The Autonomy X-Factor

While there seems to be a lot of doom and gloom over the NCAA agreement to grant the five wealthiest conferences autonomy, the system brings a notable change of unknown impact.

In the autonomy group their voting model becomes a sort of house and senate model.

The “house” in this system is a group of 80 voters. Sixty-five of the voters are the universities in the group and 15 are student-athletes, three from each conference.

The “senate” is the five conferences.

There are two methods to pass a rule change. If the change receives 48 or more votes from the schools and students, then it needs be approved by 3 of 5 conferences. If the change receives 41 to 47 votes then four out five conferences must approve. If the change receives 40 or fewer votes, it is defeated.

I’ve watched the NCAA long enough to know four things will be true of the group of 15 student-athletes.
1. It will be racially diverse
2. It will be reasonably close to balanced by gender
3. It will not be academically diverse, each of the 15 will carry a high grade point.
4. The 15 student athletes will have to their name athletic, academic, and social achievement. They will not just be above average students, they will be above average on the field or court, and they will likely have some sort of non-athletic involvement like a mentoring program, or work at a charity that will make them overall stand-outs.

Until we see the impact of the 15 student-athlete voters any projections of what autonomy will look like are rank guesses.

In athletics coaches tend to state what they want and mostly get it as long as it is within reason and can be paid for. AD’s don’t do a vast amount of second guessing if a coach is successful and there are no obvious red flags of persistent discipline, academic, or injury issues. Most AD’s today don’t have any sort of playing or coaching experience (another place where AState is lucky) and lack the experience to recognize any but the biggest problems. So AD’s tend want what coaches want, especially if they can see a way to monetize what coaches want (either directly or indirectly). Commissioners more and more are receiving compensation bonuses based on revenue generated so commissioners are more apt to make purely revenue driven decisions.

This leaves presidents who may be uncomfortable with some changes operating in a world where coaches, AD’s, and commissioners are telling them they should do something they don’t think is consistent with the university mission but often lacking expertise and lacking allies go with the flow.

The student-athlete members could be a deal changer.

Presidents operate in a shared governance world where making any decision without hearing from student-government, faculty senate, the classified employee association, and the alumni association and on bigger items the local chamber of commerce and local government is part of the natural order. With that background, if the student-athlete representatives take a fairly unified stance on an issue, it will be difficult to persuade the presidents to ignore their position.

Some areas where student-athletes may have an impact if they find agreement within their group.

Player compensation on a strictly market driven basis would mean more money for football and men’s basketball but not baseball, softball, and golf. The recently handed down decision in O’Bannon (far from final) applies only to men’s basketball and football.

Compensation schemes that don’t pass something to other sports will be questioned and players from other sports will note that some of them (notably baseball and softball) miss more class time than the two big sports, they put in similar practice and training time, but most of the athletes in those sports do not receive full scholarships.

Coaches presumably don't want extended dead periods where players are not allowed to participate in voluntary work-outs and are locked out of the gym or practice field or weight room and barred from visiting with the strength and conditioning coach. The student athletes could make the case that essentially being required to be on campus for 48 weeks a year is unreasonable and if they do a large number of the 65 presidents voting may line up with the students.

A number of coaches and AD's and commissioners want to deregulate contact between prospects and then school and unleash more staff members on the recruiting trail. Athletes on the other hand may well demand that prospects not be contacted by someone who isn't a coach, they may demand further limits on phone and text contact and tell the body how they were unable to enjoy so much as a date or a night out with buddies because their phone was constantly going off and they had to turn it off and miss messages from friends and family to get some peace from recruiters. They may hear from student-athlete members complaining of having to pay for their own phone and their minutes and data limits being used up because incessant contact, forcing them to dig into their own pocket to pay for that contact.

Student-athletes are more likely to question multi-million salaries and weight rooms with lots of glass and chrome and ask why so few schools have job placement programs for student athletes and why it is basically impossible to find out what percentage athletic department grads are employed 6 months after college and their average starting wage.

Look no further than the case over the use of student-athletes in video games. When it was thought there might be some decent cash in pocket, the idea of cashing in seemed good. When the actual dollars were announced EA killed the football game, the stories have been, “who cares about the money, I just want the game.”

Because the student-athlete component is such a big unknown, it is way too early to start guessing what autonomy may mean.