OPINION: The Biggest Problem With College Athletics Is That Nobody, Not Even The NCAA, Has Any Idea As To What Athletic Programs Should Look Like

BETHLEHEM, PA – On Wednesday, the NCAA attempted to stuff a bunch of evils back into Pandora’s box that they, and forces outside their control, unleashed on the world.

By that I mean that the NCAA’s Division I council approved some changes to their rules.

One was a change to the notification-of-transfer windows and grad student reporting requirements across all sports, including a reduction from 60 to 45 total days in both FCS and FBS football and a reduction from 60 to 45 consecutive days for men’s and women’s basketball.

These changes are an attempt to control the chaos that has been the transfer portal, which some student-athletes declaring their intent to transfer mid-season and just to reduce the sheer number of them, which was over 20,000 Division I athletes alone in the 2021-2022 academic year.

Related to that, Division I college football also adopted two rule changes as well.

The council voted to eliminate the annual limit on initial counters in both FBS and FCS.

This allows schools to now turn over entire rosters and free up scholarships once a new head coach comes in, like Deion Sanders attempted to do at Colorado.

Before, a school could only sign a certain number of football players per year, either through the incoming matriculated class or through transfer students (previously 25 in FBS and 30 per year in FCS per program)

The council also adopted changes to membership requirements for Football Bowl Subdivision schools that: 

  • Eliminate attendance requirements at FBS schools (effective immediately).
  • Increase the application fee for transitioning from FCS to FBS from $5,000 to $5 million (effective immediately).
  • Require all FBS programs to provide 90% of the total number of allowable scholarships over a two-year rolling period across 16 sports, including football. FBS schools will also be required to fund 210 scholarships each year, amounting to no less than $6 million annually (effective August 2027).

In a sense, eliminating the attendance requirement for FBS membership was a welcome move.

It was a metric that was routinely gamed by FBS schools, as the requirement only required paid tickets, not fannies in seats.

Rich donors frequently would buy up thousands of seats to be left empty for TV but would allow the attendance number in the box score to be above the FBS minimum.

But I think there is a larger issue here that is largely getting papered over.

What Does Division I, FBS or FCS even mean anymore?

As deeply flawed as it was (and I cannot stress enough how deeply flawed it was), attendance numbers at least provided some sort of gate that prevented, say, any school with one or two deep-pocketed alumni to simply buy their way into the league rapidly.

To me, bumping up the “extortion fee” from $5,000 to $5 million for membership seems to really buttress the idea that the NCAA simply wants any school to be able to buy their way in – and they don’t really care about the quality of who they are admitting, about the quality of their education or their viability operating under FBS rules, or whether they are really someone they want to consider as an FBS program.

Unfortunately I think that the “extortion fee” will go a long way towards deterring high-end academic institutions doing a proper transition, while doing nothing to stop wealthy donors from barging headfirst into FBS.

In other words, it looks like a big deterrent the exact type of methodical schools the NCAA should want in FBS, thoughtful about the transition and doing it right, and instead welcoming the ones they shouldn’t, bearing checks and fantastical dreams with no plan other than to jack up fees on unsuspecting students.

Of course, this is also in line with the monetary priorities set by the latest round of conference realignment, where proud, very successful athletics programs at Oregon State, Washington State, Stanford and Cal were orphaned by the Power Five conferences because of their potential earning power on antiquated TV distribution contracts, not the success of their athletics programs and their ability to subsidize the cost of quality education for thousands of students.

With the changes, it seems like the NCAA is simply using money as the definition as to whether a football team should be FBS or not. For a multitude of very good reasons, this is a horrible idea.

Money is a crude instrument in both program building and metrics. Schools that spend the most don’t always win championships. Neither are schools in major media markets (looked at Rutgers lately?). As in business, dollars spent is a terrible way of looking at the “worth” of an athletics program.

One of the strange aspects of college athletics is how few people in charge fully realize this. Athletics spending is routinely trotted out as a shortcut to “what sort of program it is”, despite the fact that not all spending is equal. If someone in the business world tried to equate buying platinum candelabras for all the company board rooms and hiring 5,000 new workers, they’d be laughed out of the profession, but in college athletics it’s seen as gospel.

If not athletics spending, though, what’s a better metric? What should the definition of Division I, FCS and FBS be?

A Better Idea Of What Should D-I Look Like

The NCAA’s role should be – and to me, has to be – to create a system that incentivizes helping the student-athlete above all else in a world where every capitalistic instinct is to screw them over, while keeping their status as student-athletes intact.

It feels strange to have to say what should be painfully obvious: athletics spending and media market earning power should have nothing to do with the structure of Division I athletics.

A world where kids are navigating NIL contracts, branding, keeping track of union membership, following labor law and going over employment contracts is not a place for students. Students are not employees, and the second they are, college football becomes the USFL and maybe 75% of all college football programs disband.

This needs to be avoided at all cost. Any structure that doesn’t have education measurably first in their priority queue should be rejected.

The only metrics that should matter in measuring and grouping colleges’ athletic programs are four things:

  • number of sponsored student-athletes
  • academic progress rates
  • graduation rates, and
  • five-year post graduation salaries.

The schools that educate the most athletes, graduate the most athletes and set the athletes up for the most post-graduation success are the ones that should be Division I – and that’s not just football, but for all other sports, too.

What if, instead of having schools write checks to the NCAA, they would require that FBS schools requires that their entire athletics program require no fewer than 500 unique participants in the athletic program, men and women, across all sports?

For the Power 5 the requirement could be that all student-athletes are on full scholarship. Every sport, men’s and women’s. For the Group of 5 the numbers could still be at least 400 unique participants, with some sports not full scholarship. For the FCS the number could be at least 300.

And as an athletics department it would be required to make academic progress towards a degree, which is what the APR does today.

Add to that hitting certain minimum bars for six year graduation rates and five year average post-graduation salaries for athletes, and now you are truly fulfilling an educational mission for your athletes.

More than stupid spending numbers – i.e., adding waterfalls to locker rooms – this type of spending would have measurable benefits to student-athletes, and not just within the confines of the NCAA. Rich alumni want to “game the system” by provide jobs to students after graduation to goose up the post graduation salary numbers? Sure! Bring it on!

Additionally, with such a high threshold for unique participation, it would demonstrate that the richest athletic departments to a higher standard when it comes to growing sport and taking care of their student-athletes. Having a football team that generates a lot of revenue would show tangible benefits to students, and it would make as a requirement a broad-based athletic department, not just a single sport football factory.

In Group of Five and FCS, all athletics participants in their athletics department should have their scholarships be partially funded with at least some minimum number of dollars. No more “non-scholarship” – some minimum number, perhaps $10,000 per athlete, should be required.

The idea should be that the student-athlete is first, and by requiring $10,000 spent on scholarship money per athlete it proves that to be the case.

There’s nothing stopping the NCAA from doing this sort of fundamental rethink of sports, based on educational goals and educational mission rather than spending numbers or alumni and students writing checks.

And unless the NCAA truly enforces this as the standard – and at least makes an effort to measure the quality of the education on offer with the five year post graduation salaries – the latest rule changes will simply be about a school’s earning power, not about their success in educating students.

Redefining Mission Solves Issue

Once you think of “Division I” defined as it has been over the last 100 years – through educational mission, not economic mission – sanity starts to prevail in terms of defining what a Division I school should look like.

The goals outlined are not easy to achieve by any one school, whether it be FCS, Group of Five of Power Five. But at least the goals are education-based rather than economics-based.

Shouldn’t this be the driving force behind the structure of college athletics instead of having some empty suits come up with a system that has nothing to do with education?