Like the old college wrestler that he is, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby knows a headlock when he feels one.
And make no mistake, the NCAA has its collective neck fully engaged of late, with judges, attorneys and players, past and present, all putting on the squeeze.
But Bowlsby was far from light-headed Sunday, as he sat in front of the media at the NCAA’s annual Final Four news conference. Joined by other members of the association’s steering committee — Nathan Hatch of Wake Forest; Michael Drake, soon to be president of Ohio State; Kirk Schulz of Kansas State; and Rita Cheng of Illinois-Carbondale — Bowlsby was there presumably to bolster the flanks of often-attacked NCAA president Mark Emmert.
Emmert inevitably provided the day’s juiciest headline quote. Responding to a question about the National Labor Relations Board’s recent ruling that a group of Northwestern football players are qualified to unionize, Emmert said, “To be perfectly frank, the notion of using a union employee model to address the challenges that do exist in intercollegiate athletics is something that strikes most people as a grossly inappropriate solution to the problems.
“To convert to a unionized employee model is essentially to throw away the entire collegiate model for athletics. You can’t split that one in two. You’re either a student at a university playing your sport, or you’re an employee of that university.”
A unionized NCAA “work force” would be fraught with nuances and complications. Does the average Division I football athlete realize, for example, that NFL players are taxed by other municipalities for road games?
How’s a backup punter going to pay a tax bill from Starkville, Miss.?
Far from sabre-rattling, however, the unionization effort is “the first step in a process,” Bowlsby suggested.
“There are some states that don’t allow public employees to unionize, and there are some that don’t allow you to strike even if you’re in a union,” he said. “We’re a long ways from having unions.”
What the NCAA can do now, though, is reform its governing procedures, and Bowlsby was both clear and quotable about that.
There are 65 schools in the so-called “Big 5” power conferences. There has to be a way — Bowlsby, Emmert and the others agreed — to address the needs of both the 65 and the 286 other institutions in the NCAA.
“By the time we take a legislative proposal through the system,” Bowlsby said, “it doesn’t look at all like the thoroughbred racehorse that we thought we were inventing. Instead, it turns out looking like a three-legged camel that really doesn’t serve anybody’s needs.
“We need to find a way where we can do better than that.”
The answer is not, as many think, for the five power conferences to break from the NCAA and form a completely new association. Launching a new organization would be both complicated and costly.
But what the presidents and Bowlsby hinted at Sunday was an NCAA membership more willing to allow the 65 power conference schools to operate under rules that befit their sizes and revenue structures.
The steering committee frequently mentioned Sunday the idea of ensuring that a student-athlete’s scholarship meets the “complete cost of attendance.”
An annual $2,000 stipend had been proposed. The small schools argued that the stipend would cripple them. The power schools, meanwhile, would like to see the figure increased.
Bowlsby objected to the notion, however, that the power conference schools no longer have anything in common with the other 286.
“There are more points of commonality then there are differences,” he said. “What we’re saying is, ‘Let us just have a little more ability to steer our own ship.’ ”
Surrounded by university presidents and one unpopular NCAA president Sunday, the Big 12’s Bowlsby spoke both simply and eloquently. He sounded downright presidential, more than a few media members remarked.
These days, the NCAA needs a fighter to lead it through the gathering storm.
An old college wrestler would certainly do.