NCAA’s evolution is overdue and inevitable. So who is in charge of what in college sports?

"If we were going to build college sports again in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?"

Zach Osterman
Indianapolis Star

Between last week and this one, conference media days across the country herald the arrival of a new college football season. 

COVID-19 hasn’t permitted a total return to normal. The SEC won’t allow fans into its media days, in the face of long-standing tradition, while the Big Ten on Friday distributed a seven-point list of protocols and recommendations for attendees to its two-day event later this week. But after 18 months of utter abnormality, the return of these annual kickoff days is the surest sign yet college sports are returning to something approaching usual service. 

The landscape around them, however, has rarely felt more unfamiliar. 

Not entirely because of COVID-19 but certainly accelerated by the critical mass of issues confronted during and as a result of the pandemic, college sports have entered a period of flux as significant as any in their modern history. 

Much of that change — whatever its attendant growing pains — is necessary. Some of it is long overdue. 

NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks during a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee hearing on June 9.

NCAA President Mark Emmert last week told a small group of reporters, including USA TODAY’s Dan Wolken, that it could be time to reimagine the association’s role in college athletics. 

“I’m confident we need to reconsider delegation of a lot of things that are now done at the national level,” Emmert said, according to Wolken. “It should only be at that level if it's the only place it can get done, if that’s the only place it makes sense to have a rule developed and enforced.”

Emmert’s comments, from a president now in his second decade steering the NCAA, represented a marked shift in thinking from the leader of an association that has for decades consolidated and upheld a largely top-down power structure at the highest level of American college sports. Colloquially, when we say “college athletics,” we generally think of the NCAA in the same way we think of the NFL for professional football, or the NBA for professional basketball. 

But that power structure has spent the past 10-15 years weathering its share of troubles.  

The NCAA wasn’t altogether thrilled with conference realignment, or the formation via their collective movement toward autonomy of what we now call the Power Five conferences: the ACC, SEC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12. Those things happened anyway.

More importantly, challenges to amateurism — the most fundamental tenet of the NCAA’s governing philosophy — have come in bunches and from all angles. Everything from pay for play, to name, image and likeness, to athlete unionization and collective bargaining, has forced the association to defend both its rules and its principles on multiple fronts. 

IU reacts to NIL:What IU is doing to maximize its athletes' earning potential

Those challenges are starting to breach the wall now. The Supreme Court’s ruling in the Alston case, a unanimous decision from a group of judges philosophically anything but, dealt amateurism a body blow at the same time that state legislation was forcing the NCAA to embrace NIL, a concept the NCAA once stood firmly against. 

NIL likely wasn’t the lone catalyst for Emmert’s comments last week, or the association’s apparent shift on how power should be distributed through the college athletics pyramid, but it might be the crack that crumbled the dam.

In any event, NIL encapsulates the complexities associated with the wider question of who should be in charge of what in college athletics. 

It will likely be much more relevant to bigger schools than smaller ones. It presents a litany of enforcement challenges for a governing body that may be gun shy about that activity right now, for fear of exposing the association to further antitrust challenges. And unless or until there is a federal law governing its practice, it will still exist via a hodgepodge of state laws, governors’ executive orders and individual schools’ own policies, creating an uneven, volatile ecosystem within which one of the most dramatic changes to the NCAA’s operating policy will develop and mature in the coming years. 

In short, NIL is a comfortable symbol of the multilayered challenge the NCAA now faces: It is too broad and too complex to be reasonably governed under a one-size-fits-all system. 

So, here we are. 

No one should act surprised. The Power Five’s realignment push and autonomy movement never felt like endpoints. Challenges to amateurism were becoming too many and too detailed to fail forever. Sports Illustrated’s Ross Dellenger reported on Monday numerous conference commissioners — a group whose power over college athletics should never be underestimated — were prepared to call for changes to college sports’ governance structure, before Emmert preempted them last week. 

Emmert himself has become a lightning rod for criticism in recent years. 

Some of it — like the woeful disparities in facilities between the men’s and women’s bubbled men’s basketball tournaments in March — has been fully justified. But some of it can also be seen, frankly, as just part of the job. 

What to know about NIL:Seismic change coming to college sports. What to know about NIL, NCAA, Supreme Court case

The NCAA president is a figure of great authority, but it is always important to remember that the association exists and acts at the behest of its member schools. Emmert leads the NCAA, but he never acts unilaterally. The association’s Board of Governors is its ultimate ruling body, and while Emmert sits on that 25-person board, his position is non-voting except in the event he must do so to break a tie. 

Emmert is a powerful figure in college sports, but he is not a king. He acts in the interests of his membership. Which should only serve to amplify the significance of his message when he says, as he did to Wolken and others last week, that “this is a real propitious moment to sit back and look at a lot of the core assumptions and say, ‘If we were going to build college sports again in 2020 instead of 1920, what would that look like?’”

Will the NCAA ever truly go away? Unlikely. It has too much brand power, it can still serve a variety of bureaucratic and organizational purposes, and as these last few months have proven, it comes in handy to have the association around when college sports needs someone or something to absorb a cannonade of criticism. 

But its role is evolving, quite possibly to the extent that college sports as we know them today will look dramatically different very soon.

“What would we change,” Emmert continued, “what would we expect or what to be in the way we manage it? This is the right time.” 

We can debate whether this is “the right” moment for such fundamental transformation, but it almost certainly is the moment. Change is coming to college sports. In many ways, it feels long overdue.

Follow IndyStar reporter Zach Osterman on Twitter: @ZachOsterman.