By Chuck Burton
College Sporting News
Few analogies are as overwrought as the consistent characterization of football being a war.
I do it, Pat Forde does it, everybody does it.
But in a world with Democrats and Republicans making every single tiny appointment and legislative action as an epic struggle between good and evil, it feels appropriate to extend the analogy to the world of the NCAA presidential retreat this past week.
If you thought Congress was the only body that had walkouts, no-shows, financial straitjackets and throwing the least well off under the bus, you should see the war happening in the halls of the NCAA.
A NEW AGENDA
NCAA president Mark A. Emmert kicked off his "presidential retreat" this past week with a very ambitious agenda.
"The goal is to examine the critical issues facing intercollegiate athletics today," Emmert said in an official announcement of his retreat, "and to – collectively among all the presidents – determine the course of action that we need to be taking to address those challenges We especially need to address those challenges in the three key areas weíve described: financial sustainability, integrity and academic performance."
Emmert wasn't finished there.
"We need to recognize that incremental change is insufficient to address those concerns and challenges," he added. "We need in several areas to have pretty systemic change if we are going to get ahead of these issues."
Restoring integrity in collegiate athletics, in an offseason dominated by Jim Tressel's cover-up of a memerobilia-for-tattoos scandal and a slew of other violations, was never going to be an easy task.
And when it was revealed by ESPN's Dana O'Neil that the group "wouldn't have the authority to enact legislation", it seemed even more like pure political posturing.
In addition, the New York Times' Pete Thamel also noticed the absence of two important people from the meeting: Mike Slive, the commissioner of the SEC, and Jim Delany, the commissioner of the Big Ten.
"Few would dispute that they are the most powerful men in college sports," Thamel argues. "Although the presidents of Hope College and Molloy College might have provided keen insight into the future of college athletics, they are not exactly the rainmakers."
It's impossible to picture this scene in the NCAA without also picturing the Obama administration's attempt to reform the banking industry in the face of the 2008 meltdown — with certain bankers having "more important things to do" than talk to the president.
THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Apparently, Silve was more interested in seeing if Texas A&M's interest in joining the SEC was real than attending a summit held by the NCAA.
Adding to the scene, almost immediately as the meetings started, the talks were hijacked by the swirling rumors of A&M's departure from the Big XII.
If Texas A&M should leave the Big XII, it could have far-reaching impacts around Division I football.
HOW COULD THIS IMPACT FCS?
BCS conferences might make a grab for schools to become 16-team "superconferences", and presumably, the other FBS conferences getting raided for members might look to invite members currently competing in FCS.
News that Villanova has been prepping for a possible move to Big East football would probably heat up immensely, as conference misgivings against competeing in PPL Park in Chester, PA might be dwarfed by the need to become a football mega-conference.
Talking about another possible merry-go-round of conference sponsorship wasn't exactly a debate about the "integrity of the game". If anything, it was yet another discussion about which schools make the most money, and what TV niches each school can occupy.
THE EXPANSION MERRY-GO ROUND
When Texas A&M rumors weren't the main topic of conversation, the conversation fell to something that interests Delany and Silve a lot more than the presidents' thoughts on the integrity of the NCAA.
Instead, talk heated up about the "debate" about including the "full cost of scholarship" to the scholarship cost made available to potential athletes.
Adding the "full cost of scholarship" - in other words, a "travel and monthly stipend" that has the effect, to some, of paying athletes to play at their schools - is a proposal, I've argued, that is less about helping athletes than it is giving a competitive advantage to hyper-rich athletic departments over other schools. (And most of those schools, unsurprisingly, are members of the Big 10 and SEC.)
If such a policy were given the NCAA's blessing, it might have potentially devastating effect on non-BCS schools in the FBS. Some might even be forced to reclassify to FCS, where there is zero debate over the "full cost of scholarships. FCS schools carry anywhere from 0 to 63 scholarships on their football teams.
