Ellen Staurowsky has to watch her back.
The sports management professor at Drexel University is a go-to source for an NCAA critique. She is versed, knowledgeable and -- most important for the question of the moment in college athletics -- loud. Not so much in the audible sense but in common sense.
If you want to ask Staurowsky the question -- is the NCAA broken? -- you'd better be prepared to listen.
"I don't know how many people have sent me notes and made jokes about how I'm going to have to travel with bodyguards," she said. "I keep looking at people saying, 'This is my point.'"
Staurowsky is louder than most but certainly more insightful than many when it comes to the NCAA. The latest body blow to the amateur athletic model in her world came last month during something called the Forum for the Scholarly Study of Intercollegiate Athletics. What had been a reasoned discussion of multi-disciplinary research of college sports had its funding taken away by the NCAA.
"It was done at the buffet line," Staurowsky said.
There's where she claims NCAA CEO Jim Isch had informed forum president Dave Wiggins that funding was being cut off.
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"There we are at the last supper," Staurowsky added. "Jim comes up to Dave and says, 'Oh, by the way I'm going to announce the forum is no longer going to be funded.'"
The chicken parmesan never tasted so bland. The forum had been a reasoned debate on the intercollegiate issues of the day as they applied to college athletics. The forum was little known and we shouldn't have cared. But lumped in with the current climate, its elimination gathered headlines everywhere from academic journals to the sports pages. Its members saw the end of their gathering as an attack on NCAA dissent.
What used to be a measured discussion of the amateur athletic model has become something closer to a war of words. For the first time publicly, the NCAA is reviewing its enforcement process in the middle of the high-profile Miami infractions case. Lawsuits against the NCAA abound. One of the association's most positive outreaches -- the Student-Athlete Assistance Fund -- came under fire last week.
Are more like Staurowsky speaking out because of the mounting public relations disasters or is there a fundamental crack in the NCAA's foundation? Or is it both?
"I really think it is broken," Staurowsky said. "That has implications for the NCAA, for colleges and universities and really the entire college sports higher education community."
The discussion rising out of the public, media and membership in light of the Miami case is that the NCAA has reached a tipping point. As a powerful tax-exempt, non-profit organization that furthers the educational mission through athletics, the current perception is that NCAA does little more than put on a heck of a basketball tournament. It can be argued that little else about the organization gathers it such positive publicity.
There is worry that the power distributed among 1,055 member universities is increasingly centered in the hands of a few. One source with knowledge of the process cited the power of senior management that includes Isch, NCAA president Mark Emmert and general counsel Donald Remy.
Emmert's reform movement has moved at a quick pace, too quick for some. The Penn State decision, for example. There is some push back on pending legislation.
The NCAA does a lot of good that you don't know about, or choose not to not to know about. The revenue from that basketball tournament funds the needs of schools and players across the nation. But along with the IRS and BCS, the NCAA's initials are among the most notorious on the American landscape.
The IRS isn't going anywhere. The BCS is in the process of changing its name for the playoff era in 2014. The commissioners are settling on something simple and different, just nothing that can be manipulated into the initials "BS."
"I'd get rid of the NCAA," said powerful attorney Alan Milstein, who once represented Maurice Clarett at the height of his scandal involving Ohio State. "I believe the NCAA is an anti-trust conspiracy. I think the schools can handle themselves."
Heads are nodding across America. An organization that is supposed to be run by those 1,055 schools is increasingly viewed as a monolithic entity. Some form of separation of schools from that monolith -- whether real or perceived -- seems to be inevitable.
In the next few weeks the BCS commissioners will open an office in Dallas that will house the machinations of that college football playoff that begins with the 2014 season. Think about it: An office that will basically represent the interests of the top 68 football-playing schools in the country hasn't happened since Chuck Neinas ran the College Football Association.
Even then, Neinas was more of a one-man band running the CFA out of the old Big Eight office more than 30 years ago. This new space will be a symbol of those schools in a small way separating themselves from the rest of college football.
The commissioners have shaped the conference landscape based on football, a sport the NCAA has little control over. The association sets play, practice and recruiting rules. It has ceded some control over the bowl landscape to the commissioners.
