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August 28, 2014 E-MAIL PRINT Bookmark and Share

Where Are We Headed?

What Recent NCAA Rulings Might Mean ... For College Hockey and College Sports

by Adam Wodon/Managing Editor

Recent rulings against the NCAA are not expected to have a large impact on College Hockey, at least not right away, according to officials. But everyone is certainly keeping an eye on the changes, and there is some anxiety on how things will ultimately play out.

Most recently, the NCAA membership voted to give schools in the so-called "Big Five" conferences more autonomy on creating their own rules in 11 key areas. The areas include things like extended financial aid, insurance, paid travel for families, and allowing players to make money from things not directly related to playing.

In effect, these changes have already been agreed upon by the Big Five schools. For example, they will be able to pay players the full cost of tuition in their scholarship packages, which amounts to an extra $5,000, on average, per year.

As it relates to hockey, the "Big Five" includes the entire "Big 10" (which has six teams in hockey and 12 teams otherwise — you following this?). Otherwise, the only schools affected are Boston College and Notre Dame, which both play in Hockey East.

This is certain to increase the advantage some schools have over others. The question is, how much of a difference will it make?

"The Ivies feel like they're at a disadvantage already, and that's the way it is," ECAC commissioner Steve Hagwell said. "The concern isn't (the money), but the power to change rules. What if those schools say they'll take the cap off scholarships? Now they'll give 28 (for hockey) instead of 18. That's what they're really worried about."

The concern is particularly acute in Hockey East, where it will create a disparity within the conference. College hockey has conference alignments that don't always line up with the more general conference these schools are in. How will the conference handle the fact that Boston College and Notre Dame will have more competitive advantages?

"A lot is wait and see," Hockey East commissioner Joe Bertagna said.

Hockey is also the rare sport that gives partial scholarships. Though the limit is 18 per team, the equivalent can be divided among many more players. How does that work with the extra $5,000 that can be awarded to a player? Can Big Five college hockey teams then, effectively, give more than 18 scholarships? That's a question without an answer so far.

There is also a bigger concern, Bertagna said. There are many hockey programs that have been considered in trouble, especially through the recent conference restructuring in the sport. Could this be what topples some programs over the edge?

"To keep up with the going rate to be competitive in football or basketball, schools may reevaluate," Bertagna said. "They could put a greater concentration of resources into those sports at the expense of programs that get dropped."

At the same time, there were two other rulings this summer that both went against the NCAA.

In one, a judge, in a long-standing case brought by former basketball player Ed O'Bannon, ruled that players should be compensated for having their names, images and likeness used, as the NCAA did in a video game with Electronic Arts.

In another, a judge granted Northwestern football players the right to unionize. This ruling is under appeal. But if it's held up, the ramifications could be far-reaching.

Bertagna said he's hoping to at least get hockey schools together to discuss the ramifications.

"We're going to try to get athletic directors from different conferences together," Bertagna said. "Commissioners always talk and coaches always talk, but one group that doesn't get coordinated is ADs from different conferences."

Root Issues

At the root of these issues are inherent contradictions:

For one, the judge in the O'Bannon case ruled that, in preventing student-athletes from benefiting from licensing deals, antitrust laws were violated. Yet the ruling also allowed the schools/NCAA to set caps on compensation in the form of trust funds and scholarship amounts.

But there are more existential contradictions.

The NCAA — in principle if not always in practice — exists to set rules that help create fairness in competition. The rules in place to do this are often dizzying and arcane, and even, some would say, hypocritical, but it can be said to be a noble goal. There is an equally noble goal of funding all sports at a university, beyond just football and basketball.

But to maintain that balance, revenue is not dispersed in a free market manner.

Without things like salary caps and drafts, the disparity between "haves" and "have nots" in college sports has the potential to be greater than anywhere else. The more money that flows in, the more powerful those schools become, which then builds upon itself in greater and greater degrees.

The Big Five conferences are huge, and with so much money involved, it's inevitable that players will want some of the pie. This is all coming to a head.

At the same time, there is Title IX, the federal law that mandates men and women receive equal opportunity. What that means exactly is left up to interpretation. But in practice, it's another reason why the money coming into college sports through, say, football, is not all dispersed just to those involved in football.

To put it in a pointed nutshell — it's hard to split up the pie fairly, while also adhering to the NCAAs other principles. If you're trying to maintain some semblance of a level playing field, that goes out the window if players can be paid freely. And, perhaps more importantly, what does that mean for the other sports at the school?

