NCAA Begins Debate Over Power Shift

San Diego — Under pressure to provide more benefits to big-time college athletes, the NCAA on Thursday took its first steps toward creating a Division I governance structure that would make that possible.

Over several hours, hundreds of college presidents and athletics officials debated a proposal that, among other things, would streamline the association’s rule-making system and provide more autonomy to the wealthiest conferences.

The goal is to create an NCAA that is more nimble, strategic, collaborative, and transparent, said Kirk Schulz, president of Kansas State University. But before that can happen, the association must slog through months of more work to decide what it wants to stand for and how it can begin making decisions to support those ideals.

If Thursday’s discussions were any indication, there are still plenty of differences left to iron out. Chief among them: the gap between the richest athletic departments and those at the bottom of Division I.

While many of the athletic directors in attendance came from the wealthiest leagues, where support for big-conference autonomy is strong, those on the lower rungs expressed worry about the widening competitive imbalances the proposal would usher in.

“The difference between those five and the rest becomes greater,” said Peter Roby, athletic director at Northeastern University. “How do we maintain competitive opportunity for everybody and not just for those that are significantly different?”

In an interview after the session, he proposed a new revenue-distribution model for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament—one that would reward programs outside the five power conferences with a greater percentage of money for every tournament win. Such a change, he said, would help programs at his level do more to help athletes and maintain their recruiting pipeline.

In recent years, athletic directors have pushed for a greater role in NCAA governance. And the process was supposed to give them more voice. But several athletic directors raised questions about their proposed responsibilities on committees, and one took issue with their lack of key leadership posts.

“The directors of athletics are not in every group,” said Debbie Yow, athletic director at North Carolina State University. “There is only one group that—365 days a year, 24 hours a day, seven days a week—is devoted to this enterprise, and we should be included in the leadership.”

Her comment drew loud applause. Soon after, Harris Pastides, president of the University of South Carolina, assured her that her concerns would be addressed more on Friday, during a second phase of discussions.

The session’s set-up allowed for anyone in attendance to speak out. And while much of the talk came from the front of the room, where a group of seven college presidents were seated, there were plenty of moments when athletic directors and others said their piece.

Some wondered about the proposed size of the board—was it too big? too small?—while others raised questions about the composition of committees, including whether it was appropriate to have athletes serve on them.

“I’m not sure we’ve wrestled with that substantially,” said Nathan O. Hatch, president of Wake Forest University and chair of the Division I Board of Directors.

Mark Emmert, the NCAA’s president, who was otherwise silent during the three hours of discussions, chimed in, suggesting that he could see students’ serving on the board’s “council,” and perhaps even having voting rights.

Others wondered whether weighted voting would continue. (“Undetermined,” came the response from the presidents.)

Jamie Pollard, athletic director at Iowa State University, was confused about the difference between the proposed council and its various ad hoc committees, wondering whether they would be an improvement over the current structure, where “numerous groups have access to the board and you can’t tell where things are coming from.”

Mr. Schulz, from Kansas State, assured him that the presidents don’t want two parallel structures.

In a news conference that followed the session, Mr. Emmert and Mr. Hatch said they were encouraged by the day’s discussions, but suggested that any changes were not likely to happen soon.

Asked whether he saw the possible changes as a letdown from what he thought possible a year ago, Mr. Emmert demurred. To put more power in the hands of athletic directors would be a “huge shift,” he said. And to allow the wealthiest leagues the level of autonomy under consideration would be a “sea change” for the association.

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