Commissioners and presidents have huddled around the warm fire of TV revenue. Schools won their freedom to televise their games in a Supreme Court showdown with the NCAA in 1984. Even then, few could have foreseen conferences aligning themselves to the whim of TV networks.
Conferences used to be about like-minded, geographically compatible schools. Now it's clear that whoever has the most high-profile toys wins. If a few Baylors, Vanderbilts and Boston Colleges have to be taken in along the way, so be it.
The land rush for TV dollars starts with the most powerful: Any conference that has Texas and Oklahoma is worth saving. That's why we have the Big 12. The Big Ten grabbed brand name Nebraska to fit in its conference with Michigan, Ohio State and Penn State. There was a massive tug-of-war over newbie Boise State which has been good all the way back to 2006.
The power of big-time football continues to grow. Conference realignment has gotten so ridiculous that the same market forces that allowed the Big 12 to form in 1996 were picking it apart last fall. That's why Neinas was hired to save it as interim commissioner.
So shy couldn't those 68 or so teams break off and establish their own division? It will have already happened in theory if super-conferences form. No one said they couldn't all keep playing in the NCAA tournament.
That way the football schools could form their own rules. The NCAA's enforcement process is under fire everywhere from Penn State to USC to Miami. The inconsistent application of rules is astounding. One former enforcement official told me the NCAA once dropped eight major allegations against a school when it was discovered that a player -- a source -- was paid $20 for lunch by an interviewer working for the NCAA.
Meanwhile, at USC and Miami, the NCAA used information from convicted felons.
"How do you have an organization that is promoting the schools and trying to make it all look good also be the hammer?" a former high-level college administrator said.
That person suggested taxing the television dollars -- the playoff alone is worth $500 million per year -- to fund a form of sports council that would have oversight over college athletics. That would at least separate the image of brother overseeing brother.
There are some inside the NCAA wondering why there is even an external review of the enforcement process in the Miami case. No laws were broken. At worst, it was an ethical breach in a case that looked airtight from the beginning given Yahoo! Sports' reporting.
Meanwhile, Penn State football has been burned to the ground after what some think was a flimsy application of the rules amid the Jerry Sandusky scandal.
The struggle to maintain the amateur ideal goes on. You want to know how powerful television is? It basically led to the NCAA creating the enforcement division in 1952. That was the same time the NCAA grabbed hold of those TV rights. Since then, the chase for those TV dollars has led to periodic cheating.
Back when Neinas was running the CFA, it signed an exclusive deal with NBC in the early 1980s. The old NCAA Council actually threatened to expel any school that participated in the deal. That simply couldn't happen today. The NCAA no longer has the power thanks to that Supreme Court decision.
Staurowsky favors at least a separation between the more academically pure Division III and everyone else. She also favors paying players. That's not such a radical thought if you consider Emmert basically supports the same thing.
But it is on that concept that the membership has separated. Last year, schools overrode Emmert's initiative to pay players $2,000 a year. Some schools just couldn't afford it. There were too many holes in the proposition. What about baseball players who receive only partial scholarships? What about minor sports that contribute nothing to the coffers that will be used to pay players?
Sure, Ohio State can afford it, but Ohio University (for example) might have to forego pay raises and/or a new weight room. Opponents see the stipend as another division between the haves and have-nots. Recent legislation has reflected there is a fundamental difference between the likes of Texas and Texas Southern. Guess what? They are not equals.
Why are we calling them players in the first place? Good question. Since 1950s, the NCAA has hard-wired into our minds that they are "student-athletes."
"We crafted the term," former NCAA executive director Walter Byers wrote in his landmark 1995 book, "Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes."
The term has served the association well. A Fort Lewis (Colo.) A&M player died of a head injury back in the 1950s. During litigation it was determined that his family was not due workman's compensation because the school "was not in the football business," according to the Colorado Supreme Court.
We have forgotten it's been 18 years since Byers laid bare what he perceived as the NCAA's hypocrisy. That was from the man who once ruled college sports with an iron fist.
That amateur ideal -- maybe even the NCAA itself -- hangs in the balance.
"I think we've been on a trajectory to combust for a while and we've been picking up momentum," Staurowsky said. "The strain of having to sustain these fictions is showing on the face of college sports right now."
Meanwhile, a veteran sports management professor from a Philadelphia-based, academically diverse school watches her back -- while a monolith watches over college sports.