Notre Dame AD Swarbrick addresses hot issues

South Bend Tribune

Jack Swarbrick apologized for the half-hour delay, glanced at his watch and did the math in his head about how he was going to fit 29 hours worth of commitments into a 24-hour day.

The Notre Dame athletic director is on the move again this week, a presence at the four days of Atlantic Coast Conference spring meetings in Amelia, Island, Fla., which conclude Thursday.

On some topics, he’s little more than an interested observer — the decision on staying with an eight-game league football schedule over a push for nine being one of them. On some he’s a prominent voice for a league that Tuesday shifted its men’s basketball postseason tourney back a day to finish Saturday night instead of on Selection Sunday.

South Bend Tribune Notre Dame football beat writer Eric Hansen recently sat down with Swarbrick to discuss college athletics’ rapidly mutating bigger picture and how those topics are playing out on the ND campus.

Here’s Part I of the two-part Q-and-A:

SBT: Before we get into the big-picture stuff, what kind of reaction have you got from the FieldTurf announcement?

Swarbrick: You know I’ll probably hate myself for saying this, but very little reaction one way or the other. People may use this as a starting gun to weigh in.

SBT: Does that surprise you?

Swarbrick: Yeah it surprises me in the sense that things that I sometimes view as absolutely neutral produce lots of controversy, but it doesn’t surprise me in the sense, we spent a lot of time talking about it over the past two years and preparing people for the possibility of it.

SBT: The whole NCAA reform movement is, I think, intriguing and confusing to a lot of people. It appears there’s probably going to be autonomy for the 65 schools that are in the “Power 5” conferences, which Notre Dame is a part of. How do you feel about that and where do you hope that leads?

Swarbrick: I think the concept of autonomy is absolutely a good thing, because it reflects there are growing differences in the models among the members of the NCAA. Difference has been reflected over the years by different divisions, right? Division I is different than II is different than III. Well within Division I there are now increasing differences.

And this is a way that allows you to keep the division intact, but recognize those differences, so I think it’s a very creative solution. And I think it’s the right solution.

SBT: So basically the 65 schools will be able to make their own rules?

Swarbrick: In the (designated and agreed upon) autonomous areas, yes. They have identified a series of specific areas that are those in which the 65 have the opportunity to adopt their own set of rules and regulations, things like athlete benefits, time management issues with the student-athletes – specifically, dead periods — nutrition.

SBT: I believe stipends to account for cost of attendance is also on the list. When we look at that specific issue, I see a lot of people quoted as to what they expect that to look like. What’s your expectation of what it should look like? And will it look different at Notre Dame than from Purdue, than from Cal, than from Arizona State, etc.?

Swarbrick: That’s sort of the piece of this that has yet to be resolved in the sense: I think, in terms of the public discourse, the cart’s moved ahead of the horse. All we’re talking about right now is governance. And we’ve sort of affirmatively said, ‘We’re not going to get into any substantive issues until the governance is in place with the governance model.’ So you’ve got to get that worked out first and adopted. And then you get to take on these individual issues.

There is a lot of very healthy debate about the issue of making sure we’re fully meeting the needs of student-athletes. There are a lot of different forms that it can take. In the abstract, it’s easy to talk about, but you’ve got to get down to real proposals, real legislation to figure out how that might work.

Frankly, we’re going through a version of that, so in response to some admittedly stupid rules about what you could put on a bagel, some meal legislation, some food legislation goes through very quickly. And now as we’re trying to implement it, we’re finding ourselves asking a lot of questions, and people aren’t sure about the answers.

We’ve got to make sure, as we do these things, as we pursue reform, we’ve really taken the time to understand the proposal: What are the unintended consequences? How does it work? How does it fit with the university model? It’s great to talk about some of these things, but what’s the gender equity implication?

We better clearly understand it before we run around making changes. So once the governance is set, it’ll be time to really work our way through those issues.

SBT: The one thing that I rarely see come up when people are talking about the full cost of attendance and really all these other issues is the Pell Grant. Are people still getting Pell Grants? How do they fit into these issues?

Swarbrick: Certainly, I think there’s been a lack of acknowledgment in the role the Pell Grant plays. So a student who’s on a full room/board/tuition scholarship — all the non-insignificant incidental things the NCAA allows us to do — on top of that gets a $5,600 Pell Grant.