If Alabama is raking in hundreds of millions, while Alcorn State takes a big loss — or, if Alabama's football program takes in hundred of millions while its field hockey program makes nothing — then what do you do?

This puts the unionization ruling and the Title IX laws at odds with each other.

In pro sports, these things are resolved through collective bargaining. College sports have a trickier problem. Only certain sports at certain schools are involved in making most of the money, but all of the sports need to be supported.

As the money flows in, there's an arms race to keep up with the Joneses. Schools pay coaches more and more, build better and better facilities. A lot of money gets invested, and they get a lot in return from TV revenue/tickets/merchandise. But the players are left out of the equation — except when you realize those top players are needed to make the program marketbable.

These are the issues.

To Be or Not To Be

The pressure is on the NCAA to act more fairly, financially, towards the athletes. But as it tries to cling on to its old ways, and the courts rule against them, the whole system could collapse under its own weight.

Seen in that light, "Granting autonomy" really amounts to a mechanism for Big Five schools to throw bones to players, so they don't get more upset at how little they receive, relatively speaking.

After the decision, some Big Five officials were quoted saying how great it was that they could better "help the student-athlete." But that's a smokescreen. The rules changes help preserve their way of operating — as de facto minor leagues with bazillions of dollars.

Instead of blowing up the whole system and getting rid of the NCAA as a regulatory body, as some people want, this merely adds another level of regulation — another level in the hierarchy, if you will. The Big Five is really at a level now above Division I, with its own set of rules, but still within the NCAA.

“The whole governance discussion was already somewhat tilted in the direction of giving more autonomy to the group of five conferences,” MAAC Richard Ensor said in a recent article. “For us the major thing was to continue to have guaranteed access to championships and revenue-sharing, and secondly, to have some voice in the process. ... I’m satisfied that we got the best deal possible.”

Other conferences are allowed to opt in to the same autonomy deal. It remans to be seen if that will happen. But if they do, it just ratchets up the pressure on those schools to keep up, somehow.

And, almost certainly, this is not the end of the legal battles.

So while not doomsday yet, there are a lot of potential ramifications and outstanding questions. School athletic programs are going to continue being put between a rock and a hard place.

Crystal Ball

Consider the following:

* It could easily be decided that players can unionize and/or must be compensated. Court rulings seem to be headed in this direction, especially if the judge's contradictory cap on compensation is lifted.

* How, then, do you compensate some and not others and still be in compliance with Title IX? Jeffrey Kessler, the lawyer involved in the aforementioned suit that wants all players to be free agents, says there are no Title IX implications. "Title IX says nothing about the issue of compensation. Title IX talks about giving equal opportunities to participate in athletics," he says. But that's far from certain. Donna Lopiano, president of Sport Management Resources and former CEO of the Women's Sports Foundation, said recently, "I believe institutions will be obligated to show that they are equally promoting men's and women's sports. Women's sports have simply not pressed on this issue to date. I think there would be an immediate movement to ... clarify an institution's Title IX obligations in this regard."

* The costs would then force schools to drop numerous sports in order to afford it ...

* ... or football and basketball would be removed from the university system. At that point, does anyone care anymore? Is the goose that laid the golden egg killed off?

* At best, very few schools will be able to afford everything, so who would the big schools play?

It's not a stretch to look into a crystal ball and forsee a day when there's no intercollegiate sports as we know it.

Some people think this is just fine. No big deal. College sports are a joke anyway, they say. But critics of the NCAA — i.e. the entire system of intercollegiate sports — never address the effects on sports across the board. And they don't acknowledge that these sports are popular largely because of the emotional ties to the university.

The NCAA doesn't help itself. Current president Mark Emmert has made a series of ridiculous remarks trying to defend the current system.

He misses the crucial points that could help frame their arguments better.

College hockey is not in imminent danger of disappearing as a concept. But the sport may be under increasing economic pressure.

"There's an unfinished story stemming from restructuring in college hockey last year," Bertagna said. "Is there going to be a second wave of change that could see, for example, the formation of a new CCHA? I think that conversation will happen.

"If there's a second restructuring, it leaves programs in leagues that are diminished, and you just made one more thing that an administration has to look and say, 'Wait now, we have to reassess where we're putting resources.' There's a recipe for instability here."

The NCAA has many critics, and some may not shed a tear if the whole system is blown up.

But if it all goes away, some things we cherish about sports will disappear.

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