Touchdowns for Jesus Play Book: Page 2, Power Plays

The NCAA is busy making some adjustments these days. You may have noticed.

If the NCAA were a ship at sea, they would be trying to get their sea legs in a stormy ocean. This is a time of great unrest and shifting tides. And we are watching it feverishly try to set its sail for the direction that will keep it from getting sucked down into the whirlpool of the power vacuum that is forming. The power vacuum is forming around who gets to call the shots and how in Division I revenue sports.

Mike Carmin, the football beat writer for the Lafayette Journal & Courier, interviewed me this week about my book, Touchdowns for Jesus and Other Signs of Apocalypse: Lifting the Veil on Big-Time Sports. One of his questions was about these changes afoot in the way the NCAA does business. He asked me if I thought the emergence of “autonomy” for the big conferences was going to achieve the changes needed in big-time college sports.

If you have had a chance to read Touchdowns for Jesus then you can probably anticipate how I answered Mike’s question. My chapters on race (“White Lines”) and higher education (“Higher Learning”) talk about the necessity of a change in how power is used and distributed in big-time college sports. In that way, one could assume that the direction of the changes in the NCAA’s decision-making structures is a positive one. If you have read my book, then you will also not be surprised that my answer is not that simple.

There are some positive changes that will have more of a fighting chance if this new structure, in which the big conferences decide how to sail their own ship, passes. For instance, conferences like the Big 10 who have already tried and failed to get policies passed for players to receive a few thousand dollars of a stipend in addition to their scholarship will be better able to make that happen with the new structure. The great thing about this potential change is that big-time sports can move away from the one-size fits all approach it has taken to Division I institutions. The differences between some of these schools are vast when it comes to revenue sports. These conferences and institutions will now be more empowered to address some of their own particular needs hopefully without creating bigger problems for schools who have different situations.

While shifting power structures can shake loose some positive possibilities, the framework for decision-making suggested for the new structure bares the marks of a continued blindness to what sharing power in diverse communities really looks like.

NCAA President Mark Emmert states that, “The Division I membership overall and the steering committee in particular worked hard to create a structure that will allow the division to operate more simply and inclusively. It shows a clear commitment to support student-athletes and allow them not only a place at the table but a voice in the process.” Despite Emmert’s strong words about the changes when it comes to players’ representation, the NCAA’s own verbiage about the new system reveals that their boasting about a new day overstates the nature of the actual changes being suggested. Players will make up only 3.1 percent of the voting on the proposed board. The bulk of the power still rests with the Presidents of the NCAA member institutions. And there will still not be any coaches on the decision making body that I can see in the structure they outline.With the structure outlined as it is, statistics tell us that this decision-making entity will also be overwhelming white and overwhelmingly male.

For several reasons, these changes are not of the character that will truly delve into the power issues that are at work in the depths of big-time sports. The people who are the most effected by the decisions will continue to have the least amount of say in how decisions are made.

Until race and privilege and the resulting ways that power is used, distributed, and abused in big-time sports are honestly discussed, the changes we see will continue to be more like rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic than they are about truly making the ship more seaworthy for all who have a stake in it staying afloat.

The winds of change are certainly blowing mightily these days. May we have the courage to ride the tide of justice and not just look for life preservers for a few.

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