NCAA and Olympic legend Katie Ledecky
TOKYO, JAPAN - JULY 31: Katie Ledecky of Team United States prepares to compete in the Women's 800m Freestyle Final at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on July 31, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. (Photo by Getty Images/Getty Images)

‘A Rethinking of Sports Governance at the Highest Level’: How College Sports Can Thrive Without the NCAA

Why this matters

It may seem daunting to imagine a U.S. college sports world that does not include the NCAA, but advocates around the industry believe the separation of Olympic development and university-sponsored sports would be a helpful start toward a more sensible system.

Monthly Issue College Sports 2.0

Under pressure from Congress and after battling for decades, the two most powerful amateur sports organizations in the United States – the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) – came together in 1978 to broker a peace settlement through a structural redesign of amateur sports governance in the U.S.

The NCAA ultimately won that deal, successfully killing the AAU and its grip over the Olympic Movement and amateur sports governance in the U.S. The Amateur Sports Act of 1978 placed leadership power with the United States Olympic Committee (now the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee). In the meantime, the AAU lost its power, no longer in a position to call the shots for the USOC and to control athletes’ participation in the Olympic Games and other international competitions.

As the NCAA today faces a crisis of identity – with its leaders openly questioning its value and role as a governing body for U.S. college sports – there are lessons to be found in the NCAA-vs.-AAU battles of the mid-twentieth century, the demise of the AAU, and especially the reorganization of Olympic development and amateur sports governance in the Amateur Sports Act (ASA).

Olympic development continued without the AAU. And college championships can happen without an NCAA.

However, the only way a modern college sports redesign is actually going to work is if it becomes one piece of a broader sports governance revamp.

Just because college sports championships involve schools, sports governance at a national level need not involve educational leaders like college presidents and university athletic directors. A governance redesign could create the opportunity for a two-tiered system of college sports to develop and thrive: elite, Olympic development sport (perhaps with external governance and subsidization) and scholastic sport. And redesigning with a broader, systematic approach also bypasses what has effectively become a monopoly for the NCAA, which has ruled over college sports in a manner that also has harmed the healthy functioning of other U.S. sports development organizations (aside from football, which does not have a national governing body because it is not a global sport).

A Power Play Between the NCAA and AAU

Dig into the NCAA-AAU cage match, and you’ll find a predictable story of amateur sports leaders using athletes and their rights as fodder for power plays and attempts to remain in control.

Athletes’ rights became a bargaining chip. The AAU conceded and endorsed the central policy shift of the ASA – that only one organization could serve as national governing body (NGB) with membership in one international sports federation. Then the AAU lobbied to have an athletes’ bill of rights included in the legislation – legislation that would apply to all amateur sports organizations in the United States. An athletes’ bill of rights was all about participation. It would introduce the possibility of athletes enjoying legal recourse for violations of their rights to compete in international competition.

As Nancy Scannell reported for The Washington Post, many interpreted the introduction of a bill of rights as an attempt to kill the bill because it would arm college athletes with legal ammunition against sports organizations. It was widely known in Washington that if Congress could not resolve the perpetual conflicts of amateur sport by the end of the 1978 legislative season, the lawmakers would not pick it up again in 1979.

The AAU Executive Committee threatened to “oppose the bill if the athletes’ rights section were not restored. The move was widely viewed as an attempt to kill the bill by marshaling NCAA opposition,” Scannell wrote. “The athletes … were miffed that the AAU had mounted its threat on the rights bill since the AAU, several said, violated athletes’ rights left and right.”

The NCAA opposed the athletes’ bill of rights in the body of the legislation and lobbied to have it removed and instead placed in the USOC constitution. Why? Because the NCAA has never wanted to have to comply with an athletes’ rights law. To this day, the legacy of this shift continues to create a lack of protections for college athletes. For example, the U.S. Center for SafeSport – a nonprofit approved by Congress to ensure a sports system free of emotional, physical, and sexual abuse and misconduct – does not have authority over the NCAA, and the NCAA does not enforce U.S. Center for SafeSport or NGB suspensions or bans.

This is where the real lesson of the ASA lies for the current college sports redesign moment.

Since the dawn of the amateur sport era at the turn of the 20th century, the mission of serving athletes has always been tenuous. That mission needs protection. That protection is required in the governance structure’s design and is reinforced by external oversight.

