Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund and Special Assistance Fund. Those two funds are based on how many scholarships you provide and how many Pell Grants your student-athletes receive. Because the marginal value of each scholarship goes up (i.e. the 125th scholarship is worth more than the 25th), starting off with 85 scholarships makes it much easier to carve out a large part of that pie.
In addition, football uses the regulatory resources of the NCAA as much as any other sport, if not more. A football prospect who will require extensive academic and amateurism investigation pays the same $65 as a golf prospect who will sail through the Eligibility Center. The enforcement staff may not have a dedicated unit for football like they do for men’s basketball, but Agents, Gambling and Amateurism and the rest of the general enforcement staff spends more time on football than any other sport.
In exchange for all this, football provides a pittance to the NCAA. The revenue the national office made from football amounted to $420,000, the total of the licensing fees paid by the 35 bowl games. That’s not even enough to cover the NCAA’s estimated $500,000 loss that the Association takes putting on the FCS tournament.
That’s not to say that football doesn’t support college athletics period. A profitable football program does much of the heavy lifting to support the rest of the athletic department. So does men’s basketball, especially outside of the FBS. And there are plenty of sports that take a lot from the NCAA but do not give back. Baseball for instance has sport-specific legislation and uses disproportionate Eligibility Center resources, but it’s championship doesn’t fund the NCAA.
The major difference between football and men’s basketball though is that football does not fund the system as a whole. Only a tiny sliver of revenue from a BCS bowl game leaks out of the FBS, and none of it to the organization tasked with regulating the sport. That same organization shares criticism with the BCS for the faults in college football’s postseason, as evidenced by the Department of Justice’s letter to the NCAA.
Football has had their cake and eaten it too for a long time. Now comes the news that the Big Ten may be leading the charge for bigger cakes, regardless of whether anyone elses bakery can keep up:
“The reality is, if there’s cost of attendance and you can’t afford it, don’t do it,” [Ohio State AD Gene Smith] told reporters at the meetings. “The teams you’re trying to beat can’t do it either. Don’t do it because Ohio State’s doing it. That’s one of the things schools at that level get trapped into thinking.”
Arms races aren’t all the same. Some are just perception. You don’t need a fancy new weight room to field a successful Division I football team. As long as your weight machines aren’t breaking down and there’s enough room for athletes to work out as much as they want, you have what you need. But you need a fancy new weight room to recruit a successful team because everyone else has one.
An arms race for scholarships is different through. If one school is offering you a full ride that ends up costing you, on average, $12,000 over four years and another school is offering to pay every single penny, the choice is pretty clear. Unless there’s a very compelling reason to choose the first school, it is at a distinct disadvantage.
Mr. Smith’s comment though doesn’t apply to football or men’s basketball. Schools can afford to increase their scholarships to full cost of attendance for those sports. Or more accurately, they have to afford to increase their scholarships. But it’s a tough road to limit increased scholarships to just those two sports.
If the NCAA were to legislate that male athletes are permitted to receive larger scholarships and no female athletes are, a Title IX challenge would be filed the following day. It would be difficult even for the NCAA to limit full cost of attendance scholarships to headcount sports, since despite having more headcount sports, women only have a maximum of 47 headcounts vs. 98 for just men’s basketball and football. So equivalency sports almost certainly have to be included, drastically raising the cost. The cost increase is even more drastic for schools without football.
What Mr. Smith has done is reveal the reason behind those massive TV contacts. They are not simply to fill the pockets of administrators or coffers of universities. The point is to win. And not just to win at football and men’s basketball but to win at everything. An extensive and expensive move to cost of attendance scholarships allows schools with major football and basketball revenue to press home that advantage in sports where it’s still possible for smaller schools to focus their energies and compete at a national level. A great example is Portland, who has created national powerhouses in cross country and women’s soccer without big TV contracts or football revenue.
There will never be total competitive equity unless the NCAA passed a rule limiting the total spending of athletic departments. But there are ways to stop it from getting worse or at least stem the tide. And one way is to get football off the fence, one way or another.
One option is for FBS football to agree to a playoff, but not just any playoff. An actual NCAA Championship, run by the NCAA, with revenue distributed by the NCAA according to traditional standards of NCAA revenue distribution. Lots of black, the same field at every site, with blue circles as far as the eye can see. Assuming a college football playoff earned revenue equal to the Division I men’s basketball tournament, it would pay for the jump to full cost of attendance scholarships for all sports, a substantially increased enforcement staff, all while allowing for significantly higher revenue distributed based on success in the championship.
The other option is for FBS football to be kicked out. That is, to remove FBS football from the list of NCAA sports, stop regulating the sport, and stop using football to determine how revenue is distributed. In effect, if football does not want to have actual skin in the game of its own regulation, the NCAA shouldn’t either.
Could it happen? That largely depends on who would vote on a proposal to remove FBS football. But remember that if you pit the BCS AQ conferences vs. the rest of Division I, the “have nots” control a sizeable 33-18 majority on the Legislative Council. So if the rest of Division I, including some FBS conferences, decide that removing football (at least temporarily) from the NCAA is in their best interests, they have more than enough votes to do it.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.