NCAA President Mark Emmert said Tuesday that it was troubling to see the University of Alabama-Birmingham drop its football program, but he believes Olympic-type sports are more vulnerable to cuts as schools look at athletic budgets.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Emmert said he worries that while autonomy for the Big Five conferences will lead to more money being spent on athletes, it could decrease the overall number of opportunities in college sports for students.
UAB dropped its football program last week. The school cited rising costs of college athletics, including pressure to pay the full cost of attendance for athletes. That proposal was supported by Emmert and pushed by the wealthiest conferences.
"I think it's really hard, and hard for people to understand when you have to back away or make a decision to back away from a sport," Emmert said. "But schools do that fairly often, actually, they just rarely do it in football or men's basketball or women's basketball."
Emmert was president at the University of Washington when the school dropped its men's and women's swimming program.
"Those were hard decisions but they were the right ones for us," he said. "I know UAB and their administration has to make the decisions that work for them over the long run."
UAB said it estimated paying the entire cost of attendance for an athletic scholarship would cost the school $5,442 for each football player on full scholarship. FBS schools are allowed to carry 85 scholarship football players, a limit that is usually reached.
"What everybody pays attention to and what we all love as a country is football and basketball," he said. "But when schools are trying to support those programs, they are starting to feel the pinch in the Olympic sports: volleyball, soccer, gymnastics, wrestling and a variety of other things.
"I do worry a lot we may well see in the coming years a reduction of commitments from our campuses in those programs."
The Indianapolis-based NCAA earlier this year approved a new governance structure that would allow the Big Five conferences — Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, Atlantic Coast Conference and Southeastern Conference — to create rules in some areas without the support of the rest of Division I.
UAB competes in Conference USA. C-USA Commissioner Britton Banowsky, along with the commissioners of the other four FBS conferences, has said his league will try to increase benefits for athletes and do things such as pay cost of attendance, provide free meals and long-term medical benefits.
"Any time you're increasing the financial commitment for student athletes or any part of your program, whether it's for your students or whether it's for your facilities, or whatever the model is, it increases competition," Emmert said. "And so there's folks that are right now wringing their hands saying 'Wow, I don't know if we can compete at that same level financially.'"