TULSA, Okla. — They threw around ideas people dream about — a 64-team football playoff — and others that might be more realistic: finding a way to let players receive a small stipend in addition to their scholarships.
A group of reform-minded professors who represent their faculties on the Coalition On Intercollegiate Athletics met this weekend to talk about the many changes they'd like to see in college sports and the precious few they might help push through.
This year's annual meeting came in the midst of some troubling times for in college athletics. Over the past year, the NCAA has endured scandals at — to name a few — Miami, North Carolina, Ohio State and, of course, Penn State, where the news of Joe Paterno's death hit hard Sunday.
It's been the sad lessons in State College that have resonated deepest with many of these professors. A child sex-abuse scandal and its aftermath have come to define the massive, 157-year-old institution instead of academics setting the agenda.
"It's been a classic example of the tail wagging the dog," said Nathan Tublitz, a biology professor at Oregon and one of the more vocal voices in COIA. "It's where an auxiliary enterprise, which is what athletics is, has gotten too big. It's like the kids telling the parents what to do."
In hopes of remedying that, COIA explored several questions during its three-day meeting, the full answers to which will be hashed out over the next several weeks, with those results being passed along to faculty senates, athletic departments, school presidents and the NCAA.
Among the topics: Should COIA advocate changes in the BCS?
Not surprisingly, the dividing lines on many issues among the 50 or so faculty members were often split between those who represent schools from automatic-qualifying conferences and those who don't. One of the ideas that came through on the BCS debate was to exchange some of the noncompetitive "guarantee" games at the beginning of the season for a 64-team playoff at the end and use the TV money from the playoff to recoup losses from the missing regular-season games.
It's a proposal that could puncture the long-held contention of college presidents that a playoff would take too many athletes out of the classroom for too long. It's also the kind of proposal — a December version of March Madness — that resonates with fans who have grown tired of the BCS; a pie-in-the-sky idea for sure, though some faculty think a little dreaming isn't bad for a group such as this one.
"This is my first time here and I'm seeing very little dreaming," said Timothy Ross, a civil engineering professor at New Mexico. "I'm seeing people wedded to the current model and asking, 'What tweaks do we need to make this work?' Well, it's not going to work because the thing is spiraling out of control."
The professors also debated the pros and cons of going for a Congressional antitrust exemption for college sports, which would allow the NCAA to better regulate spiraling coaches' salaries and other costs. It's an idea that could level the playing field in some ways and generally sounds better to the smaller Division I schools than the bigger ones.
Even proponents of the antitrust exemption concede a move like that could take years and millions in legal expenses.
More readily accomplished are some proposals that have already been debated at NCAA meetings.
Last year, the NCAA approved a $2,000 expense allowance for athletes, though the stipend has since run into opposition that will delay its implementation. An option to replace one-year renewable scholarships with multiyear scholarships, which were phased out in the 1970s, also received NCAA approval, though that new rule has also run into roadblocks.
"To me, what they're attempting to do with multiyear scholarships is on the verge of miraculous," said New Haven professor Allen Sack, the president-elect of the reform-minded Drake Group who spoke at the COIA meeting. "It's not there yet and there's a possibility it'll be voted down. But it's a baby step in the right direction and one of the first steps in the right direction I've seen in decades."
COIA tackled the question of the "pay-for-play" model that many feel the $2,000 stipend represents and also discussed whether it would be appropriate to return to the days when freshmen couldn't play on the varsity.
The overriding idea is to bring some balance back to college sports, a topic near to the heart of COIA co-chair John Nichols, who has spent the last 35 years at Penn State and has been through a heart-wrenching couple of months, along with so many others at that school.
"If this is a turning point for the better, it's great and we're going to do our best to facilitate that," Nichols said. "But even if it's going in the toilet, we're not going to let it go down without a fight. I don't know the answer to all our questions. But the reason most of us are here is that just walking away is not an option."