Notre Dame AD Swarbrick Suggests A Split in College Athletics Is On the Horizon

April 21st, 2015 | by Jeff Troxclair
Notre Dame AD Swarbrick Suggests A Split in College Athletics Is On the Horizon
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Swarbrick

A little over a month ago and on the eve of the start of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick revealed a vision for the future of college athletics that was – if such a thing is possible – equal parts revelatory and self-evident. Relatively speaking, the piece garnered little in the way of national headlines or discussion, no doubt in large part due to the fact that most of the college sports-viewing public was occupied with trying to pick this year’s trendiest upsets (full disclosure:  I did not see that UAB one coming). Which is unfortunate, as Swarbrick went on record in a more candid and forward-looking manner than we traditionally see from an individual in his position, and his words suggested that a landmark change to the college sports hierarchy all of us have known since the NCAA’s inception is all but assured.

The Great Divide

Swarbrick’s vision of the future is a simple enough concept, in the abstract.  As Swarbrick sees it, there is a “cultural divide” that currently exists in college athletics, and this gulf is so great and ever-expanding that the eventual result will be that the NCAA as we know it today will cease to exist.  In its place, according to Swarbrick, would be two divisions.  These divisions would be defined not by geography or by historical conference affiliations, but by how the individual educational institution views the role of athletic departments in shaping the policies and agendas of the entire university.  As Swarbrick succinctly put it: “Any business association requires commonality of interests to hold together. The Oregon and Stanford economic models are similar. Their approach to sports couldn’t be more different.” A house divided, and all that.



Practically speaking, though, what does this mean?  Is it feasible to expect that world-renowned educational institutions like Stanford, Duke, and Northwestern would so willingly divest themselves from decades-old athletic partnerships and – less lengthy but possibly more persuasive – recent and lucrative television arrangements? According to Swarbrick, the answer is an emphatic “yes.”  He draws a parallel to the Ivy League’s decision to withdraw from mainstream athletics decades ago as precedent for like-minded schools in the future to say “This sort of semi-pro thing is OK for you guys, but not us.”  Or, as he puts it in terms the finance folks will understand, “Most athletic budgets are somewhere around the 3-8 percent range [of the university budget].  The Stanfords of the world are not going to allow that 4 percent business unit [to] take them places they don’t want to be.”  The unspoken corollary, of course, is that the Kentuckys and Alabamas of the world will let these business units take them to such places.  And neither John Calipari’s nor Nick Saban’s annual salaries and operating budgets do much to dissuade that inference, at first blush.

Seeing The Game Differently

As a college sports fan, I don’t really know where this leaves things, other than to say I find Swarbrick’s vision for the future fascinating, if for no other reason than it’s so contrary to any college sports universe we’ve ever known.

Admittedly, I have little interest in spending large portions of my weekend watching a collection of semi-pro athletes with no relationship to a university other than that of check recipient/signatory. Being even more candid, as a Notre Dame fan, I have a high degree of concern about who else would presumably join Notre Dame on the “Not A De-Facto Minor League” side of the ledger (though Swarbrick did specifically mention that cross-divisional match-ups would not be wholly eradicated). At the same time, it’s intellectually dishonest to give even a cursory glance to some of practices that have taken place for years – the merchandising of individual athletes and their likenesses and the non-renewable four-year scholarship, off the top of my head – and not quickly conclude that something is rotten in Denmark as it pertains to the rights of the student athlete.

Like most issues of any degree of complication, this is a debate dominated at the margins by those folks convinced that this multi-faceted, nuanced issue can be broken down into easily-digested, made-for-sports-radio sound bites. Which is, in part, why Swarbrick’s view is so refreshing: it contemplates the myriad of outside factors at play (even Congressional intervention!).  As a thought exercise, I find Jack Swarbrick’s vision of the future of college athletics to be fascinating and refreshingly original, but that’s a long way from Notre Dame hoisting the inaugural “Those Who Came To Play School” national championship trophy.

That’s assuming Alabama is on the other side of the ledger.

 

Feature image courtesy R. Franklin/SBT Photo

About Jeff Troxclair
Jeff Troxclair is an executive, lawyer, and life-long college sports fan. He is a graduate of both NC State University and the University of Notre Dame, and is a hopelessly optimistic Wolfpack and Irish fan. Jeff is originally from New Orleans, LA, but has lived for extended periods of time in both Raleigh, NC, and Chicago, IL. He currently resides in Oakland, CA, with his wife and daughter. Having seen the New Orleans Saints actually win a Super Bowl, he is now convinced that we live in a world where no sports-related achievement is impossible.

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