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Your college is the NCAA

Blaming the NCAA for college sports’ problems? Blame the member schools themselves, too.

Photo by Mike Lawrie/Getty Images. Banner Society illustration.

The NCAA has a big office in Indianapolis with 500-some employees in it. When people talk about the NCAA, they usually mean the organization based here:

NCAA Announces Corrective and Punitive Measures for Penn State Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

But the NCAA’s true power is not in that building. It’s on campuses around the country, where college sports’ actual decision-makers work.

Sometimes the NCAA office goes after one school voraciously. When it does, it’s because of rules made up by the much larger group of schools once upon a time. Your college helps enforce those rules by way of the NCAA’s in-house investigators and Committee on Infractions, the latter made up of people from the schools.

When the NCAA hones in on one school’s athletes, people from the central office are only doing bidding authorized by that school’s peers.

The NCAA’s president is the public face, but schools make the rules.

Mark Emmert has some power. He has a pulpit, and he can use it to tell movers and shakers what he’d like them to do.

It was Emmert’s call to commission Condoleeza Rice to issue a report on college basketball’s problems that doubled down on the NCAA’s notion of amateurism. If Emmert sought different conclusions, he could have gotten them.

He can muscle into NCAA discipline, as he did in the Penn State case in 2012, when he sidelined the infractions committee and punished the university through a centralized process.

But making durable change on the biggest issues — like how to compensate players for their time, effort, and bodily risk — requires more than top brass. When big change happens, it’s because schools push.

In 2014, the schools in the power conferences decided they wanted more decision-making power, so they took it. They haven’t voted to let players make money, establish an athlete bill of rights, or start a fund to help cover former players’ medical expenses, though.

NCAA policy comes from a legislature, but the president doesn’t sign off on or veto whatever gets passed. The NCAA equivalent to a lawmaking body is the Division I Council, which has a ton of committees and subcommittees reporting up to it. The 38 people currently serving on the main council are:

  • 20 athletic directors from schools
  • Six senior woman administrators from schools, as required by NCAA rule
  • Six conference commissioner types who represent schools
  • Four faculty athletics representatives from schools
  • Two athletes

Like Roger Goodell in the NFL, part of Emmert’s job is to protect members from blame like a lightning rod. He can propose ideas, but he can’t set policy. That’s why it rings hollow when he alludes to being personally in favor of opening up the rulebook to let players make money off their names, images, and likenesses. If schools don’t want it, it doesn’t happen.

The money the NCAA makes almost all goes back to schools.

The organization with the office in Indy brings in a lot of money. It cleared $1 billion in revenue in 2017 for the first time. More than $800 million came from the broadcast deal for the Division I men’s basketball tournament.

That amount sometimes makes people feel queasy, considering we’re talking about amateur athletics. Most of that profit goes to schools.

Of that billion the NCAA made in 2017, it paid out $560 million just to Division I universities. The NCAA spent a far smaller $38 million on management and general costs like NCAA staffer salaries.

The NCAA’s payouts are just one slice of what schools earn. With a few exceptions (like Notre Dame and NBC), the conferences make TV deals in the big-money sports, which can net the biggest schools tens of millions each per year. The NCAA doesn’t put the SEC on CBS, for instance.

The Power 5 conferences alone are doling out around $2 billion to their schools in TV money per year. The College Football Playoff distributes another few hundred million dollars throughout FBS.

The schools make truckloads of money. If they preferred to share more of it with their athletes instead of with multi-millionaire assistant coaches or with stadium construction firms, they’d make it happen via NCAA committee.

It’s easy to blame the NCAA for the condition of college sports. But each member school has a voice.

The NCAA has a big platform. The people who lead the organization have close relationships with powerful people on campuses, in politics, and in the media. The NCAA could do more than it does to make college sports better and fairer.

But the core reason the NCAA doesn’t change is that the university administrators who make its biggest decisions don’t want it to. Take it from school admins themselves.