Down a step from elite college football, officials pitch a model for a new sports landscape

Facing upheaval on the way in college athletics, a handful of administrators and athletes from smaller schools have been working on a new model of governance.

The hope by members of the Football Championship Subdivision and Division I-AAA (programs without football) is to give their athletes more of a say and essentially treat them more like students than employees.

It was a way to be proactive — and potentially head off future lawsuits — amid seismic changes across college sports that started even before the recent $2.77 billion settlement of antitrust claims agreed to by the NCAA and the nation’s five biggest conferences. That proposal, which needs a judge’s approval, also sets the stage for schools to pay millions directly to athletes.

The full impact of the settlement is not yet known, but there are concerns that the chase for championships and big-time revenue is beyond the scope and interest of many schools.

Janet Cone, the president of I-AAA athletic directors and the AD at UNC Asheville, joined colleagues to present their proposed model earlier this month at the annual convention of the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics and to others during an online panel organized by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

“Our goal was to create a sustainable model that was philosophically and legally defensible and would keep our subdivisions competing in Division I,” Cone told the group.

There are 128 FCS programs that offer football, from Abilene Christian to Youngstown State. There are another approximately 90 I-AAA schools without football that include basketball-focused athletic programs such as Gonzaga, Creighton and St. John’s.

Organizers say their plan would keep their schools at the D-I level while giving athletes more control over governance without resorting to legal action and perhaps provide them with a chance to earn credits toward a degree for athletics.

“I think that the response has been very positive,” said Tom Michael, athletic director at FCS school Eastern Illinois. “I think people believe that we’re down the right path. We understand we’re not at the finish line. Nobody has suggested that this is the final version of this model.

“I think that there’s an understanding that we need to be proactive on this and we can’t sit and wait for somebody else to try to point us in the direction or create the pathway for us.”

The group enlisted the Pictor Group as consultants last November. The plan has the stated mission of treating athletes more like other students and outlines a different role for coaches: Potential no-nos could include removing a player from a team as punishment or pressuring them to move into certain majors. Other proposals cover unreasonable time commitments, rules for appearance off the field and testing for recreational drugs.

“Obviously there’s got to be some kind of control to compete at a high level but not exerting control of everything they do,” Cone said of coaches. “Those pieces are really critical to our model where the student-athletes are going to be very involved.”

Former Abilene Christian football player Anthony Egbo Jr. and Radford volleyball player Meredith Page are among the athletes involved. They surveyed peers on what coaches expected of them and got some 100 responses to help formulate the model.

Egbo told the Knight Commission audience that the increased professionalizing of college sports has created more desire for athletes to have more say “in the development of policies that impact our experience.”

“The question that we’ve been asking is: What if there’s a better way for student-athletes to have influence over their experience that didn’t have to go through judicial and third-party systems?” Egbo said.

The guidelines are a way to steer away from any semblance of an employer-employee relationship. The National Labor Relations Board earlier this year found that Dartmouth exerted enough control over men’s basketball players that they met the legal definition of employees. That case has been appealed by the school.

Michael noted the proposals are not potentially earth-shattering changes as evidenced from a recent conversation with a league commissioner and a fellow athletic director.

“We kind of joked like, what we’re talking about here isn’t some novel approach,” he said. “It’s really what we all got into this for and trying to bring it back to its roots of this model that’s centered around education. We kind of laughed and were like, ‘Wow, that’s a novel idea.'”


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