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Sunday, August 17, 2014

Local colleges taking wait-and-see approach to judge’s ruling

Dana Skinner knew drastic change was coming.

What he doesn’t know is what the short- or long-term effects will be. ...

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Dana Skinner knew drastic change was coming.

What he doesn’t know is what the short- or long-term effects will be.

“I will say that I’ve been concerned for years that we were headed toward a college athletic model whereby there’s the big-time and then there’s everybody else,” Skinner, the longtime University of Massachusetts Lowell athletic director, said in an email. “The gap between the big-time and everyone else can only get wider with these new decisions.”

The “new decisions” are this: A little over a week ago, a California federal judge ruled, in a suit brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, that the NCAA ban on student-athlete compensation violates federal antitrust laws, particularly in the use of players’ likenesses in various merchandise, from T-shirts to video games.

While saying schools should provide or increase any stipends to student-
athletes, the court suggested money from likeness licensing be placed in a trust for the athletes until they graduate.

And, just a day before that court’s ruling, the NCAA passed a rule that gave schools more leeway in how they run their programs, a ruling many believe opens the door for stipends and more financial aid.

How will this affect the smaller Division I schools? It will hit their pocketbooks.

“None of us can afford this,” University of New Hampshire athletic director Marty Scarano said.

The thinking is that the big-time schools will have a clear advantage in recruiting by offering athletes stipends and other financial incentives.

“Parents will expect kids to get what others are offering,” Scarano said. “They’ll say, ‘Everybody else is offering my kid $2,000.’ It’s a very slippery, slippery slope. It’s going to change the way we all do business going forward. The way we’ve been doing business for 50, 60 years has hit its apex.”

Skinner says everyone needs to step back and observe the landscape.

“The only thing we all know is that no one knows for sure what the immediate future holds,” Skinner said. “There’s still a great deal of uncertainty. There’s so much uncertainty following the O’Bannon decision that it’s possible both parties will appeal.

“With regard to the recent NCAA decision relevant to autonomy, we are in a 60-day override period. I think most agree the time had come to allow the highest-revenue schools with the flexibility they need to adjust to the new landscape. How to best include the non-big five (super conference) schools is the question.”

With the exception of its ice hockey program, UMass Lowell is new to the Division I landscape, with all programs competing in Division I for the first time last year.

“Obviously, UMass-Lowell is new to this discussion, and we’re gathering as much information as possible,” Skinner said. “That said, we joined America East to affiliate with our academic peer and aspirant institutions.

“We feel closely aligned with these schools, and I’m confident we’ll stay together and respond in a manner that is consistent with the values we all share.”

As UML men’s basketball coach Pat Duquette said, “We’re not really competing with schools in those five conferences with recruits. But in our nonconference schedule, we
want to compete. This just brings to light what everybody knew: (large Division I schools) have certain advantages that we don’t. You’re going to see some schools that are going to want to give extra benefits.

“But I think we’re fortunate to be in a conference like America East where we all see things the same way.

Skinner, meanwhile, is also curious as to how Hockey East, to which the River Hawks and the Wildcats belong, will handle things.

“Hockey East will no doubt be having some interesting discussions, as two of our schools are members of one of the big five conferences,” he said, referring to Notre Dame and Boston College in the ACC.

Scarano is clearly worried about hockey and how some of the smaller schools in Hockey East can afford to pay stipends.

“The problem with hockey is that we compete against the very best nationally,” he said. “Notre Dame and Boston College look at things a little different. While it’s going to be difficult for the Division I schools, the smaller Division I schools may want to do their own thing. But Hockey East has some Division II schools, such as Merrimack. For them, it could be crippling.”

But as Skinner noted, the major conferences still don’t know how things will be handled. And smaller Division I schools like UMass Lowell and UNH likely have to wait to see how to follow.

“As for the impact on the midmajors, it’s too early to know,” Skinner said. “There isn’t even agreement among the institutions that comprise the big five conferences with regard to increasing benefits for student-athletes, and until they decide where the bar will be set, we won’t know the appropriate response.”

Scarano said he feels compensation issues won’t affect the Wildcat football program as much, because all of those schools in the Colonial Athletic Conference are on the same page. But there could be exceptions. James Madison University, Scarano said, has always said it faces recruiting pressure going up against the larger Division I football schools in its area, such as Virginia and Georgia Tech, to name a couple.

Scarano is philosophically opposed to the whole idea of financially compensating athletes and fears this could mean “a mass exodus” of schools from competing in certain sports.

“We stand for something different,” Scarano said of schools like UNH. “Tuition, room and board, books, that is still a privilege.

“I don’t agree with this, and I think there’s a fair amount of people who feel the same.”

“The months ahead,” Skinner said, “will be interesting.”