But that the "full cost of scholarship" idea was given credibility by the NCAA — they said they would "consider" the idea — was masterstroke by Delany and Silve.
A week on integrity in college sports didn't focus on "memerobilia-for-tattoos' at all. Instead, the second biggest talking point was "pay-for-play". Delany couldn't have been more delighted.
STRENGTHENING THE APR
But it's the final upshot from the meeting, in the NCAA's zeal to make it seem like they were being serious about "cleaning up college sports", they made a horrible decision that might have the deepest impact on FCS.
The NCAA uses a measure called the Academic Progress Rate, or APR, to attempt to track the eligibility of athletes once they matriculate.
But as I've argued before, the APR calculation is incredibly unfair to Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCU's, since the mission of HBCU's is frequently to educate people that traditional colleges and universities miss.
In many, many circumstances, the issue is not high-scale cheating. It's financial — if a kid cannot afford to play on the team, the school's APR takes a giant hit.
Many of these teams have retention rates higher than those of the schools themselves, but get slammed by the NCAA because their calculation cannot reconcile this fact.
In the last APR cycle — unsurprisingly — nearly two-thirds of all the APR violations came from athletic programs of HBCU's.
None of these teams were accused of funneling players to the pros, or creating athletic dynasties.
Narrowing the focus to FCS football, two teams, Southern and jackson State were slammed with "Occasion Three" penalties (which include scholarship restrictions and NCAA championship bans).
A third, Texas Southern, was hit with a significant scholarship restriction.
Back in March when the penalties were doled out by the NCAA, it seemed like Mr. Emmert was cognizant of the issues HBCU's face:
"You're right that there are a number of historically black colleges and universities that have been penalized, especially through the postseason ban," Emmert mentioned in the press conference announcing the APR penalties. "We are concerned about that, have met with those institutions to help them develop ways for improvement and to help provide resources to help them be successful."
But after the "summit" this weekend, Emmert seemed to throw away his campaign promise like so many politicians, as he the NCAA Board of Directors voted to ban teams with a four-year academic progress rate (APR) below 930 from participating in the postseason.
One report even mentioned that Emmert "tossed out the 930 figure after the retreat and that's the number that was approved the following morning."
That Emmert would acknowledge that there's something wrong with the APR calculation - and then, three months later, "toss out" the figure of 930 in order to make it seem like he's doing something for academic reform — is beyond belief.
Did he even stop to think for a second what that would do to HBCU's?
A quick check of the APR database for football shows that with a new 930 threshold, exactly ONE school in an HBCU conference - Norfolk State University — would exceed the 930 number.
It's not unreasonable to think that this new threshold that Emmert "tossed around" could have the real effect of forcing the MEAC and SWAC to reclassify to Division II.
Is THAT what you want, Mr. Emmert? The forced reclassification of HBCU schools?
Schools whose mission it is to educate non-traditional students don't have a place in the new NCAA?
Do you care about HBCU's, Mr. Emmert?
I'm not sure what's more reprehensible — the fact that an APR, without reform of the index, could mean the declassification of the HBCU athletic conferences, or that Emmert just tossed the numbers out so cavalierly without an ounce of thought as to what the ramifications might be.
Never has the old saw been so true: that the NCAA is so mad at Ohio State, they're threatening to declassify the MEAC and SWAC right out of Division I.
POLITICS INSTEAD OF REAL CHANGE
Like the wars in Congress concerning the debt ceiling, this NCAA dog-and-pony show ended in almost the exact same way: endless political posturing, rule changes that harm more than they help, and an ultimate agreement that will do little to solve the underlying problems that plague them.
The only hope now is that Mr. Emmert, Mr. Delany, Mr. Silve and a whole lot of college presidents can agree that this "war" is senseless — and come to some common-sense ways to actually fix collegiate athletics in a way that doesn't hammer the schools that are doing the most with the least.
Let's hope Mr. Emmert and the NCAA acknowledges their mistake before it's too late.