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Big Ten advocates new benefits for student-athletes, but is it too late?

Big Ten advocates new benefits for student-athletes, but is it too late? Photo:
As recently as five years ago, the statement released by the Big Ten’s presidents and chancellors on Tuesday would have seemed radical. Now, it appears reactionary.

Neither of those adjectives is entirely accurate, of course. As more money has poured into major college athletics through media rights deals and conference-branded networks such as the one that bears the Big Ten’s name, presidents and conference commissioners have discussed giving athletes a piece of the largesse. That began even before 2009, when former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon filed the lawsuit currently at trial in a federal courthouse in Oakland, Calif. The reforms outlined by the 14 Big Ten university CEOs on Tuesday were already in the pipe. They did not simply appear from thin air after two weeks of watching expensive plaintiffs’ attorneys clean the clocks of equally expensive NCAA attorneys. That is only how it seems. But because of the political nature of their positions, those school CEOs understand perception can quickly become reality if not corrected.

So, on Tuesday, the Big Ten’s CEOs released a joint statement. They originally intended to write an op-ed, but most papers blanche at the thought of 14 bylines. Instead, they opted for a statement from the league and a few interviews to let everyone know they stand united atop the shifting ground of major college sports. “The folks that are advocating for paying players and all the rest have been more dominant in the news and in the media than I think they should be,” Nebraska chancellor Harvey Perlman said. “I thought it was important that those of us who feel strongly in another direction have their voices heard.”

Perlman and the rest wanted to make clear that while they don’t support the O’Bannon plaintiffs’ desire to force schools to pay football and men’s basketball players for their name, image and likeness rights, the Big Ten’s CEOs do want to spend some more of those new millions on student-athletes. That may not satisfy those such as the guy writing this column, who have suggested that the market should be allowed to pay the athletes it values. It certainly won’t satisfy the presidents and athletic directors at the lower rungs of Division I, who believe this is a power grab designed to widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. But it is how the Big Ten’s CEOs feel, and they are pretty sure they are not alone.

Here, from the statement, are the things the Big Ten’s CEOs would like to offer every athlete:

  • We must guarantee the four-year scholarships that we offer. If a student-athlete is no longer able to compete, for whatever reason, there should be zero impact on our commitment as universities to deliver an undergraduate education. We want our students to graduate.
  • If a student-athlete leaves for a pro career before graduating, the guarantee of a scholarship remains firm. Whether a professional career materializes, and regardless of its length, we will honor a student’s scholarship when his or her playing days are over. Again, we want students to graduate.
  • We must review our rules and provide improved, consistent medical insurance for student-athletes. We have an obligation to protect their health and well-being in return for the physical demands placed upon them.
  • We must do whatever it takes to ensure that student-athlete scholarships cover the full cost of a college education, as defined by the federal government. That definition is intended to cover what it actually costs to attend college. 

These sentiments aren’t all that different from the ones previously expressed by the leaders of the Pac-12 and the SEC. But coming from the wealthiest conference in college sports, they carry plenty of weight.

They also illustrate the odd position in which the wealthiest leagues in college athletics find themselves. On one side, they are vilified for not sharing the wealth with players beyond the tuition, room and board that student-athletes have been receiving since the 1950s. On another, the leagues are vilified for moving away from the competitive equity model that has defined NCAA rulemaking for the past four decades. Even if the conferences go against the latter set of critics, the former won’t consider it far enough. In August, the NCAA board of directors will vote on an autonomy plan that should allow the five wealthiest leagues -- by virtue of a supermajority vote -- to establish rules that allow them spend more of their money on athletes. If this plan survives the recall period and goes into NCAA law, the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC will begin loosening some rules to allow them to do all the things outlined in the Big Ten's CEOs’ statement. While they do that, they will continue to fight in court against athletes who believe those leagues are acting as a cartel to fix the price of labor in an extremely lucrative business.

“This has been a much more vigorous topic of conversation in the Big Ten conference in the last two or three years,” Michigan president Mary Sue Coleman said. “We see why we really need to be doing more to help the students. All of us care deeply. These are our students. We want to help them.”

The presidents understand why their motives might be questioned. A flood of lawsuits championed by attorneys who consider the NCAA and the schools to be low-hanging fruit in clear violation of the Sherman Act have altered the leverage a bit. And the truth of the matter is that some of these lawsuits might have been headed off if, five years ago, the wealthy leagues had taken the very sort of action the Big Ten’s CEOs now propose. “The lawsuits, I think, have focused things and pressed us to actions that we should have taken sooner,” Wisconsin chancellor Rebecca Blank said. “But these are things we need to do regardless of the lawsuits and how they turn out.”

Besides, Penn State president Eric Barron said, some of the reforms are simply no-brainers. “I don’t see how you don’t contemplate better health and well-being for the athletes in terms of health insurance and other obligations,” said Barron, who came to State College this February after four years at the helm of Florida State.

