NCAA reorganizes around new constitution that shifts power to universities

INDIANAPOLIS — NCAA member schools and conferences voted Thursday to adopt a new streamlined constitution, the first step in decentralizing an organization that faces growing challenges over its relevance as the primary authority in sports. university.

But the debate over the association’s adoption of the new charter, which will empower schools and conferences, has hinted at the widening gap between the mission and the financial power of these thousands of varied institutions – d a soccer powerhouse like national champion Georgia and non-scholarship athletes. in places like Grinnell College.

This discrepancy promises to be highlighted as the three NCAA divisions detail how they will review each other in the coming months.

It’s then, particularly in Division I, that the wealthiest schools — like Texas and Ohio State, which have athletic budgets over $200 million — and their conferences will push for greater influence. in their operation, unhindered by the central governance of the NCAA.

The redone constitution easily passed the two-thirds threshold required for approval, garnering 80% of the 1,016 votes from member conferences and schools. It will come into effect on August 1.

The new charter was a response to a particularly tumultuous 2021 which, amid the pandemic, included the exposing of gender inequalities in men’s and women’s Division I basketball tournaments, the enactment of a state legislation allowing athletes to cash in on their fame, and Congress is wiggling its fingers about what was wrong with college sports.

The most shocking moment, however, came last June when the Supreme Court, ruling on a case that paved the way for education-related payments and benefits, all but invited direct challenges to the NCAA ban. to pay players directly. Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh took aim at the NCAA, suggesting the organization violated antitrust rules.

NCAA President Mark Emmert, in a speech Thursday remotely because he said he was restricted by coronavirus rules, described the new charter as less a constitution and more a declaration of independence from a way of doing business that no longer worked. The past year or so has made it clear, he said, that “if we don’t rise to the challenge now in this great moment, others are ready to do so”, referring to the courts and legislative bodies.

The new constitution will replace the current edition – but notably not the bulky 463-page Division I rulebook. Its goal, Emmert said, was to distill the charter down to the essence of what college sports should strive for: diversity, inclusiveness and integrity. , and taking care of the physical and mental health of athletes. He also argues that college athletes shouldn’t be considered employees, which would strike at the heart of the entire company.

The new constitution was backed by the NCAA’s Board of Governors, the 25-person committee that charts the direction of the organization.

That committee took action late Wednesday to update its policy on transgender athletes, who will be required to undergo testosterone testing, beginning with the winter sports championships that begin in March. This move is intended to align the NCAA with national federations (or world federations) that set standards for acceptable testosterone levels in their sports in the United States. Previously, the NCAA only required transgender women to take testosterone suppressing therapy for one calendar year before competing in women’s track and field.

An NCAA spokeswoman said the organization does not know how many athletes the new rules will affect.

The question recently caught the eye with the performance of Lia Thomas, a University of Pennsylvania swimmer, who set the nation’s best times this season in the women’s 200 and 500 meter freestyle after previously competing for the men’s school. team.

USA Swimming said in a statement it was working on new policies with the sport’s international federation FINA and expected new guidelines for elite competition “soon”.

But most of the discussion among trustees at the five-day convention, which began on Tuesday, focused on the new constitution, which was about a third thicker than the existing one.

Robert M. Gates, the former US Secretary of Defense, put together the first draft of the new constitution in a weekend, penning 12½ double-spaced pages at his home in Washington state. (It eventually swelled to 19 pages.)

This relative speed gave pause to some of the opponents, who made their voices heard Thursday in a public session ahead of the vote.

George Bright, the athletic director of Elizabeth City State, a historically black university in North Carolina, decried that the new constitution provides for HBCUs to be represented on the board of governors — but as a nonvoting member. “When you marginalize the HBCU vote, you marginalize our opportunity,” he told a convention center and a virtual audience, citing separate but equal images.

Betsy Mitchell, president of Cal Tech and former Olympic swimming medalist, decried the process as rushed and orchestrated by a small group. She called the vote a charade.

At its heart was a question: Who among its members should now lead the NCAA?

Division I schools generated 96% of the $18.9 billion college athletics raised in fiscal year 2019, but those 358 schools outnumber Division II schools 2-to-1 and Division III, which combined also have far more athletes and far different agendas than the well-known powerhouses of football and basketball.

“We’re just the virtual cabbage on the Division I burger,” said Hiram Chodosh, president of Claremont McKenna College in California, who noted that Division III carries the banner of the term student-athlete.

He noted wryly, with a nod to the college sports industry that’s built on the backs of unpaid athletes, that “without the rest of us, it might start to look like a commercial enterprise. “.

Still, there was enough in the proposal to garner support from a majority of Division II and Division III schools.

The simplified constitution would “untie some of the knots, if you want to call it that, that prohibit divisions from doing some of the things they want to do,” said Shane Lyons, the athletic director of West Virginia, who sits on the board. administration. of Governors and the Division I Board of Directors.

Any transformational change, Lyons said, would begin to take shape in the coming weeks as Divisions I, II and III committees begin to define what greater autonomy would look like. The Division I committee will begin looking at issues such as law enforcement, revenue distribution, recruiting timelines, and anything else that might be in the heavy rulebook.

Julie Cromer, Ohio University athletic director and co-chair of the committee with Southeastern Conference commissioner Greg Sankey, said some committee members wanted to walk through this with a scalpel. Others, she said, would rather throw it on a bonfire and start over.

But within Division I, not everyone will have a voice on the committee tasked with shaping a new future. There are 32 lectures – 11 of which will be left out.

Talya Minsberg and Alain Blinder contributed report.