By and large, that student is in a superior financial position relative to direct support from the school to any student at the university. Public discourse doesn’t acknowledge that. It’s pretty one-sided in its treatment. If you’re going to trumpet the fact that someone is reporting they can’t pay rent, you’ve got to ask yourself, ‘What happened to the money?’

Now, there may be a good explanation for that. They may be sending money home to parents who are in great need. They may have other responsibilities, so that’s why you’ve got to understand the individual circumstances. But I think there’s a broad perception of unmet need here that isn’t supported by the facts.

SBT: There are a lot of people in my business right now that like to take the narrative that between the union stuff, the Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, that the student-athlete model, as we know it, is going to change forever very, very soon and change drastically. Are you of the mind that’s where all of these issues are pushing the student-athlete model?

Swarbrick: There’s going to be change. It’s too early to tell the scope and nature of that change. But for a lot of schools, it’s not about whether the model changes from what we have now. For a place like Notre Dame, it’s about whether the model changes in a way that’s inconsistent with our approach to collegiate athletics.

Central to that approach for us is the full integration of the student-athlete in the university. We want his or her experience and treatment to be as much like other students’ as possible. A model that shifts fundamentally away from that is problematic for Notre Dame. We’re going to have to see what happens, but that’s our focus.

We want to make sure all our students, not just athletes, that the university is helping them, supporting them, helping to meet their needs. But we don’t want to start creating divisions of students here that are fundamentally different from each other. This place is all about building a community, where our students feel a part of that community in every way, so we’ll have to see.

SBT: I see that Congress is getting involved in what’s going on in college athletics. Do you think that’s a positive?

Swarbrick: Well, you never know, but I think increasingly there’s a role for the federal government to play here. There’s so much going on, the pieces can’t be reconciled with each other. The unionization issues, the personal-property rights issues and the antitrust issues may produce inconsistent results, and you need some way to work your way through those. And that may be hard to do without the government playing some role.

This is not that dissimilar from the situation the American Olympic movement was in back in the ’70s, when the Amateur Sports Act was adopted, and that was the federal government coming in and saying, ‘OK, here’s how the Olympic movement is going to work in the United States.’ So we’ll see, but I increasingly think there may be a role for the federal government to play in all of this.

SBT: Again, in our business, a lot of people want to kind of blow up the NCAA. But I haven’t seen a lot of great ideas on how to replace it, reform it, fix it. Do you feel like you have a handle on what you think the vision of the reformed NCAA should be?

Swarbrick: The first important thing to remember is the NCAA is us. It’s a membership association. It drives me crazy when people refer to it as a third party. There’s never been a piece of legislation adopted that didn’t have the support of the member institutions. Most often, some school brought forward the proposal, and then we treat it like it’s an independent agency enforcing rules on us.

It’s not. It’s us.

The first part, in sort of getting to the new NCAA, is to step up to that reality and recognize that our membership association, by and large, is doing what we asked them to. I think the critical issue for the future — and again a conscious decision was made to deal with governance first — but I think the next issue that has to be addressed is: What do we want the NCAA to do? What are the things that we want to be the focus of its efforts?

Do we want it to be our compliance and enforcement arm? They’re not the only way you could do that. You could create third-party entities that do that — college sports version of the Securities and Exchange Commission. I don’t mean it’s a government agency, but something inventive.

What role do we want it to play in championships? I think everybody is very satisfied with the role they play in that. What role do we want them to play in setting initial eligibility standards? Before we start worrying about what a specific legislative proposal is, I think we really have to answer the question about what do we want the core mission of the NCAA to be? What things do we want them to focus their energies on, as a membership?

SBT: Do you feel like this autonomy movement is going to help redefine the NCAA?

Swarbrick: I think it will help, because it will give us opportunities for discussion, in smaller groups, if you will. So you’ll have the five conferences feed up to a decision-making process that involves all 65 members.

I think there’s a public perception that those 65 schools are all commonly aligned on all these issues. It’s just not true. And that’s a good thing. You want diverse views.

But you look at the override vote on the $2,000 stipend proposal, and you’ll find a great amount of division among the 65 member institutions of the big five conferences over that issue.

That’s representative in a number of these issues that there will be a wide range of views. And again, that’s healthy, that’s great. That’ll get us to the right result.

Eric Hansen: 574-235-6112

Twitter: @hansenNDInsider

There's never a dull day in the life of Notre Dame Athletic Director Jack Swarbrick. (SBT File Photo/ROBERT FRANKLIN)