Nonprofit organizations are supposed to be mission-driven. In the case of the NCAA (a tax-exempt nonprofit charged with serving college athletes) in particular, we see in the ASA negotiations that the goal of claiming power and control displaced that mission of serving athletes. Looking systematically at NCAA sports, power, control, winning (and profit) have always displaced the mission of serving athletes.

If the NCAA’s mission has not been to serve athletes, how can we get back to that fundamental purpose? To answer this question, I talked with former UCLA football player Ramogi Huma, former Arizona State University athletics chief operating officer Rocky Harris, and former NCAA Associate Director of Football Aaron Hernandez. Each worked in college football. Each left. They all are outside the NCAA, care about athletes, and have the freedom and distance to think about redesign in ways NCAA stakeholders cannot.

What I asked them was this: What does a future, optimal NCAA look like, and how do we get there?

College Sport Can Serve College Athletes ‘Within the Existing Laws’

If there is anyone who has dedicated their career to thinking about how to better serve college athletes, it’s Ramogi Huma. Huma played football at UCLA in the late 1990s and got an early education in the ways in which colleges could easily do better by athletes. When a teammate got suspended because someone had dropped off groceries at his apartment and then that had been made public, Huma couldn’t believe, A) that this was a violation of rules, and B) that no one thought to talk with him and his teammates in recognition of their anger over the situation, or that it was a problem in need of fixing. When Huma approached UCLA athletic administrators to ask for a meeting, he was told to go first to the Student Athlete Advisory Committee. So he showed up for a meeting, thinking this was the group that would serve as his representation and was designed to advocate for athletes.

“What I discovered was a group planning a dance and getting messaging out that athletes should be showing up to each other’s games,” Huma said. “When I asked about athletes’ rights, things like food restrictions and scholarship rights and medical expenses, I was met with blank stares.

“‘That’s not what we do,’ I was told.”

Huma’s National College Players Association started as a student group at UCLA. Now a 501(c)(3) nonprofit advocacy association made up of current and former athletes, the NCPA has spent the past 20 years trying to place athletes’ rights – serving athletes – at the center of the mission of the NCAA and college sports. Huma has watched as the money has exploded, and now he includes economic rights in the demands of the college athletes he serves. He has used his power and savvy to work behind the scenes and with creativity to force the college sports ecosystem to change.

Kain Colter found Huma online when he wanted to start organizing Northwestern University football players, an effort that unexpectedly got Power Five schools and conferences to adopt many of the components of the athletes’ rights platform.

The California Fair Pay to Play Act and the state-by-state approach to name, image, and likeness? Huma. Now athletics departments are celebrating their commitment to helping athletes develop their brands and monetize their NILs.

I asked Huma if anyone on the NCAA’s Constitution Committee – led by former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates – or the Division I Transformation Committee had reached out to Huma about college sports redesign. No one has.

“My experience … what I’ve concluded … (is) this fight is surely about power and not about what is reasonable and workable,” Huma said. “Whomever they announce is leading the redesign, we get a repackaging of the same thing. We don’t spend much time thinking about how to work with the NCAA. Instead, we figure out how to work within the existing laws, and if they are enforced, how they will get us to where we need to be.”

I asked Huma what sorts of future models he could see working, like Power Five football spinning off, or the entirety of the Power Five conferences doing so, and he said that while it probably wouldn’t be very popular, really any model introduced could be made functional and could work.

“Our job is to fight for what is right regardless of what the model looks like,” Huma said. “One thing I do know is that college sports does not have a money problem. We have (athletic directors) playing games, but we do not have a money problem. In the past 15 years, there has been a $5 billion explosion. We have schools cutting teams. We have 100,000 fewer female athletes than male athletes, with only, as a whole, two athletes added. Meanwhile, 1,577 coaches have been added over the same time period.”

Huma’s new college players’ association, the NCPA, holds four key goals: enforcing health and safety standards; improving Title IX enforcement; providing fair compensation for athletes; and preserving all college sports. These could all be adopted as guiding principles in a newly designed NCAA.

But these things should already be coming, if existing laws – like Title IX, the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the Sherman Anti-Trust Act, and the National Labor Relations Act – are enforced. I’m confident Huma can get us there. But another option here is for schools to bring in Huma as a partner and advisor, and the schools could be proactive rather than reactive. Wouldn’t that be better?

