Shane Lyons Speaks: The Ever-Changing Landscape Of College Athletics
MORGANTOWN, W.VA. – As the chairman of the NCAA Division I Football Oversight Committee, WVU director of athletics Shane Lyons is directly involved in formulating the rules and regulations that go into governing the sport at the college level.
One of the biggest issues facing college athletics today is the controversy surrounding the student-athlete’s potential ability to be compensated by the private sector for the use of their name, image or likeness (NIL).
California already has passed a law that will allow college student-athletes in that state to be paid for their NIL, with a few restrictions. That law is slated to go into effect in 2023. Florida also seemingly is on the fast track for similar legislation, and at least 10 other states are also proposing such bills. There’s even talk among some in West Virginia’s legislature of putting their own bill on the table.
This is a topic that has the attention of almost everyone in college athletics. This isn’t an issue that Lyons’ football oversight committee will necessarily deal with directly, but as the athletic director of an NCAA Division I institution, he’s very aware of the NIL proposals.
“First of all, it’s a very debatable topic,” said Lyons. “The idea has been discussed for a number of years. As an Association, we need to get our arms around it and look at what really is a collegiate model. I think the word ‘amateurism’ is really out the door. We need a college model, but what exactly does that mean?
“The devil is in the details. It’s not as simple as, ‘Let’s let this happen.’ We try to legislate from a competitive standpoint, and if you allow it to be wide open, what problem does that cause? Rogue boosters, community involvement, bidding wars where if you come here, I’ll arrange a business to provide you sponsorship? That’s the hard part about the issue.”
The odds are that college student-athletes around the entire country are all going to eventually have some sort of ability to make a profit off their name, image and likeness. But Lyons wants uniformity in whatever rule comes forth.
The NCAA formed a working group to examine the NIL issue in May of 2019 with Ohio State director of athletics Gene Smith and Big East commissioner Val Ackerman serving as co-chairs.
“Me personally, I don’t think state-by-state legislation is a good thing,” said Lyons, who took over at West Virginia’s athletic director in 2015. “We can’t have 50 different policies applying to 50 different states. It’s really going to be up to the NCAA and the working group to get their arms around this so we can move forward.
“I don’t think (the NCAA leaders) believe each state should get involved in,” Lyons continued. “It’s just a matter of as a national association, let’s have one rule everyone can follow.
“This is breaking new ground. Athletics have forever been under the higher education model, and what this is asking under the name, image and likeness goes above and beyond the cost of attendance,” he added. “What people don’t understand is that now there are tax implications on the student-athlete, so what does all this mean in the future? That’s why I say this isn’t as easy as people think it is, where their idea is just to open it up and see what happens.”
At one point, the Olympics were very strict in keeping its participants strictly amateur, but that notion went away many years ago. It’s not something Lyons thinks college athletics can follow, though.
“The (Olympic) model is probably too broad for colleges,” he said. “That is something people have brought up, but I think it’s too broad and would barely impact anyone in the collegiate model. That’s something else that has been tossed out there, though.”
The future of college athletics in regard to NIL could feature many avenues. As Lyons says, the “devil is in the details.” But there are other concerns as well.
“You also have the situation of, what does it do for the locker room?” West Virginia’s A.D. pondered. “What does it do when one young man, maybe the quarterback or the receivers or someone high profile, gets more than someone in the trenches who isn’t as high profile? What does that do? How do they react when one is getting the big sponsorship when another person does the blocking? We’ve got to look at the big picture of how it – I’m just going to use football as an example – how does it impact the 120 guys in the locker room and not just the one or two? The same thing in basketball, where one or two get something in a locker room of 13 to 15. Then the thing no one seems to talk about, but we also have Title IX implications. How does this apply to Title IX? This is just brand new territory. It’s not that it’s not been discussed before, but it’s just a matter of how do you get your arms around it and make it real and make it fair across the board for all the student-athletes.
“Social media even could factor in,” he added. “You can go to a site called Cameo. There are about 10,000 people (most some sort of celebrity) listed there who will send a direct message for a fee. So, your star quarterback can get on there, and for $100, he will send a birthday message. So, social media also is part of where this name, image and likeness issue can go as well.”
West Virginia state delegate Shawn Fluharty (D-Ohio Country) has said recently that he would like to introduce a bill similar to California’s in the next legislative session in West Virginia.
Lyons said he hasn’t had a conversation yet with Fluharty about the proposal.
“We would like sit down and talk about it,” Lyons stated. “I understand they want the legislation so we don’t get behind from a competitive advantage as a state, but we need to look at how it works best for West Virginia and how it impacts us as an institution. Then the bigger picture is how it impacts the NCAA and college athletics in the future.”
