From reform to restructuring: How NCAA messed up, how it will change

Mark Emmert once said some of the rules 'are more ignored and laughed at, than followed.' (USATSI)
Mark Emmert once said some of the rules 'are more ignored and laughed at, than followed.' (USATSI)

Almost 2 ½ years ago, 50 influential presidents were summoned to Indianapolis for an NCAA reform summit. The message: College athletics had gotten out of hand. The task: They were going to clean up college athletics.

The NCAA famously posted videos on its site with “interviews” of presidents as they came out of those high-level meetings. It was, it turned out, a sort of red carpet of bureaucracy.

It was going to start with the NCAA Manual, the association’s bible that had become a leading candidate for a public book-burning. It was too big, too complicated. It was too much tied to the NCAA brand.

“Some of the rules are more ignored and laughed at, than followed,”  Mark Emmert said.

How to shrink that Manual was a huge issue. That much was known by May.

When the 2013-14 Manual came out it had shrunk by all of 12 pages -- 2.7 percent.

That’s why last week was a study in NCAA spin. Two-and-a-half years after promising sweeping change, the headline on the NCAA website read: “Division I to consider recruiting, meals changes.”

If legislation is passed, players would be allowed “unlimited snacks.” Hockey coaches, you’ll be glad to know, could start contacting recruits on Jan. 1 of their sophomore year. There is pending legislation that would require coaches to be certified in CPR.

The stunner there is that in 2013 they aren't required to know CPR, a technique that was invented in the middle of last century. When it was back in 1973 the NCAA fought Title IX. For 35 years the association didn’t have anything on the books to recommend sickle cell trait testing. The affliction turned out to be the biggest killer of football players in this millennium.

You can look at it two ways. Either the NCAA is making progress or the NCAA is finally making progress.

Not surprisingly, “incremental,” is how a source intimate with the Rules Working Group described the reduction of the Manual. That source was not Brian Shannon. 

“What came out will be improvements but not broad efforts than we hoped,” said Shannon, Texas Tech’s faculty rep, president of the national FAR board of directors and RWG member.

The RWG had the potential to be one of the most influential bodies in NCAA history when it was formed out of that summit in 2011. It included administrators -- athletic and academic -- from across the board. It was charged with slicing that rulebook. Then it soon found out it couldn’t. And it wasn’t their fault.

There were overrides, criticisms. Coaches who had never bothered to read the legislation weighed in as if someone had stolen their playbook. In the end, next to nothing of substance got done.

Unlimited snacks?

“It wasn’t earth moving,” the source said of the end game.

“The one positive that came out was there was at least an exercise in putting diverse groups at the table to come up with something,” Shannon said. “That needs to happen in the regular governance structure. [When it doesn’t] t breeds degrees of mistrust.”

You want to blame someone. That red-carpet bureaucracy is an easy target. But if the membership is the NCAA you’ve got to blame the schools for not requiring coaches to know CPR. It wasn’t important to them.

“People won’t look at stuff until it gets right to their front door,” one conference official said.

While we wait for the next round of change, college athletics is effectively in limbo.  Reform led to the frustration over reform, which led to restructuring. Six entities -- including Shannon’s FAR group and the Division I ADs and commissioners -- met with the NCAA board of directors on Tuesday. reported on the FARs restructuring proposal in September. It obtained a copy of the ADs proposal this week. 

They aren't that much dissimilar. The FARs want a "Division IV". The ADs prefer a united Division I (351 schools) but more autonomy for the larger, stakeholder schools.

Shannon: “Regardless of what that structure there is -- whether it is a separate division or a subdivision with greater autonomy -- those schools needed to have some authority of what we said is, ‘Masters of their own fate.’

The plan is for the association to be completely restructured by next spring. Those BCS-conference schools may end up with their won set of rules. They have most of the money, why not have most of the power? 

The NCAA, membership, coaches and commissioners have finally come to that realization -- together. One of the biggest accomplishments of the RWG might have been adding this admission of the obvious to the Manual: “variability will exist … including facilities, geographic location and resources.”

Translation: The Michigans and Texases rule. What that means for everyone else isn’t quite clear.

The association would like to move forward, but even the word “forward” has different meanings at the moment.

“For as much as we complain about the rules, we really have a hard time living in a world without them,” the source above said.

In other words, the Manual’s percentage of body fat is safe for now. Whether that’s a good thing is up for debate. Folks like to blame the NCAA but in many ways it is a sum of its parts. If the membership wanted real change, it would vote in real change. The meeting Tuesday in Indianapolis was the first steps toward those members becoming masters of their own fate.

Sometimes the only thing we like less than having rules, is having to change them. Not surprisingly, that makes the NCAA much like the gridlock we witness in Washington, D.C. Forget red states and blue states, the battle itself over legislation keeps people employed/relevant.

The system exists to feed itself.

“The bigger schools were frustrated that smaller school were blocking legislation,” said NCAA legislation analyst John Infante. “Smaller schools felt they were being overrun by larger schools.”

As mentioned, reform -- which kicked off in its current form with that summit 2 ½ years ago -- actually begat restructuring. Reform was too slow, too bogged down, too controlled by the Towsons and Ionas. So those Michigans and Texases -- the BCS leagues plus perhaps a few more -- are soon going to have their own governance structure.

That could mean anything -- $6,000 a year for players, a 16-team football playoff, back to 95 scholarships, etc. Those are outrageous possibilities at the moment, to be sure. The point is, those power conferences don’t want to be told they can't do those things.

Those schools aren’t breaking away. They’re just not taking any more B.S. from Towson and Iona. The BCS commissioners have the leverage -- defined as the ability to make unlimited money off football. They aren’t going to give it up anytime soon.

That’s why it was laughable to read Miami president Donna Shalala last week tell Joe Nocera of the New York Times she is part of a group of “major university presidents” that have taken up the task of reforming the NCAA.

“It’s very clear,” she said, “what changes need to be made.”

She did not elaborate.

This from a president who allowed Nevin Shapiro to run free within her athletic department. This from a president who was part of that summit 2 ½ years ago pledging to reform the NCAA while Shapiro was running free.

Sorry, Donna, you’ll excuse us if you and your peers aren’t taken seriously at the moment.

The presidents -- the ones are supposed to be running this massive enterprise – have had their chance.

It’s time to give someone else a shot.


CBS Sports Senior Writer

Dennis Dodd has covered college football for CBS Sports since it was CBS SportsLine in 1998. He is one of only seven media members to attend all 16 BCS title games and has chronicled conference realignment... Full Bio

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