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Sunday, August 25, 2013

College Sports Make-Over

A week from now, the college football season will be underway.  And, if you're the NCAA, the season cannot start a minute too soon.  One of top recurring topics on sports radio this summer was pointing out and bashing the hypocrisy of the NCAA.  The investigation into North Carolina never materialized while the Miami investigation drags on forever.  The O'Bannon lawsuit attracted some active college players and caused a divorce with EA Sports.  Then the summer ended with Johnny Football's future eligibility being in jeopardy over allegedly receiving money for autograph sessions.  The culmination of events resulted in a cacophony of criticism for the NCAA as an institution and calls for its dissolution.

Maybe it's because I'm a girl, but the idea of college sports becoming nothing more than minor league level professional sports almost brings me to tears.  The reason collegiate athletics brings out unique passion in fan bases is because rooting for a college is not just about rooting for the players currently wearing the uniform.  It is about rooting for an image, for a larger institution and for the traditions of that institution.  Unlike most professional sports teams, there are very real cultural differences between the collegiate teams with which we align ourselves.  But, times have certainly changed since the NCAA was founded in 1906.  Some systemic changes are needed or the entire concept of student athletes may become a thing of the past.  I believe that collegiate athletics can change while still preserving the differences between schools that leads to all that we love about college sports.

The talking heads of sports incessantly repeat the mantra, "College sports are big business."  Well, that's not actually true.  The top levels of college football and men's basketball are big business.  With the exception of a few women's basketball programs and handful of baseball programs, the other sports programs cost their schools money.  Because of this, I do not believe that the NCAA needs to be disbanded altogether.  That system works fine for the non-revenue sports and for small colleges.  However, FBS college football and Division 1 men's basketball should split off into their own organization (for purposes of this article, I will call it the "Collegiate Athletic Organization" or (CAO).  It will be an organization that gives some compensation to the athletes that generate so much revenue but will not lose all the current feeling of amateur athletics.  The remaining sports at the other levels (including FCS football schools) should maintain the status quo.


College Football.

The CAO would invite all the current schools playing in the FBS to join.  Heading into the the 2013-2014 season, that would include 118 schools.  Those 118 teams include some small programs like the Old Dominion Monarchs, the Idaho Vandals, and the UTSA Roadrunners who traditionally have football budgets that are just a fraction of those at the traditional power schools.  In the CAO, there will be an increase in spending.  So, it's possible that not everyone will want to get in on the new system.  But, for those who do join, here is how things would work in the CAO.

Paid to Play.  Every school would have a $1 million salary cap per year.  That $1 million would be divided amongst 100 scholarship players.  Schools can fund that payroll any way they see fit.  The school would also be free to divide up the payments amongst those 100 slots in whatever manner they choose.  If you want to be the kind of school that pays all 100 guys $10,000 per year, you can do that.  If you want to be the kind of school that treats stars differently, then that is your prerogative, as well.  But, whatever monetary agreement the school and the player reach, that is the limit.  No outside payment will be allowed.  Without that restriction, college sports would turn into the wild west with kids choosing schools based purely on who has a rich alumnus ready and willing to pay them $100,000 to "work" for a couple hours in the summer at his car dealership.  Certainly, under this plan, star players will not be maximizing their market value.  But, a third string guard at UTEP is probably doing all right for himself.  Also, since room and board and tuition are already taken care of, a few thousand dollars a year allows for kids from poor families to have pizza in the dorm and see a few movies.

Scholarship Structure.  In the CAO, every school would have 100 scholarships slots for each season.  That is up from the limit of 85 under the NCAA rules.  But, that number needs to be higher because the structure of those scholarships and the method by which they are locked down will be significantly different in the CAO.

Unlike the current system, the scholarships in the CAO are not merely renewable on a year-to-year basis at the discretion of the college.  These scholarships would be valid for 5 years.  The financial package discussed above would be part of the scholarship offer.  Normal contract law would apply.  Colleges can offer slots to kids as early as they wish.  But, like all other contracts, the player (or his parents since we're dealing with minors) would be able to accept those offers whenever they are made.  Prior to acceptance, a school can withdraw their offer.  But, once an offer is accepted, that school is locked in.  As far as transfers are concerned, "non-compete" clauses can be made a part of the scholarship offer, or not, depending on the negotiation process.

