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May 10, 2014

Tom Lindley: ‘Power’ players of college sports are showing it off

In case you missed it, the NCAA officially cried “Uncle” recently and handled over certain decision-making authority to officials with the five major conferences — the ones with the true power, clout and deep pockets.

The direction set in motion a process that will allow teams from the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences to make some of their own rules. That clears the way to offer stipends to athletes in addition to traditional scholarship costs involving tuition, books and room and board.

That would seem reasonable, especially when one takes a look at how much money the 65 athletic departments in those leagues generate. Details will take time to figure out, but it will happen.

Schools that operate a rung down the competitive ladder fought against a spending plan they knew they could not afford. But realizing it was looking at a revolt, the NCAA Division I Board of Governors voted to give the power players more autonomy.

The less powerful schools face a dilemma: They don’t have the big money — most of which is generated from large crowds at football games and the huge payouts from cable networks — to offer a stipend, which some have estimated would cost between $2,000 to $4,000 per player a year. Furthermore, they’ve argued, the stipends would put them at an even worse bargaining position when recruiting against a school that can offer extra benefits to a player.

Anyone who thinks a stipend is all that’s being discussed is mistaken. That’s only the beginning. College athletes have seen the financial showers rain down on their programs and their celebrated coaches, so it won’t be long before the ante is upped.

Players know universities are making money off them through licensing agreements and the products those apply to, so what they expect out of a fair deal and what the NCAA and other college power brokers are discussing remain far apart.

The NCAA has evolved into an organization that gives every appearance that it seems unsure of its mission or if it even has one.

Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, gets his marching orders from the universities, the mix of schools his organization is hired to oversee. If he pushes too hard, there are repercussions; if his organization is lax, there is negative feedback.

That’s why at times the NCAA comes across as foolish and draws harsh criticism from its detractors, who see it as inconsistent in one of its main duties — rules enforcement.

Even Emmert admitted the NCAA had developed “dumb rules,” especially when determining what’s permissible and what’s not. The classic example involved a bagel, which was considered a snack (permissible), but when it was served with cream cheese it was determined to be a “meal,” which was a violation.

The burden to differentiate between a snack and a meal was left to the NCAA to decide. The interpretation, however, often resulted in making the NCAA look silly and left member schools frustrated.

The NCAA looked bad again last week when University of Michigan basketball player Mitch McGary, who played only sparingly last year, was suspended for a year after the center tested positive for drug use following a game he didn’t play in. The upshot was that McGary was forced to turn pro, although he would have been better served staying in school, which he preferred to do anyway. Oddly, because of a recent rule change, had he been tested after April 15, his suspension would have been only six months.

Did the punishment fit the crime? The NCAA saw the violation as a simple black or white matter, which it wasn’t. Once again, the NCAA showed its rigidity toward student-athletes, especially one who had an otherwise clean record.

Athletes are now demanding that someone represent their interests, their needs. Give the football players at Northwestern, one of the top academic institutions in the country, credit for driving that point home in their effort to form a union. There’s no telling how the union vote will go, and maybe it doesn’t matter, but they have made it abundantly clear they have been — and will be — heard.

If the powerful figures behind college sports listen, problems can be resolved.

If they don’t, the big battles away from the playing field are just beginning.

Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the Community Newspaper Holdings Inc. News Service. You can write to him at tlindley@cnhi.com.

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