I’m generally dismissive of anyone who claims one bylaw will change everything in college athletics, just like I’m generally dismissive of the idea that college athletics could be run on two rules, 10 commandments, or a rule book smaller than about 100 pages. Where college athletics to ever become professionalized, I would expect more rules rather than fewer.
That doesn’t mean rule changes cannot have an outsized effect. Twice I’ve listed small rule changes that would make a big difference to how college athletics is run, student-athlete welfare, or competitive equity. There is one other rule I would add. It is not small at all, but would (hopefully) radically change how colleges think about their athletics departments. First the bylaw, then the explanation:
Bylaw 20.9.1 Financial Commitment
A member institution or member conference shall hold in reserve an amount equal to the annual operating budget of the athletics department. Member institutions shall deposit funds into this reserve from dedicated tuition increases and student fees only.
Bylaw 184.108.40.206 Initial Commitment
At the end of the fiscal year following the adoption of this bylaw, member institutions and conferences shall deposit an amount equaling 20% of the athletics budget into the reserve fund. At the end of the second, third, and fourth fiscal year, the institution or conference shall also deposit 20% of the athletics budget into the reserve fund. At the end of the fifth year, institutions and conferences shall come into full compliance with the bylaw.
Bylaw 220.127.116.11 Institutions Reclassifying to Division I
An institution’s application to reclassify to Division I will not be considered unless it has in reserve an amount equal to the athletics department’s projected budget for the institution’s first year in Division I.
The problem is that while many stakeholders are becoming increasingly certain of the importance of college athletics (particularly college football and men’s basketball), at the same time another group with some overlap is becoming increasingly certain that colleges should not pay for their athletics programs. As a result, we have louder and louder cries for a new NCAA division or a new association altogether composed of just schools that can generate enough revenue to pay for their athletics departments without institutional subsidy.
That idea belittles college athletics and undermines many arguments of pay-for-play proponents. It assumes that college athletics is either so insignificant or so far from the university’s mission that it is wrong for a university to decide to invest in intercollegiate athletics. If we assume institutions should not pay for athletics, then whether institutions should have athletics departments at all is a legitimate question.
Granted, not all decisions to provide institutional support to athletics are equal. There is a difference between a bare majority of trustees voting for a tuition increase for athletics and students voting to raise fees on themselves to support the athletics department. But there’s also a cost to the institution in allowing or requiring athletics to be self-sufficient, namely the loss of control that comes from not having the purse strings in hand.
There are two other advantages to linking an athletics department’s budget to the willingness of the institution to put up its own money. First, it means that athletics departments become much more like any other university department when it comes to budgeting. Having a $100 million athletics department would mean there is $100 million in an account. If the university is facing financial difficulties, it is much easier to ask the athletics department to share in the hardship, even if athletics is totally self-sufficient. All the university needs to do is withdraw money from the account.
Second, it puts something of a break on the expansion of athletics budgets. If a conference signs a big new TV contact, institutions cannot use the money unless they are willing to raise tuition or student fees to add to the reserve account. The interest or returns on the reserve fund operate as a normal, annual increase in funding for the athletics department. And if the athletics department is bringing in more revenue than the reserve fund allows them to spend, that money could go back to the institution or saved for a rainy day.
How athletics departments are funded is one of the biggest reasons why athletics seems to be drifting further from the university’s core mission. Part of this is because universities, by and large, operate the athletics department they are able to afford, especially if the athletics department is doing most or all of the funding. Requiring the university and students to put up their own money will hopefully create athletics departments that universities are willing and able to fund.