The scholarship start date would be the players' projected high school graduation date.  That's when the player starts to get their free education.  And that's when the player counts against the school's limit of 100 slots.  Players still only have 4 years of eligibility, but that fifth year allows some flexibility for red shirting or finishing school after a guy's playing days are done.   But here is the rub.  A school is stuck with the 100 guys they've signed for that five-year period, regardless of whether those players end up being part of the team.  Although this new structure seemingly puts an inappropriate amount of focus on locking up players at a very young age, this wrinkle actually gives colleges much more incentive to focus their recruiting efforts on guys who are nearing the end of their high school careers.  If a school offers a scholarship to a 14 year-old boy and his family accepts, then that kid will count on their roster in the years to come.  That remains true even if the kid stops growing or stops improving.  It also remains true even if the kid can never get academically eligible or ends up in jail for that five-year period.  The only way a kid comes off the scholarship list is if he declares for the NFL draft.  Hence, there will be a renewed incentive for colleges to focus their attention on young men with good character and solid academics.

Bowls and Postseason.  Bowl games are an important part of the fabric of college football.  But, the public has made it clear that it is thirsting for a championship that is decided on the field.  The addition of a playoff system does not need to destroy the joy of bowl season.  It is the absurd number of bowl games that has ruined the fun.  In the CAO, there would be a total of 12 bowl games.  Four of those bowl games would be part of an 8-team playoff.  But earning a bid to one of the remaining 8 bowl would still be a be an achievement.  The term "bowl-bound" will once again have some prestige.

The non-playoff bowls that would be sanctioned would be the following games:  Alamo Bowl, Aloha Bowl, Citrus Bowl (aka Capital One), Cotton Bowl, Gator Bowl, Holiday Bowl, Liberty Bowl and Peach Bowl (aka Chick-Fil-A).  These bowl games would have to wait to select their teams until after the playoff teams are selected.  But after that, those bowls would be able to pick schools by whatever method they choose ... just like in the old days.  Those bowls would be played in the week between Christmas and New Years, once again restoring a special holiday feel to the games.

The Playoff Bowls and Championship.  The bowls that would serve as the quarterfinals for the playoff system would be the Fiesta Bowl, the Orange Bowl, the Rose Bowl and the Sugar Bowl.  The 8-team field would be comprised of the the champions of the top 6 conferences and 2 at-large teams.  The at-large teams would be chosen by the CAO selection committee.  These bowls would be re-united with their traditional conference tie-ins.  Some years this will result in appropriate seeding.  Some years it will not.  But having a known bowl destination for winning a conference was a special part of conference play in the 1980's.  It was always fun to see Roses thrown on the field in Ann Arbor or oranges landing in the end zone in November in Norman.

The quarterfinal bowls would be played on and around New Year's Day.  The match-ups would be as follows:

Fiesta Bowl:  MWC v. At-large #1
Orange Bowl:  Big 12 v. ACC
Rose Bowl:  PAC 12 v. Big Ten
Sugar Bowl:  SEC v. At-large #2

The 4 winning teams would then be re-seeded by the selection committee.  The semi-finals would be played the next weekend at the home field of the higher-seeded team.  This ensures that there will be stadiums filled with vocal fans for the semi-finals.  It would be unrealistic to expect the fans who just traveled to a bowl site to make another unscheduled trip to a neutral site.  The CAO Championship Game would be played at a rotating site chosen years in an advance.  The game would be played on that empty Saturday in the weekend between the NFL conference championship games and the Super Bowl.

Basketball.

The CAO basketball structure would be similar in many ways to the football structure outlined above.  The CAO would invite all the teams that currently play Division 1 men's basketball.  Those 351 teams could remain in their current conferences.  The scholarship and payment scheme would be basically the same as the football structure, but the numbers would be smaller.  There would be 20 scholarship slots with a $200,000 salary cap.  The 5-year scholarship structure would also apply.   But, because the NBA has different rules than the NFL regarding draft age eligibility, declaring for the draft and even playing in the NBA would not free up one of the 20 slots.  However, much like the transfer rules, players and colleges can negotiate a non-compete clause that would apply to the NBA for a certain number of years.  This will improve the quality of play in college because fewer players will be free to leave after one brief year on campus.  March Madness is already one of the best things we have in American sports.  The tournament would remain basically unchanged in the CAO.  But, the field would be trimmed back to the logical number of 64 teams.



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