At Final Four, NCAA Faces Renewed Questions About Its Role

Atlanta — March Madness has long been one of the most anticipated events on the NCAA calendar, culminating in a weekend-long celebration enjoyed by thousands. But this year, the glow around the game is not as bright, a reflection of a mixed set of challenges the association faces.

This week, much of the buzz has centered around Mike Rice, the former men’s basketball coach at Rutgers University, who was fired on Wednesday after ESPN released a startling video of him kicking and berating players. While some coaches say the Rutgers situation is extreme, it has has raised questions about the culture of basketball and what some say is an imbalance of power between big-money programs and their players.

The association has its own problems. Two summers ago, NCAA leaders were struggling to find adjectives strong enough to describe a spate of scandals at the highest level. This year Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, used some of the same harsh language to criticize his own enforcement staff, whose botched investigation of the University of Miami has raised questions about the association’s ability to conduct fair inquiries.

In recent weeks, colleges have pushed back against NCAA proposals that would have relaxed certain recruiting rules, the latest setback for Mr. Emmert’s ambitious reform agenda.

With no control over the lucrative new big-time football playoff, and no discernible role in pivotal conference realignments, the NCAA has found itself increasingly left out of the conversation on key decisions.

Hanging over everything is the potentially billion-dollar class-action lawsuit filed by Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA star, which could force the NCAA and its member institutions to pay athletes a share of their vast revenue.

“Add all that up,” says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, “and Emmert and the [Division I] board are holding the most challenging hand that the NCAA has ever been dealt.”

The problems have stirred debate about the proper role of the NCAA, and ruffled feathers among many athletic directors, who say they have largely been ignored in discussions involving potentially big changes.

“Is there frustration out there? No question—I know many of my colleagues are frustrated,” says Gene Smith, the athletic director at Ohio State University. “But some of us have different views on the approach we should take.”

One possible solution, say some agitated ADs: The biggest programs could leave the NCAA and form their own association. But Mr. Smith, for one, is not so sure that creating a whole new structure is the way to go.

“My guess is we’re not there yet—I would hope we’re not there yet,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that there’s not a small group sitting around doing some planning I’m unaware of.”

Thomas E. Yeager, the commissioner of the Colonial Athletic Association, has not heard serious talk about it at his level.

“It’s all hallway stuff right now,” he says. “I don’t think the idea is to blow up the current system because we have a better idea of how to do it.”

He and others believe colleges will keep trying to work within the NCAA structure. But that doesn’t mean they won’t push hard to change it—in particular, what some see as Mr. Emmert’s move to govern more by decree than consensus.

Those involved in discussions with the NCAA, including the Division 1A Athletic Directors’ Association, say it’s too early to speculate on how things will shake out. Some athletics officials say they could see the wealthiest Football Bowl Subdivision programs’ trying to form a separate “FBS Plus” subdivision, in part to consolidate control over issues at their level. Others see conferences’ continuing to push the boundaries, solidifying their power as they look for bigger and bigger streams of revenue.

For its part, the NCAA has undertaken a thorough review of its enforcement and governance processes, and is seeking input from colleges to improve them. Others plan to weigh in, too. In June the Knight Commission will meet to discuss results from a recent study of college presidents, conference commissioners, and other athletics leaders, including their ideas for restructuring big-time college sports.

As for March Madness, it is still the glue that holds together an increasingly diverse Division I membership. The tournament’s financial payout may not seem as significant in some leagues, where television distributions have pushed past $20-million a year per institution.

But the basketball money is still important, says Mr. Smith, of Ohio State, who praises the NCAA for financial efficiencies that have helped it make supplemental distributions.

“Every bit matters,” he says. “It’s even better when you haven’t budgeted it.”

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