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“It’s a Hot Mess and Always Has Been”: Jay Bilas on the NCAA’s Future

Change is coming to college sports. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas reads between the lines to tell Boardroom what’s really happening.

ESPN analyst and Duke basketball alum Jay Bilas is currently in Las Vegas getting ready to call the Maui Invitational for the Worldwide Leader from Monday to Wednesday. On the court, he thinks Houston is an elite defensive team and expects Notre Dame to be “very good.”

But while we sit back and stumble into Thanksgiving with dreams of a major Chaminade upset, what’s going on behind the scenes at the NCAA is just as interesting as the week’s festivities at the Michelob Ultra Arena.

And anyone who follows Bilas on social media knows he doesn’t hold back on this particular subject.

The NCAA is on the verge of adopting significant changes to its constitution. The overarching theme: governance will (largely) shift from its Indianapolis-based offices to the individual divisions, schools, and conferences. This makes sense — there’s no reason Cal Tech and Cal Berkeley should be using the same rulebook; their respective budgets, levels of competition, and overall priorities are entirely different. At the NCAA level, the current board of governors would be downsized from 21 to nine, and would include a recently graduated athlete. It would be responsible only for matters that impact the entire organization.

Throwing all this in with the implications of the ongoing name, image, and likeness revolution, there’s a lot to digest. To get in tune with all the changes in the air, Boardroom spoke with Bilas over the phone about the trajectory of the NCAA and about the governing body’s many recent shortcomings.

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Athletes as Employees

Bilas called the recent NCAA constitutional convention and anticipated changes “the last gasp of amateurism.” The organization would essentially pass off regulation of athlete NIL monetization onto its divisions, but keep the overarching rule that athletes cannot become actual employees of their universities.

“That’s where they want to plant their flag, is on employment,” Bilas told Boardroom. “But everything else, they’re basically going to say ‘okay, well, the NCAA now exists to deal with eligibility issues and academic issues and all that stuff, the stuff that won’t violate federal antitrust law, and then you conferences and divisions have to handle the rest of that on your own.'”

Eventually, Bilas believes, the NCAA will fail there. He says the landscape is headed toward universities paying players directly — and that’s not a bad thing. In many cases, athletes are already treated as employees, just without the paycheck to match. Yes, they go to class, but they’re also sent out on the road for 9:30 p.m. games in all corners of the country, often in the middle of the week. Schools offer cost-of-attendance scholarships and meal stipends, but that’s not payment; it’s just enough to enable the athletes to produce for their schools.

And the schoolwork still has to get done.

“The idea that athletes can’t be employees, that Moses carried that down on an additional tablet from Mount Sinai, is kind of ridiculous,” he said.

The NCAA can keep its academic requirements and that will keep athletes in class, thus allowing the NCAA to fulfill its purpose of supporting student-athletes.

The “Hot Mess” of NCAA Enforcement

You’d be hard-pressed to find a school that has gone through the NCAA enforcement process and had all parties come out satisfied with the outcome. It’s another area that’s come under fire in recent weeks with two high-profile cases.

First, Oklahoma State men’s basketball had a postseason ban upheld for violations that occurred before any current player was even on campus. Head coach Mike Boynton was so upset that he called out members of the NCAA Infractions Appeals Committee by name in a press conference, leading to a sharp reprimand.

The second was when a clerical error caused UMass men’s basketball and women’s tennis players to receive slightly more in scholarship money than they should have been allotted. The NCAA decided to strip both teams of wins, including the tennis team’s Atlantic 10 conference championship.

And it was all over $9,100, given to 12 athletes over three years.

“It’s never spit out a good result,” Bilas said of the NCAA’s enforcement system. “It’s a hot mess and always has been.”

It’s the enforcement process, to Bilas, that underscores the need for reorganization at the NCAA level. Allowing school presidents to dictate athletics simply has not worked.

The problem, more specifically, is. that their view on enforcement is based on a flawed principle: that if schools are punished for rule-breaking, then university presidents will be less likely to hire people who might break rules. That’s just never been the case. It does not work to punish the schools over the individuals.

“You have to lay appropriate blame and punishment where it reasonably belongs,” he said. “The NCAA wants to have, at times, a strict liability view of things… it’s proven ineffective.”

“We Know How to Run Championships”

Perhaps the NCAA’s lowest moment in the past year came during the NCAA Basketball Tournament when Oregon’s Sedona Prince began a social media charge that showcased the inequities between the women’s and men’s events.

That included inferior weight rooms for the women in San Antonio compared to the men in Indianapolis, substandard meals, less flashy swag bags, and generic “women’s basketball” branding compared to the men’s tournament’s use of the March Madness moniker. It all led to an impromptu press conference at which VP of Women’s Basketball Lynn Holzman admitted the NCAA needed to better, and eventually an independent review from law firm Kaplan Hecker & Fink LLP to provide feedback and recommendations to work toward gender equity.

“The NCAA has never liked to be told what to do,” Bilas said. “How many times have they told us ‘we know how to run championships?’ Yeah, inequitable ones.”

The ensuing Kaplan Report came back with recommendations that the NCAA has already implemented. It will allow the women’s tournament to use March Madness branding — which it never had a reason to prevent in the first place — and will expand the women’s tournament field from 64 teams to 68.

The changes themselves, Bilas says, are great. But how we got here is a product of the NCAA not getting out in front of its own issues.

“With all their high-minded rhetoric about gender equity, they were asleep at the wheel, and that goes straight to [NCAA president] Mark Emmert,” Bilas said. “When it was pointed out on social media by [Prince] the inequities of the tournament, he was the last of the NCAA people to speak.”

The lack of accountability is a familiar pattern. There isn’t any accountability in enforcement, and so the NCAA doesn’t mind embarrassing itself time and again with ridiculous punishments. They’re trying to pass on accountability on player compensation. They successfully handed it off to KHF on gender equity.

There are reasons to believe that 2021-22 will be a fairer, more equitable season than 2020-21. But for the record, the same people who were in charge of running championships last March are still in charge of running championships.

That should say it all.

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