By Ken Reed

College sports are on the precipice of a brand new era. Change is coming, it’s most definitely coming.

The highly-commercial, big-time college sports factories want to separate from the smaller, poorer conferences and schools. That’s been the case for awhile but now they’re getting vocal about it. They want to make their own rules, and divide up the money as they see fit — among a much smaller group.

The driving force is … you guessed it: greed. Good old-fashioned greed.

The powers that be in college sports — conference commissioners, athletic directors, college presidents, television network executives, video game moguls, etc. — want more money and they want to continue keeping the money away from the athletes whose work is responsible for creating all the moulah in the first place.

The commissioners of the Big Five college conferences — the Big Ten, Pac-12, SEC, ACC and Big 12 — are openly advocating “transformative change,” according to an excellent piece by George Schroeder and Dan Wolken in USA Today this week.

The Pac 12’s Bob Bowlsby says it’s time to entertain a new college sports “federation” of schools with similar resources, and possibly separation by sport. ACC commissioner John Swofford predicted major structural and governance changes could be implemented at the NCAA’s upcoming conference in January.

“I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order,” said Bowlsby.

Here’s what the big-time schools want: independence from that annoying NCAA and retention of the non-profit tax-exempt status they currently enjoy as “educational entities.” Good luck with that. If the Big Five conferences separate from the rest of the NCAA, and start acting more like the New England Patriots and Los Angeles Lakers, the Justice Department, Congress, and IRS will undoubtedly (perhaps the operative word here is hopefully, not undoubtedly) take a serious look at that tax-exempt status. Of course, they should be doing that right now, as more and more of the big-time college sports programs are openly hiring business executives with extensive corporate marketing and fundraising experience — and little to no college sports experience — to run their athletic departments.

On another front, the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA and Electronic Arts — which argues that college athletes’ likenesses shouldn’t be used without the athletes themselves gaining some financial benefits — is currently being considered for class action status. If the O’Bannon case goes in that direction, it could preempt the big-time conference commissioners when it comes to “transforming” the current NCAA structure. If O’Bannon is successful, the current college sports economic model will disappear and college athletes will gain a civil rights victory and a measure of economic justice.

Nevertheless, by whatever means, the NCAA, as it currently operates, needs to be blown up. Let the big-time schools and conferences go their own way — as long as their football and basketball players are treated fairly from an economic perspective. The remaining universities and colleges could then give up the sports arms race and focus on putting college athletics in its proper perspective on campus.

There’s no use resisting the inevitable. The train has left the station. Let’s get on with this “transformative change” of college sports.

Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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