SAN DIEGO – Halfway through a three-hour, jargon-intensive discussion of a new governance structure within the NCAA, it was time for questions from the 800 college administrators attending the association's annual convention.
The first one was a good one: "Where do the student-athletes fit into this governance structure?"
Oh yeah. Them.
The concept of actually giving athletes a decision-making voice in a system that dictates much of what they do seemed to catch the Division I Board Steering Committee on Governance off-guard.
"That's not something we've wrestled with," was the response from Division I Board of presidents chairman Nathan Hatch, whose day job is running Wake Forest.
Hand the committee members singlets and ear guards. Time to start wrestling with it.
Seemingly realizing the tone deafness of that comment, Hatch and other NCAA honchos emphasized later that athletes should be included in the process of running college sports. And as Hatch pointed out, a decision-making board can have only so many members before it becomes hopelessly unwieldy.
But the perception remains alive and well that the athletes themselves are afterthoughts when it comes to allocating power.
Ask Chris Conley. He's a Georgia wide receiver who is here as a member of the Student-Athlete Advisory Council. He is as thoughtful and articulate as any athlete you will find.
His one question for the power brokers here: "Where are we in this?"
They're where they usually are: at the mercy of the whims and dictates of a complicated and conflicted governing body that consistently manages to take noble intentions and turn them into mangled results.
After listening to three hours of dialog about how to change the NCAA governing structure – basically ceding more control to the five most powerful conferences, the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC and Big 12 – it was easy to see why fixing what ails college sports is so difficult.
So many voices. So many ideas. So much money and power to squabble over.
Example: the NCAA's Core Values.
In its infinite verbosity and pomposity, the NCAA put together a stem-winding, 124-word list of seven Core Values in 2004. Those were shown on a pair of large projection screens in a ballroom here Thursday. Approximately 800 college administrators checked them out, and immediately started offering feedback.
While some of the feedback focused on shortening the message, most of it zeroed in on what was missing. They wanted more added. More constituencies represented. More ideals espoused. More words.
These are smart people who champion the best of what college athletics can be: a noble enterprise that is an enjoyable staple of American entertaining while also producing college graduates their fellow alums can be proud of. But put 800 of them in a room and they can turn a list of core values into a Tolstoy novel.
This is why the NCAA is what it is, and changing it is like turning a battleship in a bathtub. It is nearly impossible to bring all these people together under one tent without a few fistfights breaking out.
The primary fight this year pertains to the power conferences and their desired autonomy. They want to play by their own rules – most pertinently, a potential full-cost-of-attendance scholarship increase for athletes, which would at least in theory create further separation between them and the non-football-playing schools that have a smaller revenue reservoir.
(While this development has been seen as fait accompli for quite a while, one athletic director at a power school cautioned that there is far less unanimity on that issue than is publicly portrayed. He said even within the big conferences there are some schools solidly against that idea.)
There is no presidential appetite for paying athletes beyond the published federal price of attendance at a school, a dollar figure which factors in all "miscellaneous expenses." The schools that are raking in athletic revenue by the tens of millions are willing to discuss kicking in a few thousand more dollars per athlete.
That will help stifle the disingenuous, can't-afford-a-pizza argument some put forward for allegedly impoverished athletes. (Remarkable how many of those same athletes who can't shell out for fast food, or a date, somehow have the latest in electronic goods. As one prominent coach put it, "You want to know where the extra money is going to go for a lot of players? Best Buy.")
So the pay-for-play crowd is not going to win the day here – not this year, and perhaps not ever. But there is a willingness to at least give a little more to the labor force.
Maybe that willingness will even carry over to giving up a little decision-making power as well. Maybe athletes will get membership on key committees, and a corresponding vote.
But the thought of that seemed like a foreign concept to the NCAA suits on Thursday.