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Let's get into some news.
Back in March, I wrote about Eastern Washington had a tough decision to make. In face of an increasingly challenging budget environment, should the athletic department explore reclassification?
The school commissioned a study from a third party consulting firm to explore what various stakeholders felt about the future of EWU athletics. Looking at the cross tabs, I personally thought the data was pretty murky. Most stakeholders indicated a preference for EWU to remain at the FCS level, but support from the local business community appeared lukewarm, and it's hard to argue that athletics is a major component of the school's student recruitment efforts.
But I'm just a reporter sitting in a basement in Chicago. What will the school decide to do?
Late on Friday, the school's interim university president looked at the data and recommended the school remain at the D-I level, and continue their FCS football program.
CHENEY, Wash — Eastern Washington University Interim President David May recommended to the school's board of trustees on Friday that their athletics program stay in Division I and that they not cut their football program.
This is only a recommendation from May, as the board will make its official decision on EWU Athletics' fate in June. The Board of Trustees' website has a portal open for public feedback on the plan.
May said moving down in athletics would negatively impact recruiting local students to enroll at Eastern and would cause the ending of athletic sponsorships that would damage the university's fundraising opportunities. He also said athletics helps make the student body diverse.
This is about what I expected. Unlike other programs tied to potentially reclassifying out of D-I, like UC-Riverside or Hartford, Eastern Washington has historically been a strong football and men's basketball program (if you follow FCS football at all, you're probably aware of EWU's blood red field). Given the significant political penalties for reclassification, it's hard to imagine an interim president would feel he had enough political capital to make such a drastic recommendation. The safest thing is to keep the status quo going.
Of course, that doesn't resolve the central problem here...how do you pay for the status quo? The president's recommendation, after all, came in a meeting where the school also recommended eliminating multiple degree options, from music to journalism to supply chain/operations management. EWU's enrollment is in decline, state funding is tenuous, and departments all over campus are being asked to do more with less. With an athletic department budget under $20 million, there's not a ton of fat left to cut if the school hopes to compete at a high level in the Big Sky.
David Syphers, a physics professor whose calls for an independent review of athletic spending helped serve as the catalyst for this entire conversation, expressed his disappointment at the meeting. Per the KREM story:
All too many areas of Eastern have been asked to do more with less for years now, and increasingly so in this era of declining enrollment. From academic instruction to administration to staff supporting our students, time after time, we’ve shown that this simply is no longer possible—we were already running a very lean operation. When there’s no fat to cut, you cut muscle, and things stop working. We close campus during snowfall because we don’t have the staff to clear the snow adequately. We cancel courses because there’s no one to teach them. Students in crisis can’t reach a counselor in a timely manner. We delay major declarations because we don’t have the staff to process them.
So what happens now?
That's the $20 million dollar question, right?
David May stated “to achieve this in a manner that is sustainable in the future, EWU will have to make the decision to tier its sports array, stepping back from full support for some sports" in the meeting, an idea that was among the potential options the consultant study laid out.
Downsizing scholarship support and spending in some Olympic sports could help the department find a few more nickels and dimes, but it's not like Eastern Washington was sponsoring 24, fully-funded sports to begin with. When I wrote about this back in March, I wrote that the report estimated EWU would only save about a million dollars by essentially converting nine of their sports into quasi-D-III offerings, with minimal scholarship spends. That's not enough.
The way I see it, even with soft-canceling half of the athletic department, Eastern only has two real options here. The school could significantly increase revenue from outside sources, particularly from boosters, alumni and the local business community. If they can't do that, they'll face a situation Dr.Syphers worried about...the new president is going to need to have another huge conversation about the athletic department, a conversation EWU has apparently had about every five years since the 1970s.
Regular existential crisis is no way to build morale, depth or consistency. If the school wants to take this opportunity to really recommit to D-I, great. Here's hoping that commitment comes with a bold new plan to pay for everything.
Ideally, they also find a way to pay for snow removal and student counselors.
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Sometimes, these newsletter recommendations are sponsored, and I'll be sure to tell you when that's the case. I'm just sharing The Daily Coach because I think my readers will enjoy it.
Last week, Dennis Dodd of CBS Sports reported that NCAA administrators remained concerned about potential legal exposure if the association implements NIL regulations without the passage of federal regulations.
What have been described as significant legal issues have arisen in the NCAA's effort to implement name, image and likeness legislation, sources tell CBS Sports. While some of them aren't exactly new, looming deadlines have made the process going forward "clear as mud," according to one source.
After a regularly-scheduled NCAA Council meeting Wednesday, it became more apparent the NCAA won't be protected on implementing NIL rules unless it gets help from Congress in the form of federal legislation.
"It is the only pathway forward," said a source familiar with the process who did not want to be identified because of the sensitive nature of the situation.
For what it's worth, this aligns with what I've been told by several school and conference leaders over the last few weeks. Even administrators who are broadly supportive of athletes taking advantage of their NIL are concerned about the school's legal exposure if virtually any regulations are in place.
That could become a significant problem internally. Many leaders of smaller schools and conferences have expressed frustration over the amount of time, energy and political capital the NIL issue has taken up, considering that so many of the "problems" (i.e potential recruiting improprieties) would only be issues at the biggest programs.
From talking to folks in and across Congress, I am not optimistic that a federal bill gets passed before July 1 at all, although just like with undergraduates who forgot to work on a term paper, panic can make a very good muse. I'm told it is more likely that a bipartisan Senate bill is proposed before July 1.
From what I'm hearing, I'd expect the next Senate bill to look like a cross between Sen.Moran (R-KS) and the much more ambitious reform efforts of Sen.Murphy(D-CT). I think some sort of legally protected mechanism for group licenses is likely in a final Senate bill, and I do not think it is likely at all that any final bill will include language to define college athletes as employees, or to require schools to directly compensate them.
Two big questions left to be settled? To what extent will colleges be asked to pay for additional medical care, and to what extent can the terms of this bill be easily changed in the future.
The NCAA expects to vote on their current NIL proposals in late June, "provided it is feasible to do so." Will that be enough to stave off lawsuits? Will the feds come to bail the NCAA out later this fall? Will the NCAA be okay with whatever sacrifices Congress asks them to take on? Could this end up being the first...and maybe the only...meaningfully bipartisan bill in the Biden presidency?
It's worth keeping an eye on.
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