In case you didn’t notice because you were too busy with, well, just about anything else, the NHL proposed a new realignment plan on Tuesday, moving three teams between the two conferences and scrambling the league’s six divisions into just four. I’m already reworking my four-year plan in disgust.
There are, of course, a few minor controversies associated with this move. Detroit leaves the Western Conference to rejoin its geographic brethren for the first time in 20 years, which is actually a bit of a bummer for us Sharks fans, since we consider Detroit our biggest rival. (It’s a long story.) And the new, imbalanced divisions—14 teams in the West, 16 in the East—make it easier for some franchises to make the playoffs, since each division gets eight berths.
But to me, what’s more interesting than the new structure is how it evolved—and may continue to evolve. About a year ago, the NHL approved a similar four-division realignment (though they were called conferences in that one) with some of the same playoff imbalances, but the players’ union struck the plan down. Negotiations between the two sides led to Tuesday’s hardly changed proposal, which, of course, still isn’t final.
I call that interesting because it stands in stark contrast to what we usually get out of the sports league that typically steals realignment headlines—the NCAA. You know, the geniuses who thought that the Big Ten should have 12 teams while the Big 12 had 10, that Boise State belonged in the Big East and that some of the best rivalries in sports should be torn apart for money’s sake.
But that quip is fundamentally unfair because the NCAA itself hasn’t sparked those changes. Realignment has affected every major conference in college sports over the last four years, and the conferences have been the ones doing it.
Nowadays it’s sexy to say that the NCAA should take a step back, deregulate or pay players. But in this case, some strong, central regulation could put an end to the realignment frenzy that pretty much everyone agrees has gotten out of hand.
Look at the NHL, which not only has kept the same division/conference structure for 15 years but also took 14 whole months to re-propose a realignment scheme that’s hardly any different from the first rejected plan. All those bureaucratic hoops to jump through do serve their purpose, and with some additional oversight of its conferences, the NCAA could control its own rampant realignment.
The logistics behind that are a bit of a challenge, some would argue. In an interview with GoStanford.com just a week ago, NCAA President Mark Emmert said that the biggest misconception about the NCAA is that it operates like a pro sports league. Instead, it’s an organization without much central authority that works like “a jury of your peers”—the 1,100 other member schools.
But if that jury can regulate player benefits or scholarship counts, why can’t it regulate conference realignment?
As we saw with the NHLPA’s rejection of the league’s initial plan a year ago, professional athletes actually have a say in their sport and can effect (or logjam) change. Bringing something like that to the NCAA would certainly put a damper on all the “college athletes are pushed around” talk, which is perhaps the greatest fuel for pay-for-play advocates.
Team captains could act as representatives to a larger organizational body, just like union reps in pro sports. Even couch potato Johnny Manziel could chip in.
The power would be decentralized, which suits the NCAA, and the conferences would be held in check, which suits the fans. I’m not one to solve the world’s problems in an afternoon, but those are the kinds of checks and balances that college athletics is missing right now in the eyes of many critics.
If we can’t agree whether it’s time to pay college athletes for all the money they generate—and I tend to fall on the “it’s not time” side of that argument—we can at least reward them with the power to fix the problems that nobody else is willing to.
Joseph Beyda is bitter that he’s not an NCAA athlete and that Johnny Manziel would be able to “chip in” over him. Sympathize with him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on twitter @DailyJBeyda.