THE NATIONAL Collegiate Athletic Association’s recent decision to give its five most powerful conferences independent authority to compensate athletes beyond current limits is a blow to UMass Amherst and other universities trying to establish nationally competitive college football programs. After all, if top athletes can receive more support at the 65 schools in the Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12, Atlantic Coast, and Southeastern conferences, why would they attend UMass or other universities outside those conferences?
Under the new rules, schools in the five conferences can add money to scholarships, boost insurance and travel benefits, and legalize player contact with agents. The goal, according to NCAA President Mark Emmert, is to “better support the young people who come to college to play sports while earning a degree.” Some of the adjustments make sense. Potential pro draft picks deserve to spend more time with their agents. And, in many cases, increased compensation is a matter of fairness: The improved benefits were approved a day before a federal judge ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust rules by not compensating athletes for the use of their names, images, and likenesses in broadcasts and video games.
But rather than address these problems in a limited way, through special dispensations to the top conferences, the NCAA needs to have a far deeper and more comprehensive reckoning with the changes in its model of supporting student athletes. If the NCAA wants to preserve the notion that sports are merely an adjunct to the academic mission of the university, it must focus intently on giving students the time and support they need to get their degrees, while dialing back the demands of their sports programs. Otherwise, if the NCAA wants to allow its universities to pursue ever-greater opportunities for TV and marketing, it must fundamentally alter the rules of college sports, compensating players as professionals while providing an alternative path to education.
In the meantime, the special treatment for the top conferences raises important questions for state taxpayers and UMass Amherst. The Minutemen moved up two seasons ago to the Football Bowl Subdivision, the same level as Ohio State, Alabama, and Texas. But with the team still drawing only 15,000 fans a game to Gillette Stadium, the Globe reported last December that the university will have to cover $5.1 million of the team’s $7.8 million budget this season, much more than originally anticipated. Now that the sand has shifted once again under the foundation of college sports, with new incentives for top players to go elsewhere, it would be prudent for UMass to reassess. Without further changes by the NCAA, there is no chance UMass will be able to stand on an equal playing field with the Ohio States, Alabamas, and Texases of the college sports world.