(Star-News (Wilmington, NC) Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Aug. 17--The wheels of NCAA reform are in motion, but that doesn't mean UNCW and the Colonial Athletic Association agree with all of the possible changes.
Delaware President Patrick Harker, representing the CAA, cast a dissenting vote Aug. 6 when the NCAA Division I board of directors approved -- by a 16-2 margin -- legislation to allow unprecedented autonomy for the 65 schools in the top five conferences to set their own rules in some aspects..
With the new governance structure, the major conferences -- ACC, SEC, Pac-12, Big 10, Big 12 -- are expected to pursue changes in the way they support athletes, including a stipend to account for the extra costs of attendance that scholarships don't currently cover.
Starting with the 2015-16 school year, those schools and their much larger athletic budgets will be able to set their course in 11 pre-determined areas, with the rest of Division I given the option to follow along.
The measure must first pass a 60-day override period, which comes in the wake of the recent federal court ruling in the Ed O'Bannon case, which rejected the NCAA's amateurism model and outlined an athlete's right to share in the profits.
Commissioner Tom Yeager is glad the CAA will maintain its access to championships, but he also worries its schools will fall even farther behind in the arms race. He called Harker's vote a "principled statement."
UNCW Athletic Director Jimmy Bass agreed, saying the changes don't back the "true concept" of the student-athlete.
"We can all work together to improve the well-being of our student-athletes," Bass said.
UNCW's tenuous position
The question CAA schools face now is whether to publicly campaign against the autonomy vote.
If 75 out of the 328 Division I schools move to override the measure, it heads back to the board. With 125 override votes, the change would be all but dead.
At this point, it seems, however, unlikely either benchmark will be reached, even if all 10 CAA members support that side. Yeager said each CAA school will be able to make its own decision. Bass said UNCW hasn't yet determined if it will cast an override vote and added that the decision will be made with input from a variety of top-level administrators, including interim chancellor William Sederburg.
"I think going forward it's like making a gameplan for some contest," Yeager said. "You've got to adjust: 'We can do this or we can't do that.'"
With changes coming as soon as next school year, UNCW has been forced to think ahead. The university has increased its athletic budget, but it remains the smallest in the CAA.
Bass and his staff have worked in the past year to craft a feasible financial model. The changing NCAA economics might force wholesale revisions.
The athletic director stressed that his opposition to the autonomy doesn't have to do with an unwillingness to budge from the current model. He's in the process of working with school dining services provider Aramark to revise how athletes are fed, in response to a recent NCAA rule change. He noted that athletes that truly need extra assistance beyond the scholarship can apply for federal Pell Grants, which can supply up to $5,730 this school year.
New men's basketball coach Kevin Keatts, who has experience in major college basketball at Louisville, said in a recent interview he's more concerned with the immediate future than looking ahead to implications on his team.
"We're fully committed to the welfare and continued success of our student-athletes," Bass said. "We'll do everything within the rules and within the spirit of Division I to make sure our kids have every opportunity to be successful here at UNCW. Whatever that takes financially, whatever that takes from a commitment standpoint, we'll consider that over the coming months."
Big picture issues
Yeager and Bass both expressed concerns that the direction of college sports runs counter the overall mission of CAA schools. Dartmouth President Philip Hanlon, of the non-scholarship Ivy League, cast the other dissenting vote on autonomy.
There are also worries nationally about the trickle-down effect of these changes on the Olympic sports that traditionally spend much more cash than they bring in.
"We're building Taj Mahals in athletic facilities, and you can't get the HVAC system fixed in the chemistry building," Yeager said. "How's that connecting on campus?"
The conference's steadfast commitment to the traditional ideal of the student-athlete, however, seem more outdated after the ruling in the O'Bannon case, a legal fight that began five years ago and is expected to continue in the appeals process.
U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken said athletes in the NCAA's top-grossing sports -- football and men's basketball -- have a right to a portion of the revenue. Any court-mandated changes won't take effect until at least the next recruiting cycle. That means the 2016 class would be the first to receive the payments, which could be checked at $5,000 per year.
That money would be a drop in the bucket for the major conference schools, which are already moving in that direction. At a place like UNCW, it would have more impact on the department's bottom line.
What happens next will hinge on a variety of factors, both within the NCAA and in the court room.
"The money's got to come from somewhere," Yeager said. "If it's not available, it's probably not going to happen, but those are decisions that will be coming down the road."
Eric Detweiler: 343-2261
On Twitter: @edetweiler
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