Michigan State athletic director Mark Hollis and his Michigan counterpart David Brandon both agreed Monday that the “outcry” for NCAA reform is growing among the larger, revenue-generating schools.
It’s a far cry from 100 years ago, and it’s a far different outcry from the University of Michigan’s past. Then again, who ever thought the two bitter in-state rivals would be sharing a friendly golf match together – let alone pushing for the same platform of changes in college sports?
Bear with me for a moment for a history lesson. It’s due to spending part of my week of vacation finally finishing Dr. David J. Young’s fantastic book “Arrogance and Scheming in the Big Ten” – and only a year after I started it – that I’m making this correlation.
The years of acrimony and divisiveness from those in Ann Arbor leading up to MSU’s admittance into the conference plays the pivotal plot throughout Young’s book (subtitled “Michigan State’s Quest for Membership and Michigan’s Powerful Opposition” to hammer home that message). For much of the early 20th Century, Michigan law professor Ralph Aigler and a number of the school’s athletic directors and coaches fought against athletic aid for students. When MSU began offering Jenison Awards prior to being admitted to the Big Ten, Aigler – the Wolverines’ faculty representative to the conference, and perhaps the most powerful man in both the league and college sports – essentially branded the Spartans as cheaters and outlaws. Aigler fought other schools’ subsidy schemes and the practice of athlete recruitment (then also illegal) around the country, but most vociferously and surreptitiously when it came to MSU, under the intentions of retaining amateurism in its highest and most honorable form.
Or simply because Michigan was one of the purveyors of power in the NCAA and dictated policy. The book points out a number of ways even the most pious football programs – including the Wolverines – were circumventing the rules they created and agreed to follow.
Young’s well-researched tome is a fascinating and educational read for all MSU, Michigan and Big Ten football fans. But enough of my literary critique.
My digression was necessary, though, to link that large chunk of history to the seemingly Kumbaya present, as it appears these two schools’ decades-old animosity continues to thaw (somewhat) for the third straight year with a friendly, yet competitive, match play golf competition between administrators, coaches and athletes.
The Big Ten and NCAA finally acquiesced in 1950, shortly before MSU officially started its membership, and began offering highly regulated athletic scholarships for exceptional students. It ushered in the league’s golden era. Those also gradually turned into scholarships solely for athletic ability, one of Aigler’s biggest fears.
Now, college sports’ major powers face their biggest internal turmoil in decades – again partially about money for athletes, partially about controlling those schools they deem inferior to themselves.
Major football programs are pushing back against smaller colleges who don’t have the financial wherewithal to match the money the big-time teams can generate. It’s been a common theme from BCS commissioners over the past two weeks in the run-up to kickoff this fall. In part, it’s a blow-back from the Ed O’Bannon case that could cost the NCAA – and its top schools – millions of dollars. In part, those same schools feel a need for some sort of new separation that allows the big-budget programs to flat-out pay athletes in the form of stipends.
It would be the first real schism in the NCAA since the Division I-AA split in 1978 (Divisions I, II and III were created in 1973; prior to that, the NCAA had just the University and College divisions). And Hollis and Brandon are in agreement with Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and others: The time for more reform is coming quickly.
“You’re always gonna have somewhat of a wide range within institutions that are competing, but you really are getting a sense that there are some schools where it makes sense to maybe be in a little different family, if you want to call it that – a different division,” Hollis said. “So, those are things that are being talked about and pursued and we’re part of those conversations and kind of like the direction we’re headed. I am an advocate that the NCAA needs to be the umbrella that oversees all of intercollegiate athletics, but within that I could see us coming out with a different feel as far as some of the institutions.”
From Brandon: “My take on that is that you’ve heard about the reform, the need for reform in the NCAA for years. And it’s building. … I just think what we’ve seen is that it’s hard to change that organization quickly. There’s so many layers, so many differing perspectives, so many institutions with self-interest that it’s been really difficult to move that reform agenda along as quickly as any of us would have hoped. But it seems to me that there is such an outcry now for change.
“And these issue have been moved front and center, to the point where I’m a big believer – as Mark said – that the NCAA needs to, and will, change. And that should be the institution that we follow. To the extent, they’re willing to restructure and address some of these issues. Stipend is one of them. To me, first and foremost, it’s just a great example of how the NCAA’s old level playing field philosophy doesn’t work, as things continue to change. I’m hopeful the NCAA can continue to listen intently to the voices of change out there and get moving.”
Ralph Aigler’s ghost just died all over again. The NCAA’s guise of amateurism, figured out by everyone who doesn’t use the term “student-athlete” on a daily basis, appears to be vanishing for good. The former U-M professor’s prophecy that amateur college sports might one day become professionalized could finally reach fruition.
Who knows how long it might take for actual reform of this significant a nature to happen. It could be sooner rather than later, however, when the most emphatic current power brokers are the ones pushing for it. MSU and Michigan both count among them now, standing in unison amid major college football’s changing direction.