By making these changes, the CEOs hope they can un-ring the bell sounded by the various lawsuits currently pending against the NCAA and the five wealthiest conferences. They feel they are defending a uniquely American system, and the person who explains that best is the CEO who grew up and attended college in another country. “The benefits are enormous in that it provides just extraordinary opportunity for very talented young men and women to continue to pursue the areas of athletics in which they excel right through their collegiate years and at the end of it come out with a first-rate education,” said Indiana president Michael McRobbie, an Australian native who became a U.S. citizen four years ago. “Where I come from, with just a few exceptions, you simply can’t do that. If you’re a talented cricket player or if you’re a talented Australian rules player, it would be almost impossible for you to continue to compete at a very high level while you’re at university.”

Will the Big Ten and the other four leagues get the autonomy they seek to put the rules they want in place? Late last month, Florida president Bernie Machen seemed doubtful that the rest of Division I would capitulate, but Machen’s opinion seems to be in the minority. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany appears much more confident. “On a scale of one to 10, I would say I’m about an eight,” Delany said. “I’m not fully confident. I was about an 80-percent foul shooter, so I’m about that confident. But I’ve missed some key ones in my time.”

Perlman, who two years ago in an interview with SI.com expressed sentiments about the divide within Division I that seem almost identical to the ones he and his colleagues expressed on Tuesday, believes it’s time all the schools in Division I accepted a hard truth. “I think you need to be realistic. Schools with greater resources to devote to college athletics have an advantage, and that advantage exists today before any of these additional reforms go into effect,” Perlman said. “To think there is a level playing field in Division I is just to ignore reality. There is never going to be a level playing field.”

So, Perlman asked, why should the less wealthy schools be able to tell the wealthy ones how they can treat their athletes? “The only area where high-resource schools can’t spend money is on behalf of student-athletes,” Perlman said. “We built palaces. We pay football coaches large salaries. We do all the other kind of things that we do to be competitive. The only things we can’t do are some of the things that many of us feel student-athletes deserve. That isn’t paying for them for their performance, however.”

Perlman makes clear that his line for compensation is the full cost of school attendance. Anything beyond that, he believes, is pay-for-play. Others don’t feel that way for various reasons. A less wealthy school might believe giving players anything more than what they receive now is a recruiting inducement. An attorney for the O’Bannon plaintiffs would point out that presidents such as Perlman continue to move the line that denotes amateurism as it suits their needs.

Even a statement such as the one by Michigan’s Coleman to illustrate how schools differ on and off the field can be taken a variety of ways. “I realize we are fortunate. The Big Ten is fortunate. Michigan is fortunate to have these resources. But this is not the only area in which there is a differential for institutions,” Coleman said. “Harvard has a huge endowment. Princeton has a huge endowment. Michigan has a pretty good endowment. It’s not as big. So, sure, there are going to be inequities. It’s a reality of life.”

That puts in perspective the separation between, say, the Big Ten and Conference USA. But it also could be used to argue against one of the CEOs’ key points. It’s also a reality that football and men’s basketball bring in the lion’s share of the money; they pay for most, if not all, of the other sports on each Big Ten campus. The Big Ten’s CEOs believe all athletes should receive the same amount regardless of sport, and they made that quite clear in their statement. If the system were tipped in favor of the revenue-generating athletes, they say, they might have to cut some non-revenue sports. But the reality of life, to borrow Coleman’s term, is that the market values football and men’s basketball far more than it values the other sports. That’s why television networks are willing to pay so much to broadcast those two sports.

Why should football and men’s basketball players be forced to subsidize athletes who chose sports that don’t make money? This is a tax base/welfare state argument that, often hilariously, causes people engaging in the debate to go against their stated political beliefs because they don’t understand what they’re advocating.

Coleman understands exactly what she’s saying. She has been the president of a Big Ten institution since taking over at Iowa in 1995. (She moved to Michigan in 2002.) She wants reform, but not the kind that might be mandated by the court system. Delany testified last week in the O’Bannon trial that he didn’t think the Big Ten’s presidents would be interested in paying for athletes’ names, images and likenesses. Coleman backed him up this week. “I do feel that way,” she said. “I really do. I feel very strongly. There’s something very precious about amateur athletics and the fact that we believe that we offer the best of both worlds. … I can’t imagine another scenario. I don’t think the Big Ten would be interested.”

Wisconsin’s Blank, who served as the acting U.S. Secretary of Commerce from 2012 until taking over in Madison in ‘13, shared that sentiment. “If I’m forced, through court order of one sort or another, to pay the majority of my football and basketball revenues back to players, I have first of all created a pay-for-play situation which is very, very different than I think any of us would like to think about student-athletes,” she said. “We are primarily there to provide them with a student experience. We appreciate their athletic ability. Yes, they play for us. Yes, they put a lot of time into that. But we also make sure they graduate and get through school and are ready for what for most of them are not going to be athletic careers.”

It remains difficult to imagine that the schools of the Big Ten wouldn’t continue sponsoring big-time college sports. Too many people would have to walk away from high-paying jobs if the schools opted out. Human nature suggests that won’t happen. But that theory might be tested at some point in the future as the lawsuits mount. The Big Ten and the other leagues might have prevented such suits from ever being hatched had they embraced earlier the type of reform they now advocate. But now that the cases against the NCAA and conferences are rolling through the federal court system, their momentum might not be stopped with a little more for each athlete.

Did the reform movement arrive too late? Delany doesn’t think so. “Are you kidding me? This will be with us for a decade,” he said. “Between the reform, the restructuring, the litigation, congressional activity. This is the beginning. Not the end.”

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