AMELIA ISLAND, Florida — The collegiate athletics model is undergoing massive changes, and the suggestion major college football should peel away from the NCAA is gaining traction, including from a notable Power Five commissioner.
AC commissioner Jim Phillips provided more credence to ideas shared most recently by Ohio State athletics director Gene Smithwho last week told ESPN that perhaps the 10 FBS conferences should operate under the guidance of the College Football Playoff, with their own rules and governance structure.
“I would just say we’ve had lots of conversations inside the ACC and outside the ACC about what you just described,” Phillips said Wednesday at the ACC’s spring meetings.
“This is the time to do it when you’re reorganizing a structure like the NCAA,” he explained. “What are you doing with the sport of football? Does it need to be managed separately? Do you need to have a governance structure? Those are questions we should be asking ourselves.”
In other words, the NCAA should continue to handle successful championship events such as the men’s and women’s basketball tournaments, and championships for all Olympic sports, but keep its hands off major college football.
“There’s been a slow creep already with football,” Phillips said. “It has its own championship. It has all the things necessary to run the second-most watched sporting event in the United States, and so is there an opportunity to potentially look at what that may be. If you’re going to redo the NCAA and all that the NCAA cares for, maybe there’s something parallel that can have some interaction but has some standalone ability to it.”
Phillips’ comments arrive in the midst of radical changes and ideological questions about amateur athletics, the NCAA’s role in governance and the recent shift of power in favor of players, who are now allowed to transfer freely from school to school without penalty and also be paid handsomely by collectives for their name, image and likeness. All of this comes, too, in the wake of Mark Emmert’s imminent departure as president of the NCAA and a hard-charging group of well-respected college leaders piecing together proposals that will radically change all sports as part of an NCAA Transformation Committee. Those changes, according to a Sports Illustrated report last week, include eliminating scholarship caps, particularly for sports like baseball, providing unlimited numbers of coaches for schools and the simplification of the recruiting calendar.
Phillips is a key member of the 21-person Transformation Committee, which is tasked with sliming down the NCAA’s rule book and speeding up its processes, particularly with rules implementations and enforcement. The NCAA has mostly remained impotent with its rules of enforcement since NIL hit the college landscape 10 months ago, but then the beast awakened from its slumber this week. The NCAA’s Board of Directors tasked the enforcement staff with new NIL guidelines, effectively siccing their enforcement dogs on rule breakers such as boosters involved with enticing recruits and players at other schools with shady NIL deals.
The second-year ACC commissioner has also been forced to reevaluate his perspective on several key pillars of the amateurism the model. Remember, Phillips was vehemently against the unionization of college athletes in 2014 at Northwestern, where he was athletics director for 14 years. Now collective bargaining, particularly with the reintroduction of the EA Sports College Football video game on the horizon, is a hot topic again. Has Phillips’ stance changed in this ever-changing world? What is the ACC’s position?
“It’s a tremendous question — and it’s, I don’t want it to say it’s semantics, because it isn’t — but I think we all have a responsibility to move in the direction that we see college athletics going, and some people call pay-for-play what we’re doing now, right?” he said. “The scholarship and cost of attendance, and the academic award that student athletes are able to get with nearly $6,000, some people say that’s pay-for-play, right? And so here’s how I would define it from an ACC standpoint: the experience is tethered in education, in degree completion, in academics. What the benefits are, I think, is what we’re trying to struggle with and find some common ground about what we feel would be appropriate and what we would feel would put us in a different category than collegiate sports.”
The suggestion the Power Five conferences might break way from the NCAA and create their own organization to manage all sports is not “happening right now or the next five to 10 years,” Phillips believes.
“We’re blinded by several things, including the sport of basketball, which no one wants to disrupt,” he said.
Remember, CBS and Turner Sports are set to pay the NCAA a sum of $19.6 billion over a 22-year period to broadcast March Madness, and most of that money goes to the conferences and its institutions. Basketball feeds a lot of mouths and helps level the competitive balance, even for the Group of Five athletic departments, which depend on the revenue from the tournament.
But it’s possible there could be different divisions, even subdivisions, across all sports. Again, changes are coming, even if the exact format is not yet set, but there can and should be measured responses.
“You have to be thoughtful and careful about just automatically deregulating everything,” Phillips said, “because you’re trying to keep some type of competitive balance and parity.”