Can SEC Make NCAA Change?

Hoover, Ala. — The fight for a more equitable economic split between the NCAA and its grossly under-compensated elite athletic labor force has been waged on some rather fascinating battlefields over the years, but none more compelling than this.

The college football super-power Southeastern Conference — with SEC commissioner Mike Slive swinging his mighty figurative cudgel — is on the verge of some rather revolutionary stuff. What federal lawsuits haven’t done, where enlightened media champions fell short, and how brash student-athlete activists were unable to galvanize widespread support, the powerful SEC may be the one institution that can bring the arrogant NCAA to its knees.

On Tuesday during his annual state of the conference address before 1,200 media members attending the SEC’s football media days, the Ivy League-educated Slive (Dartmouth College, Class of 1962) basically threatened the NCAA to change the way it does business ... or else.

Slive said the NCAA has to fix its convoluted governance structure with everything from the ham-fisted way college presidents have run things to an insistence that the NCAA stop stonewalling legislation that would grant full cost-of-attendance scholarships to student-athletes.

He repeated that theme again when he sat down for a one-on-one interview with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a quiet hotel ballroom on Wednesday afternoon. I wondered if we were making too much of his words. So I asked if it was an accurate characterization to say he fired a warning shot over the bow of the NCAA during his speech.

“Probably not totally inaccurate,” he said, chuckling softly. “What I was trying to say was, we’re a friend. The SEC supports the NCAA as the appropriate governing organization. But having said that, knowing that the organization is undoing its own review.... It would be helpful to those of us who work in the field if we felt like the NCAA was more responsive to our own needs because (there is a) sense that it might not be now.”

When the commissioner of the most successful super-power in college athletics — the SEC has won seven consecutive BCS football national titles and is the biggest money-making machine in college athletics — starts raising his eyebrows about the NCAA’s strange and inequitable ways, that’s the sort of noise that will force the NCAA to react quickly.

Slive outlined several points of contention that the SEC wants answered. And the way he asked his questions, you can believe it was a threat. A powerful threat with a frightening “or else” attached to it.

When I asked Slive about what he would do next if the NCAA failed to sufficiently answer his questions, he answered with the skill of a lawyer (which is what he happens to be). “If you answer all those questions and you answer them properly — which I think the NCAA will do — we can get more comfortable as we move ahead,” Slive said. “If we do that, we can get from the national organization what we want from them.”

And if they don’t properly respond, would the SEC lead a revolt by the four other power conferences (Big 12, Big Ten, ACC and Pac-12) to form their own separate Super Division I?

“Everybody says that,” Slive said. “You can draw any inferences from what I’ve said that you want to, but I’m not drawing them. I happen to believe we can get there (and) I have never been a part of any serious conversation with anyone in the leadership of college athletics about something different.”

So what does Slive and the SEC want?

Among other things, he wants what a lot of us want. At the big-money schools where college athletics is a multimillion dollar business with full football stadiums, monstrous athletic budgets, outlandish national TV contracts for NCAA tournaments and the impending revamped major-college football championship series, there is and always has been enough money out there to properly subsidize college athletes properly.

When I asked Slive if the money was there to accomplish this, the first thing he said was, “Yes. For some of us.”

But he also said that to accomplish the goal of full cost-of-attendance scholarships, it would take some smart people getting together to figure out the right formulas that would spread the financial aid to deserving athletes based on, among many things, economic need and gender equality.

Of all the revolutionary ideas being floated by Slive, this one might be the most easy to accomplish. The bigger challenges will be wrestling with the lunacy that drives most of us crazy about the NCAA. How will they be able to streamline the rule book? How will they figure out a more sensible way to deal with enforcement issues that have wrecked the NCAA’s already tarnished image?

Perhaps all of this can be accomplished by convincing the folks who really think they run the NCAA — the overly ambitious college presidents who have stood watch over one of the most shameful eras in college sports history — to surrender control of the business of this vast and complicated enterprise back into the hands of the people who actually know how to run it: the athletic directors, conference commissioners, coaches and other athletic administrators who do this for a living.

“I think presidents are absolutely essential to the governance of the NCAA, just like they are essential to the way we run the Southeastern Conference,” Slive said. “(But) it’s not about whether or not they should be involved. ... The question is what is the best way to utilize their experience and expertise? It’s not about whether or not they should be involved, it is about how best to involve them.

“Absolutely the presidents need to make the policies,” he said. “In our conference we have a great relationship with our presidents. Everyone knows the presidents have a final say. But for example, we don’t need our presidents deciding whether or not we should travel 85 or 86 players.”

It’s the same way with the NCAA. The simple message?

Know your limitations.

Slive said it best when he suggested that part of the NCAA evaluation process must be figuring out what it does best. But you can’t get to that point without also taking a long, hard examination of also what the NCAA does very poorly, and that’s a very long list, too.

Finally, the NCAA has no choice. It has to change its lousy ways.

Or else.