The name, image and likeness issue is certainly not going away. Lyons hopes the NCAA moves forward with its own set of guidelines in the near future.
“Time will move fast. The California bill goes into effect in 2023, and I’m getting information that Florida is sponsoring a bill that could go into place in July of 2020,” WVU’s director of athletics explained. “I think the NCAA’s stance is that there will be a lot discussion at the October meetings of the NCAA Council, and then it will take some of those ideas to the NCAA Convention in January with something hopefully to be legislated next summer and to be ultimately be adopted the following April. So, you’re really looking at April of 2021 as the earliest the NCAA can start the process.
“It’s a very complex issue,” he concluded. “It’s an issue that deserves a lot of discussion so we can come out with something that is fair and right.”
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Besides the name, image and likeness controversy, there are other issues facing college athletics. As the chairman of the Oversight Committee, a position that lasts until June of 2022, Lyons in spot to oversee many of these developments. Every other year the Oversight Committee can recommend a wide range of rules changes, which then are subject to review by the NCAA Division I Council, of which Lyons is also a member.
On off years, the Oversight Committee can still make recommendations that affect the safety of the game of football. This is one of those off years, and Lyons’ committee brought about a number of changes for the sake of safety that have been implemented this season – no more two-man wedges by blockers on kickoffs, modifying the review process in terms of targeting calls, eliminating forcible contact blindside blocks and altering overtime procedures once it reaches the fifth OT period.
“From the rules standpoint, we focused on the health, welfare and safety of the student-athlete this year. I like what we did,” explained Lyons. “In the future, we’ll start to look at others areas, like the size of coaching staffs and who is actually doing what. Technically under the current rules, you’re allowed the head coach, the 10 full-time assistants and the four graduate assistants. Those are the members who are supposed to be on the field during practice and competition. Again, we’ve had a large influx in terms of other personnel – analysts or whatever institutions want to call them – and some feel they are crossing over into coaching activities. So, how do we get our arms around that? We’ve talked about establishing a cap (in terms of staff numbers), but that never has seemed to work in the past. We did adopt the headset rule in terms of now schools have 23 available headsets for games. You don’t have 45 headsets; you have 23. That’s specific to the issue. We also want to look at who is involved at practice and who is involved inside the lines during competition. That’s something we want to look at.
“We’re also now two years into some of the new rules in terms of recruiting in regards to the early signing period and summer visits and some of those things. We’ll step back as a committee and look at that calendar to see if it is working. We had an update that it seems to be working, but we want to continue to look at that.
“The four-game participation but still be able to redshirt is just a year in,” added Lyons, who took over as WVU’s A.D. in 2015. “The numbers weren’t crazy last year, but we want to continue to look at that. We also had a couple upperclassmen who used it and then decided not to play any more and then to transfer. But over 70 percent were used by first-year freshmen. Some never got to four games. Some got in games later in the season as they developed. Our committee will continue to look at that, and we’ll continue to look at transfers. I don’t have all the answers to that right now, but it’s something will look at.”
The landscape in the Power 5 conferences has been fairly stable since the seismic shift in the early part of this decade brought new members to the Pac-12, Big Ten, SEC, ACC and Big 12. Included in that was West Virginia’s move from the Big East to the Big 12 in 2012.
There has been no Power 5 movement since then, but the other Group of 5 conferences in the FBS ranks have experienced some changes. The decision by Connecticut this summer to leave The American Athletic Conference, switching its football program to independent status and moving all its other sports back to the Big East, is something many are watching, including those at Power 5 institutions.
“I do follow it,” said Lyons of the news from the lower-level leagues. “My job is to understand the entire landscape of college athletics. That mainly entails Division I, but I also watch Division II and Division III. I have a (computer) program a lot of us in the industry use, and that’s called the ‘Division I Ticker.’ That usually the first thing I read in the morning. It has news from around the country, everything from coaching hirings and firings to facilities changes to the business of sports. I probably spend my first half hour to 45 minutes each morning in seeing what’s happening around the country. It’s a matter of keeping track of the pulse of what’s going on.
“There has been some movement in the Group of 5, but I don’t think it’s been anything that earth-shattering,” continued Lyons, who is a native of Parkersburg, West Virginia. “What I see as far as the future is this is one of those blips on the screen as far as UConn deciding to go independent in football and go to the Big East for basketball. I don’t think that starts a big wave. Sure, there are others in the Group of 5 who have the ambition to become part of a Power 5 conference, and you have The American, which is trying to make it a Power 6. Those are discussions that happen at the commissioners’ level; it’s not really at the campus level. The commissioners are the one who will decided what things look like five years from now, 10 years from now. That’s true for the College Football Playoffs as well.”