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Irish Q&A: Notre Dame's Take on the First Autonomy Vote

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OneFootDown had a special opportunity to discuss the recent NCAA rule changes with Notre Dame's athletic department - check it out and let us know what you think about the new world order!

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Last week, we reviewed the biggest changes to come out of the NCAA's first voting process under the so-called "autonomy" rules, a new governance structure in which the 65 teams in the "Power 5" Division I sports conferences - ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac 12, and SEC - can enact NCAA regulations that apply only to them without the approval of the entire Division I membership. If you'd like to read more detail about the changes, you can review that article, check out the official drafts of all the proposals prepared before the NCAA convention, or read the NCAA press release on the proposals that made it through. For our purposes here, we'll just list the major items to give a very high-level background before we jump into the meaty part:

  • Athletic grants-in-aid, more commonly known to sports fans simply as scholarships, can now cover the full cost of attendance rather than just tuition, room, board, and books.
  • Schools can no longer refuse to renew one-year scholarships for purely athletic reasons - effectively, kids can't be cut anymore.
  • Each athletic department will be responsible for creating and maintaining a documented concussion protocol that will be reviewed by a national concussion protocol board.
  • Athletes can borrow against future earnings to purchase loss-of-value insurance, perhaps easing the decision to return to school for a final year in some cases.
  • The voting body resolved to "modernize" the college sports model over the next two years by addressing some of the thorniest and/or most archaic regulations.

Thanks to the gracious consideration of the Irish athletic department, we had an opportunity to dive into these recent developments in greater detail with Senior Associate Athletic Director for Compliance Jill Bodensteiner. Jill attended the NCAA convention and saw the new governance structure in action first-hand.

We asked five questions and received five thoughtful and informative answers - and here they are:

1. When Notre Dame finalized the agreement to join the ACC for non-football sports in 2013, did you already have some sense that Big 5 autonomy was coming and that it would be important to ensure a place at the table?

It was clear in 2013 that change in the NCAA governance system was imminent, and that such change would likely involve some distinction between the members of Division I. The precise nature of the change did not become clear until 2014.

I think this is a fascinating peek behind the scenes. At the time that the Big East was in its death throes and the other major conferences were going through significant realignment, we as fans understood that non-football sports needed a good home and that without some kind of conference affiliation, the bowl options for football would probably be significantly reduced. I don't think too many of us knew that autonomy, even if the concept hadn't been fully formed yet, was another critical factor driving our need to find a beneficial partnership with a major conference.

2. According to all reports, the 15 student-athlete voters were a very significant part of the process. What is your perspective on their involvement? Did anything about their participation surprise you?

The involvement of the 15 student-athletes was meaningful and, frankly, exceeded our expectations.  The student-athletes were well informed and extremely articulate in stating their respective positions.  Some of the stated positions – particularly regarding athletic scholarship protection – were surprising, and served as a great reminder of why student-athlete participation is so critical.  Administrators cannot and should not assume that we know the "student-athlete position" on any issue until we engage them.

Judging by administrators' reactions, I don't think anyone expected the students to play as large a role as they did. They introduced and argued passionately for a more stringent concussion protocol legislation than the SEC-sponsored measure that was eventually passed, and as Jill alludes to above, several of the 15 student voters spoke out against protecting athletic scholarships for performance. In hindsight, this looks like an inspired addition to the governance process and one that should pay significant dividends going forward.

Also, since I've seen the question of student-athlete voter group breakdown come up: Among the 15 student-athlete voters, there are five football players, three baseball players, one softball player, one basketball player, one track and field athlete (Notre Dame sprinter/hurdler Kaila Barber), one soccer player, one golfer, one gymnast, and one rower. Football is heavily represented but not dominant, which seems fair.

3. Do you have any concerns about setting a precedent that could support expansion of certain measures beyond what the voters originally intended - for example, that future arguments could be made to extend the permissibility of borrowing against future earnings beyond the purchase of career insurance to discretionary items?

One of the best outcomes of the autonomy process generally and the January 2015 convention in particular was the engagement of Presidents, Athletics Directors, Faculty Athletics Representatives, Senior Women Administrators, compliance professionals, student-athletes and others with expertise in the areas under discussion.  We are confident that the improved and comprehensive vetting of future proposals and continued engagement of the right people will keep the Group of 5 on track in terms of future legislation.

I think many sports fans are Missourians when it comes to the NCAA, and they may not be willing to give the benefit of the doubt here. On the other hand, "slippery slope" arguments tend to be logically bankrupt, and early signs do seem to indicate that the NCAA is going about this the right way - most significant, as Jill notes, is that the NCAA administrators possess enough self-awareness in this context to know that the best answers may often lie outside their own circle. Cautious optimism seems warranted.

4. Among the several items that the Big 5 voters resolved to act on within the next two years (Proposal R-2014-1), what do you feel is most likely to be addressed soon?

The next primary area of consideration by the Group of 5 is likely to be the many facets of Bylaw 12 regarding student-athlete amateurism.

This is Jill's shortest answer to read, and the quickest to raise the reader's eyebrow. I give the group a lot of credit for taking on the biggest, most complex, and most direly-in-need-of-an-overhaul section of the NCAA code first. If you're gonna go, go big. Anything that changes the NCAA's definition of amateurism has the potential to change college sports as we know it, for better or worse. Interesting times ahead.

5. Among either the recently enacted proposals or the items the group has resolved to address in the near future, what are you personally most looking forward to implementing at Notre Dame?

The new full cost of attendance legislation is significant, beneficial to student-athletes and presents interesting and unique challenges at each member institution, including Notre Dame.  On its surface, the legislation can seem quite straightforward.  In reality, its implementation requires evaluation and potential changes to processes, forms, software, and many other areas.  Educating coaches, student-athletes and prospective student-athletes regarding the intricacies of full cost of attendance will be critical – particularly with respect to helping a prospect compare the value of various scholarship offers.

There are two interesting elements to this answer. I completely agree that the full cost of attendance rule seems like a simple, no-lose scenario on its face - hey, great, everyone gets an extra $X per year for expenses! Enjoy!  The second part, which I hadn't considered, is that it's not as simple as providing a stipend check once per year - the new rule will require significant changes for people, process, and tools, and that takes time and always hides some obscure implementation pitfalls along the way. I don't envy the schools' administrative staffs that task of getting this up and running, you know, yesterday.

What Are Your Thoughts?

And there you have it - a view from inside the Notre Dame administration on the brave new world of Big 5 autonomy, and our own thoughts on the subject. What do you think? Where would you start overhauling the NCAA code? What's the biggest challenge here? Jump in to the comments and let us know.

Finally, I would be remiss if I closed in any other way than to thank Jill for her time in answering these questions, and Senior Associate Athletic Director for Media Relations John Heisler for his time in helping to coordinate this Q&A. Through their able assistance, OneFootDown had the opportunity to bring you this insight from campus!