On Tuesday night, Florida Atlantic fans left their cozy Boca Raton confinement for a little Christmas in New York, and proudly wore their red sweatshirts and T-shirts to cheer on the Owls in the Jimmy V Classic at Madison Square Garden. . FAU earned an invitation to the prestigious event based on its Final Four run a year ago, not to mention its potential this year, thanks to a mostly intact roster from that national semifinal appearance. At the Garden, the 11th-ranked Owls went head-to-head with Illinois, before losing 98–89. This loss won’t hurt Dusty May’s team or its chances of matching last season’s March run.
On the other hand, Charlie Baker’s plan? He can bite owls at the knees. And Florida Atlantic is hardly alone. The school’s rise in the national rankings is just one of a collection of potential unintended consequences in the NCAA president’s effort to create a new subdivision in college sports. Baker’s proposal, to create a group of schools that would operate under their own rules but in exchange would be obligated to pay at least half of their athletes $30,000 a year into some kind of trust fund, was ultimately defeated. All facilities have been dismantled and are no longer available.
Welcome to Have It All and Everyone.
“There are some things where I see the difference between the top hundred schools and the other 250 schools in terms of resources,” Baker said at the Sports Business Journal Intercollegiate Athletic Forum. “And what happens is the NCAA ends up in one of these conflicts because you have a third of the schools that can do more for student-athletes. They just do. At one time, the pursuit of competitive equity was considered fine. It’s not really there anymore.”
Commissioners’ response to Charlie Baker’s NCAA proposal on athlete compensation
There’s no arguing that Baker is in a bind, and whatever plan you make, he at least has one. The NCAA was caught in this dilemma by his predecessor Mark Emmert’s refusal to accept the name, image and likeness, forcing the national body to attempt to put guardrails on the autobahn. This is Baker’s attempt to gain some control over a void that has become chaotic.
Knowing full well that the people at the top of the food chain have far more power and influence these days than the people of Indianapolis, Baker is trying to find an impossible middle ground in which he can keep the Have It All happy. Welcoming the progress necessary to keep. Without completely abandoning everything else. And for that matter, everything else college athletics has always stood for.
This may be the only middle ground available, and the only way to ensure that the Have It Alls will not take their balls, bats, apiece, pucks and cleats elsewhere. It’s miles away from completion, and collegiate insiders spoke to athletic But asking not to be named because he analyzed the details himself, he felt it was as big a benefit to Congress as it was to the membership. Kind of like, “Hey, we’re up to something, so can you please help us?” Baker, a former governor of Massachusetts, was appointed to the post because he understood Washington’s conspiracies. He’s doing his job, which no one ever accused Emmert of.
By all indications, his letter, sent cold and without warning, was provocative and unconventional because he understood he needed to get people talking. This is a good thing. But as people begin to examine the proposal, they would also be wise to take a serious look at the unintended consequences of such sweeping action.
Because they are very real.
For the sake of argument, let’s take Baker’s proposal on its merits and imagine a world where some fraction of his pitch makes it through the NCAA bureaucratic quagmire. Schools in the Cool Kids Club now have more governance authority and even rule-making power, as long as they agree to set up some kind of trust fund for half of their athletes at $30,000 a year. (But shhh. Let’s not call it pay-to-play.)
So let’s think about that. It affects everyone, but for the purposes of this exercise, let’s use FAU as an example. The school proudly proclaims on its website that, “With 19 NCAA Division I athletic teams, FAU strives to advance our nearly 500 student-athletes in their respective sports and in the classroom.” Under Baker’s plan, half of those 500 athletes would receive at least $30,000. That’s an additional $7.5 million annually, or $30 million over the four-year athlete life cycle. It’s also complicated, because not everyone graduates on time, so yours may be higher than average in a year.
According to the school’s latest report to the NCAA, FAU generated $39.2 million in revenues against $38.1 million in expenses. This does not include long-term debt obligations used to finance things like the stadium expansion, which run a lifetime tab of $48 million, payable in pieces from now until 2041.
And now FAU will be on the hook for an additional $7.5 million per year — at least, because even Baker acknowledged that $30,000 is reimbursable. “It’s a permissive standard,” he said. “It’s a standard designed to establish a minimum.”
Where is the extra money coming from, and better yet, where is it going? Title IX would require that some funding go to women’s sports, but it would still feel like an episode of Oprah’s Favorite Things; In this alone, she outshines every other audience member. Now you will get a car. but not you. Fund this sport but not that one, or fund this athlete but not that one. Left tackle, not right. Goalkeeper, not striker.
Coaches have lamented that zero locker-room chemistry would be the downfall, and honestly, that sounds pretty ridiculous. Capitalism allows some people to earn more than others. But it’s one thing for an outside body – or even a collective – to determine a player’s value; It’s another thing entirely for a school and/or coach to assign dollar figures athlete by athlete or sport by sport. (The school may have to work around this anyway, lest it appear as if it is directly paying the athletes, which would make the athletes employees.)
let’s face it. At the power-conference level and in the Group of 5, which still has a chance for a Wonka-esque golden ticket to the College Football Playoff, football needs to be fed. Working at a trust fund zero minimum wage isn’t going to cut it. If the gymnasts get $30,000, find a few more zeros for the quarterback.
By default, this means there will be less money for other games. Even includes basketball.
Programs like FAU, which serve as the lifeblood of the NCAA Tournament, grow organically. May spent five years with the Owls, finding under-recruited players (Jonell Davis and Alija Martin) and partnering them with transfers in need of a reboot (Vladislav Goldin) before turning the Owls into March magic. Think about it, this is how Jay Wright built a Hall of Fame career.
This does not mean that such growth cannot and will not occur with a new subdivision; It’s going to be even more difficult. The transfer portal already makes roster stability difficult enough in basketball and football. Adding the $120,000 trust fund promise in one place, but not another, would make this even more difficult.
But perhaps the biggest loss will occur where no one has ever seen it – at the Olympic sporting level. Until about 2001, the number of Division I sport teams increased regularly – about 2 to 4 percent more teams were added per year. Since then, the number of teams added has remained below 1 percent and, according to NCAA data, has fallen into the negative each of the last two years (-0.93 in 2021, -0.33 in 2022). No doubt, blame COVID-19. After the pandemic, 35 Division I schools cut more than 110 programs, according to the Business of College Sports. The loss of revenue coupled with zero growth made their existence untenable.
This will not help. The easiest way to set up a fund to get $30,000 for half your athletes is to have fewer athletes, and no one is taking a cut of the money maker.
If this sounds like the apocalypse, the apocalypse is here. Remember: Stanford threatened to cut 11 sports, only reversing its stance after a public outcry. Stanford has a lot of money. Most schools don’t do this.
Again, this is not about most schools. This is the root of the problem. Baker is doing everything he can to find solutions, but he’s also trying to save an incredibly broken system. College athletics continues to dance on the head of a pin for a handful of schools that have already been given almost everything they’ve asked for — including, remember, some sense of NCAA autonomy. And it always comes at the expense of everyone else. As one administrator said: “If you’re not in it, are you somehow less than? Is your brand affected? Has it subsided?”
The answer, of course, is yes.
(Photo of Florida Atlantic’s Elijah Martin at Tuesday’s Jimmy V Classic: Rich Schultz/Getty Images)