The NCAA May Remain ‘Collateral Damage’ of Broken U.S. Sport System

Rocky Harris is uniquely positioned to understand the relationship between professional football, college football, and Olympic sports in the U.S. He has worked for the 49ers and the Texans in the NFL in addition to being COO of the Arizona State athletics department. Now, he is the CEO of USA Triathlon, an Olympic NGB. These experiences allow Harris to see the macro issues facing American sport.

When I wrote a story last summer about how American college football players pay for the world’s Olympic development thanks to “collegiate amateurism,” Harris called me up to remind me that the NFL is getting off scot-free and deserves some of the criticism here. The NFL enjoys streamlined scouting and player-development services from college football, which Harris sees as a minor league system. “They need to start funding some of this, too,” he says. But, generally, Harris believes that at the institutional level, the preoccupation with money and how it is used has distorted the mission of college sports, shifting it from serving athletes to serving revenue generation. Harris explains that this means athletes are not being well-served by a system that appears hopelessly broken to those inside it.

“College sports claims a mission and does the opposite,” Harris said. “And when college sports leaders consistently show they are not in line with what they say their mission is, they lose the public’s trust.”

Asked if a sport-by-sport restructuring could be a more optimal model than the patchwork approach we have now, Harris excitedly explained that “over the last 50 years, a lot has changed and policies haven’t shifted fast enough. Assuming we separate out football, and maybe also men’s and women’s basketball, what we could be doing is designing with a sport-specific focus through sport verticals, perhaps under a USOPC with an expanded mission, and with an NCAA as one part of that system, and each college sports space organized within the sports vertical.”

Harris continued: “We need a rethinking of sports governance at the highest level. Everyone sees how inefficient this is. It is not sustainable.”

Harris’ comments linking college sports to American Olympic development stuck with me. Because so much of Olympic development takes place on college campuses, many of which are public, perhaps a tax on sports gambling revenue or a lottery tax (like many countries have to fund Olympic development) could help subsidize Olympic sports on college campuses, serving elite athletes. Within this two-tier sports approach that has both elite Olympic development and a participatory scholastic model operating within institutions of higher education, schools can focus on the second tier: growing and improving scholastic sport, expanding participation opportunities to serve more students, and turning playing fields into community assets by reaching out from the institutions and inviting their broader communities into their place spaces as well, not as sports fans, but as sports participants.

I asked Harris if I was being a silly academic removed from reality thinking this way. He bought it, but he emphasized the importance of properly mapping out the ripple effects. “No one is showing the unintended consequences of anything. This is in large part because so much of NCAA ‘policy’ is reactionary. Look at NIL!” Harris pointed out.

“First, we have to show proof of concept with a tangible example. We have to walk through the impact within a sport vertical,” he said. “What is the impact on grassroots, amateur entities? Colleges? Age-group participants? Olympic development? Professional stakeholders? Athletes at each stage of participation? Run lots of models. We need alternative options. Compare them with the current model and show how they are more efficient. If we wait any longer, this is only going to get more challenging.”

Is the NCAA an Impenetrable Barrier to Change?

You learn a lot when you talk with a former NCAA employee about the inefficiencies of its bureaucracy and the failure of leadership at the top. Aaron Hernandez worked as associate director of football at the NCAA, a job that tasked him with identifying major threats to the collegiate model and conducting investigations of football programs that may have violated NCAA rules.

Hernandez now directs the Sports Law and Business Program at Arizona State University. In a recent Marquette Sports Law Review article, Hernandez shared his disgust with how the NCAA has become consumed by the policing of amateurism and the taking of money in relatively harmless violations of NCAA rules while showing absolutely no leadership in preventing sexual assault in athletic programs. Hernandez’s article provides the context, explains the legal ramifications, and makes the case for a new NCAA rule that would make sexual assault by actively enrolled athletes punishable by banishment from NCAA competition.

Hernandez had been among the first from the NCAA to interview sexual assault survivors at Baylor, and the experience changed him forever. “One of the most Herculean efforts of my life was just to get the Baylor charges to stick,” Hernandez said. “It was exhausting. I got unprofessional. I yelled in meetings. It seemed like such an easy thing to try to do with good legal arguments we could defend,” said Hernandez. “Baylor and (head football coach Art) Briles need to pay. And then it was ultimately out of our hands because the (NCAA) Committee of Infractions makes the ultimate call. And now Briles can still coach college football.”

