Benner/Sports and NCAA and Arts & Entertainment, etc. and Butler University and Sports Business

BENNER: NCAA leaders finally pursuing changes that matter

August 20, 2011

Critics might have concluded it was more than a coincidence that the NCAA’s recent Presidential Retreat was followed by the sight of the Farmer’s Insurance zeppelin drifting above our downtown skyline.

Surely the latter was being floated by the abundant hot air supplied by the former.

At least, that would be the convenient, easy and altogether superficial conclusion.

A closer examination, however, might have revealed real progress in finding solutions for the myriad issues facing Division I intercollegiate athletics.

Consider this:

Had the initiatives subsequently proposed to the NCAA’s board occurred, say, four years ago, it is entirely possible that Butler University would have been playing someone other than the University of Connecticut for the men’s basketball title last March.

And perhaps Auburn University would not have claimed the BCS championship in football in January, at least not with Cam Newton as its quarterback.

At long last, change—substantive change—is coming. Reform initiatives begun under the late Myles Brand, the former NCAA president, are gaining traction under his successor, Mark Emmert.

What remains to be seen is how quickly that change can transform the landscape and whether it will move the media-fed public perception of “big-time” college athletics—mainly, football and men’s basketball—to square with the reality of the overall enterprise.

That reality, which I’ve referred to in this space many times and will take to my grave believing in, is that intercollegiate athletics bring great benefit to the student-athletes and to the institutions they represent, and that the successes far outnumber the excesses that make the headlines.

That is why foremost among the recommendations to emerge from the retreat is to link academic performance with championship participation. In other words, if teams aren’t hitting NCAA academic benchmarks, they’ll be sitting out the bowl season or March Madness.

Also proposed are increased initial eligibility standards for incoming freshmen and junior college transfers. Here’s a thought: Higher education shouldn’t be remedial education.

The increased academic standards will be phased in over the next three to five years. It would be fine with me if they came to pass in the next three to five months. If only it were that simple.

The presidents also seemed intent on discouraging other behaviors—like the cheaters. While on the one hand announcing a determined intent to simplify the confounding rule book, it is long past time to put the major rules-breakers on the sidelines.

In other words, lock up the programs that want to engage in grand theft. And if the allegations of this past week are true, it would appear the University of Miami might soon find itself without a few seasons of football.

While the presidents are at it, it’s time to give the NCAA enforcement staff the resources it needs to go after the cheaters. They’ve been forced to show up with knives at a gunfight.

“We are going to de-emphasize the nuisance rules … and focus significantly greater resources on the enforcement of major infractions,” said Pennsylvania State University President Graham Spanier. “The folks who are trying to disrupt the integrity of intercollegiate athletics are going to have to be held more accountable.”

Amen to that.

The presidents did soundly reject the notion of “pay-for-play,“ but emerged from the retreat with firm recommendations regarding increasing stipends to cover full cost of attendance or anything about the escalating costs related to infrastructure and salaries. Perhaps that’s for another retreat.

Again, two days and the input of 50 presidents aren’t enough to transform Division athletics overnight. It’s also naïve to think that, moving forward even as these recommendations become the new reality, programs won’t be sullied by more scandal (hello again, Miami). Someone always will be looking for a way to unlevel the playing field.

But at least the presidents are saying, “enough, already.”

“What is different now is that a lot of things have reached the boiling point,” Spanier said.

Finally some steam, not just hot air.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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