By RALPH D. RUSSO
Bigger brackets. Less bureaucracy. More benefits for athletes.
The NCAA Division I transformation committee wrapped up months of work with a 22-page report released Tuesday that recommends a variety of changes at the top level of college sports, but only one likely to catch the attention of the average fan.
The committee is recommending allowing 25% of teams in sports sponsored by at least 200 schools to compete in annual championship events. That opens the door to possible expansion of the popular March Madness basketball tournaments from 68 to as many as 90 teams each.
Expanding the tournaments is not imminent and might not even be likely in the near future even if the recommendation is adopted.
“Each sport will have the opportunity to take a look, comprehensively, at what the impact of expanded brackets might be and whether or not it’s something they should pursue for their particular championship,” said Ohio University athletic director Julie Cromer, who is the co-chairperson of the committee.
The final report will be presented to the Division I Board of Directors for consideration ahead of next week’s NCAA convention in San Antonio.
The report calls for more sport-by-sport governance in Division I and enhanced expectations for DI schools with a goal of creating a more uniform experience for athletes.
Led by Cromer and Southeastern Conference Commissioner Greg Sankey, the 21-member committee comprised mostly of college sports administrators and university presidents held weekly meetings for most of the last year. Sankey, Cromer and others have been discussing some of the details publicly for weeks.
The goal was to reform the highest and most lucrative level of college athletics, which includes more than 350 schools. The result will be changes that could largely go unnoticed outside college sports and could take years to play out.
Cromer called the report a milestone, not a finish line.
“We believe the recommendations in this report will prove to be transformative but transformation needs to be a mindset shared by leaders,” she said.
No schools will be getting booted from Division I and the committee recommended giving schools approximately two years to meet enhanced membership expectations. The committee also said NCAA revenue could be used to subsidize schools in need of help meeting those new expectations.
“I don’t think what we’ve done today makes it cost prohibitive to be a Division I member,” Cromer said.
Among the notable recommendations:
— Require schools to create a “direct pathway for full-time clinical services of a licensed mental health professional exclusively dedicated to serving student-athletes.”
— Schools and conferences should create Student-Athlete Advisory Committees, similar to those used by the NCAA to allow athletes to be more involved in decisions.
— Require more accountability, training and certification for coaches.
The committee also recommended expanding permissible benefits to athletes to include more pay for travel, elite training away from the school, educational incidentals and more money toward housing and meals.
The committee recommended a review of membership requirements for the top tier of Division I football, know as the Bowl Subdivision. Those requirements are now mostly tied to attendance minimums.
Sport-by-sport oversight committees similar to those currently used in basketball and football could become more common. This would be no surprise: A move to decentralize the governance of college athletics was spurred by the Supreme Court’s unanimous decision against the NCAA in June 2021 in an antitrust case.
Soon after that ruling, Mark Emmert, now the outgoing NCAA president, called for shifting the power structure of the association to create a more deregulated version of college sports.
That set the stage for a comprehensive reform of Division I, where there are 363 Division I schools with athletic budgets ranging from well over $100 million annually to less than $10 million.
From the start, Sankey has tried to temper expectations about the committee’s work, pointing out that what qualifies as a transformation of DI was never clearly defined by the board.
Over the last few months, it became clear that while reforms would be made — the committee’s recommendations regarding sport-specific time periods when athletes may transfer and retain immediate eligibility have already been adopted —- radical change was not going to happen.
“We now have a set of actions that will be presented to the board,” Sanke said. “And so the opportunity to take this step in change is in front of the NCAA … but as we say repeatedly there has to be an ongoing effort to transformation, not simply a committee or a time.”
The committee handed off several items to a NCAA Division I Legislative Committee subcommittee, such as the elimination of the volunteer coach designation and a cap on recruiting visits. It also recommended a review of rules regarding athletes entering professional drafts and using agents.
As for rules related to athletes cashing in via celebrity endorsement deals — a profound change over the last 18 months in college sports — the committee’s report made clear the solution is beyond the NCAA’s reach: “Congress is the only entity that can grant that stability”
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