Should Governing Boards Have More Say Over Athletic Decisions?

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When the University of California at Los Angeles announced in late June that it would move from the Pac-12 athletic conference to the Big Ten it seemed like a done deal. But the University of California’s Board of Regents indicated Wednesday it may have the ability to prevent UCLA from making the move.

“The Regents retain the authority to review decisions impacting the system, including the current agreement,” a statement from the board’s spokesperson said in part.

During and after a board meeting, Wednesday, the regents raised questions about the financial impact on the athletic programs at other universities in the system, on the health and academic support of athletes, and the board’s authority over such arrangements.

Another concern of regents seemed to be that they had no input on such a major decision. In response, the regents announced they would consider enacting new policies at their September meeting to make it clear they would have oversight of significant decisions involving athletics.

“All of us want to protect student-athletes and their physical and mental health and well being,” Michael V. Drake, president of the university system, said during the meeting. “All of us want to preserve world-class athletic programs and what they contribute to the culture and character of our campuses. All of us want our athletic programs to reflect our values as a university community.”

The regents’ stance is a rare display of restraint in an era when conference moves have become almost commonplace among the nation’s most prestigious college athletic programs. Driven by the promise of lucrative media-rights contracts, numerous universities in the top tier of college football have joined the Southeastern (SEC) and Big Ten conferences in recent years.

“It surprises me that this was done without any Board of Regents knowledge,” said B. David Ridpath, an associate professor of sports business at Ohio University and member of the nonprofit Drake Group, which advocates for reforms in college athletics.

Other moves have stretched the traditional geographic boundaries of the conferences, such as the University of Maryland at College Park and Rutgers joining the Midwest-centered Big Ten eight years ago (three years after the University of Nebraska at Lincoln). But the president and governing boards at those institutions raised few if any concerns at the time, instead touting the increased revenues as a way to better support both the athletic and academic budgets.

Governing boards should absolutely have authority over such arrangements, said Michael D.H. Hsu, a former regent of the University of Minnesota and co-founder of the College Basketball Players Association, which advocates for the rights of college athletes.

But boards are often purposely excluded from major decisions in athletics programs, he said. When the Big Ten announced it was canceling its 2020 football season because of the pandemic — and later reversed that same decision— regents at the University of Minnesota found out from media reports, he said, and were told that the university president had signed a nondisclosure agreement with the conference.

The University of Southern California, a private college that also competes in the Pac-12, also announced this summer it will move to the Big Ten.

A report, prepared by University of California system officials at the request of the board and Gov. Gavin Newsom, concluded that the athletics program at the University of California at Berkeley, which also competes in the Pac-12, could lose nearly $10 million a year if both UCLA and USC leave the conference.

Many teams at UCLA would see only a marginal increase in travel and time away from campus, the report stated, including the major revenue-generating sports of football and men’s and women’s basketball, which often use charter flights. But three men’s teams and five women’s teams would have more significant travel times, the report said.

Even if the UC board decides it has the authority to cancel UCLA’s move to the Big Ten, Hsu said, it’s not clear that is in the best interest of the athletes or the athletic programs at UCLA to do so.

UCLA has accumulated more than $100 million in debt over the past three years, according to news reports.

Meanwhile, the Big Ten recently announced that its latest deal for media rights will total more than $8 billion over the next seven years — far more than the Pac-12 was expected to receive even before the announced departure of two marquee athletic programs.

“All universities today just care about money,” Hsu said. “Going forward, anyone not in the Big Ten and SEC is going to have a hard time keeping up.”

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