What really frustrates Hernandez is the NCAA’s inability to develop guiding principles that would serve athletes because of what he called an obsession with money in college sports. And it isn’t just the schools obsessing over revenue generation and controlling mechanisms of athlete compensation. It’s media coverage, too.

“How many articles, how many talking heads on ESPN, how many advocates are talking about this? Hardly anybody is talking about this,” he said. “Instead we’re inundated with stories about exorbitant spending on coaches and facilities, and (name, image, and likeness) coverage.”

“The NCAA could have taken a leadership role in sexual assault on campuses and chose not to. Part of the problem here is that the management of the organization is so bad that they will not step in to make the tough calls,” he continued. “And the NCAA exists in a vacuum because it doesn’t have competition or government regulation. The underlying mission focused on college athlete welfare has gone by the wayside.”

The failure to lead plays out at the institutional level, too. “Take, for example, the facilities and coaching compensation arms race,” Hernandez pointed out. “It could have been corralled a lot better at the institutional level. But these ADs, for running mission-driven organizations, have not had the gumption to stand up to the highest-paid state employee or the Board of Regents to say, ‘We are not going to pay millions for a coach because that is not in line with our mission.’”

I asked Hernandez where he thinks we will be two to three years from now. He laughed and said, “I’m a little cynical on this. I think nothing really changes. As long as that legislative process is in place – and it doesn’t look like these constitutional and transformation committees are doing much to change the legislative process or governance model – the NCAA will end up in the same spot.”

Hernandez believes there are many people in the NCAA and in athletic departments across the country who share his frustrations, who do not see athlete compensation as the enemy, and who want to bring major changes to the design of college sports. But he says many of these people, like him, are leaving the industry. To Hernandez, the problem lies with the inefficient legislative apparatus that makes things move incredibly slowly and works to prioritize the things that do not matter but packages them as big deals.

“Take [Southeastern Conference Commissioner] Greg Sankey and [Ohio Athletics Director] Julie Cromer, the leaders of the Division I Transformation Committee,” said Hernandez. “They want to bring transformational change. But the apparatus makes it really tough to maneuver. We need a significant deregulation of the governance process. And we need to try things and fail. It’s better to try things out and fail and learn from the failures than to do nothing at all.”

In talking with Huma, Harris, and Hernandez and reflecting on additional conversations I have had over the past year with the many people who care deeply about college athletes and their well-being but who exist outside of the NCAA system and therefore outside of the constitutional rewrite project, one thing has become crystal clear: If real, substantive redesign is to occur, it is unlikely to come from a process that is driven by the NCAA.

What I heard from these three can be pulled together in a reimagined American college sports system with two tiers: an elite athlete development tier organized and run in a partnership with Olympic NGBs, and a scholastic, community-serving, participatory tier run by the schools, in their membership association, the NCAA. Huma’s push to enforce American laws on the books and level the playing field is a necessary starting point. Harris’ thoughts on the unique needs of each sport help to make the case for a restructured USOPC and broader American sports ecosystem. And Hernandez’s ideas on how an NCAA with a backbone and enforceable guiding principles could truly begin to look out for athlete well-being would get us back to the mission of serving athletes.

One thing is for sure: There is a lot more creative energy developing practical plans taking place outside of the NCAA than happening within. Bringing in folks like these– the insider-outsiders – would begin an actual substantive redesign of sports in the United States to serve young athletes.

But unlike the NCAA and AAU battles of the mid-twentieth century that created the context for a greater congressional project of American sports governance redesign, the NCAA today has no competitor. And it has a leadership unwilling to boldly lead.

It’s time for a new Amateur Sports Act. But let’s tweak the name to make it the American Sports Act. And let’s make sure that Athletes’ Bill of Rights is in the body of the legislation this time around.

Victoria Jackson, PhD, is a sports historian and clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University. She is a former NCAA champion and retired professional track and field athlete.

Monthly Issue

College Sports 2.0

Last summer, NCAA president Mark Emmert openly acknowledged it was “the right time” to answer the question “if we were going to build college sports again, and in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?”

From education to athlete safety, labor laws to race and gender equity and beyond, this issue offers guidance for what that next iteration of American college sport ought to look like.