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Dick Harmon: NCAA reforms teeter on tipping over the college sports cart

Published: Sunday, Aug. 2 2015 11:17 p.m. MDT

NCAA President Mark Emmert gestures while speaking at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. The NCAA Board of Directors overwhelmingly approved a package of historic reforms Thursday that will give the nation's five biggest conferences the ability to unilaterally change some of the basic rules governing college sports. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Michael Conroy, AP) NCAA President Mark Emmert gestures while speaking at NCAA headquarters in Indianapolis, Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014. The NCAA Board of Directors overwhelmingly approved a package of historic reforms Thursday that will give the nation's five biggest conferences the ability to unilaterally change some of the basic rules governing college sports. (AP Photo/Michael Conroy) (Michael Conroy, AP)

The NCAA's vote to allow some of the more prosperous college football programs in America to play by their own rules is an interesting decision.

It’s kind of like giving a flock of chickens longer beaks to peck at those down the line.

It is the latest in a metamorphosis of amateur athletics, as we like to call them. Does the change serve the best interests of college sports? Or are we hatching a new form of professional sports, amateurism be damned?

The answer probably lies somewhere in between.

Four years ago, TV money ignited a shuffle in conference realignment. This week, the NCAA board of governors voted to allow more prestigious conferences to take measures to spend more money taking care of their student-athletes, including increased insurance, a stipend, and the full cost of attendance.

On the surface, it’s a noble thing — to give back to student-athletes who put their health, welfare and time on the line for schools to make billions.

But is it really about that?

Most experts will tell you all of this is about four things. First, it is showing off checkbooks, adding to a ramped-up college arms race. Second, it is about five conferences who are sick and tired of schools with less tradition and prestige having an equal vote at the legislative table. Third, it is about addressing lawsuits like the Ed O’Bannon case, the threat of unionization by athletes (at Northwestern University), and prohibition against players endorsing products and gaining compensation. And, fourth, this vote is keeping a greater part of billions in the pockets of those who believe they are entitled to it.

The official NCAA company line is that this move is for the greater good of the student-athletes — that it protects the prime directive to enhance education and amateurism by providing increased support and better training and health for athletes.

Both sides are right. There is good and there is bad.

Perhaps the worst part of it is a continued fragmentation of college sports, fiddling with the fabric that made it: Stomping on passionate rivalries like Oklahoma-Nebraska, Missouri-Kansas, Texas A&M-Texas and Utah-BYU. Poking around with these traditions in a negative way is what happens when college athletics become tribal war for more wampum.

There’s “new-school” and “old-school” thoughts to the changes.

Guys like Alabama coach Nick Saban, who gets the top football recruits and has almost endless money for staff and facilities, love the idea. They can now flash more coin and maintain a ton of power. What’s not to like?

Guys like Kansas State coach Bill Snyder call it a farce and claim that universities have sold themselves out.

Snyder told reporters this past week, “We're all about dollars and cents. The concept of college football no longer has any bearing on the quality of the person, the quality of students. Universities are selling themselves out. It's no longer about education. We've sold out to the cameras over there, and TV has made its way, and I don't fault TV. I don't fault whoever broadcasts games. They have to make a living and that's what they do, but athletics — that's it. It's sold out."

Snyder said recent trends send the wrong message to young people. "Everybody is building Taj Mahals and I think it sends the message — and young people today I think are more susceptible to the downside of that message, and that it's not about education. We're saying it is, but it's really about the glitz and the glitter, and I think sometimes values get distorted that way. I hate to think a young guy would make a decision about where he's going to get an education based on what a building looks like."

Locally, I think Utah, BYU and Utah State look at this move through positive goggles, albeit with some caution. Providing more for student-athletes — protecting their health, well-being and allowing them to prosper with a stipend and resources — is a worthwhile move for their scholarship athletes.

Big 12 athletic director Bob Bowlsby cautions that as greater expenses grow into tremendous costs, this could come at a price — sacrificing other college sports programs.

As this NCAA legislation moves through the process with proposals on how to structure it, I’m sure athletic directors and presidents at the in-state schools will do so with an attitude to embrace the changes and do all they can to fulfill the spirit of the move.

But lets not fool ourselves. There are plenty of entities on the college landscape (bowl executives, television partners, agents and administrators) who have pushed this for purely selfish reasons and have threatened to take their ball and play somewhere else if they don’t get their way.

Hopefully wise, intelligent, reasonable and judicious minds will prevail as this new move heads toward implementation.

Reforms have been long overdue. But let’s not turn college football into a bloated version of the USFL.

Dick Harmon, Deseret News sports columnist, can be found on Twitter as Harmonwrites and can be contacted at dharmon@desnews.com.

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