Pay-for-play questions dominate college football media days

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By Martin Rickman

To pay, or not to pay? The question is at the heart of a growing number of debates pervading the college sports landscape, from stipends, to broadcast rights, to likenesses, to super-division rumors. And it isn’t going away after players, coaches and conference commissioners added fuel to an already roaring fire at conference media days.

During Friday's Pac-12 media day, Stanford offensive lineman David Yankey fielded a question about stipends. He responded by saying: “I definitely think the extra money would help a lot. A full scholarship doesn’t cover everything, as far as traveling home to see your parents, especially when you go across the country to a place like Stanford, personally being from Georgia. That could help a lot of players.”

Earlier this week, MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher dispelled the rumor of small-revenue conferences actively voting down stipends as a money matter; rather, he said that there are too many proposals.

“That’s a tough issue,” Steinbrecher said during MAC media day Tuesday in Detroit. “There’s tax implication. There are implications if you’re a student athlete. Remember, when we get beyond football and basketball, most student athletes’ financial packages are not just athletic aid. There is usually a need component for a number of the kids. We have to be careful with what we do so it doesn’t replace a need component. It does no good to have a stipend that goes to a student athlete and they lose $2,000 because they’re picking up $2,000 here.”

That comment supports the assertions Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby made during his media day press conference, when he stated that federations by sport may be an inescapable organizational model. “It's probably unrealistic to think that we can manage football and field hockey by the same set of rules," Bowlsby told reporters in Dallas. "I think some kind of reconfiguration of how we govern is in order.''

The looming Ed O’Bannon lawsuit, set to go to trial in July of 2014, further muddies the water. If NCAA players are compensated for use of their likenesses, or if they earn a cut of the huge television contracts individual conferences are signing, it will tip the scales even more toward the visible, marketable, high-revenue sports of football and men's basketball.

It's no coincidence that a week after six current athletes were added to the O'Bannon suit, the major conferences began beating the super-division drum. If the plaintiffs end up prevailing, the schools' payout will be substantial. And small schools in a conference like the MEAC won't be able to survive writing those kind of checks. In a way, distancing the big-revenue schools from the small-revenue schools may actually save the smaller conferences.

It's only a matter of time before even more players take up the charge and join the lawsuit. Being the first in something (or the first six) takes a lot of guts, whether you’re a fifth-year senior or an All-America candidate. Being an advocate down the road takes commitment to a cause. The suit is still waiting for its marquee, buzz-generating representative, but that might not come any time soon.

“I don’t think up until the announcement of the names recently that a big-time athlete joining the suit was even a possibility,” senior writer Stewart Mandel said. “But I don’t expect a high-profile player to join just because I can’t imagine it’s a huge priority for them. You’ll get guys talking about it at media days, but you don’t see any players specifically championing the cause.”

Many NCAA athletes feel that they deserve to be compensated for their skills, but few will discuss it publicly until they feel safe. I asked the question to a number of players at MAC media day Tuesday, and the answers I got were more or less the same: “I don’t really have anything to say,” or “No, I’m not comfortable talking about that.”

Plenty of athletes are happy to compete in the sport they love while getting an education, with the added bonus of being able to play as themselves in a video game (or, sorry, as No. X with the same height, weight, speed, abilities and physical appearance as themselves). Others think they’re being cheated out of what's rightfully theirs.

But the problem is that not enough players and fans know about the case, with college football lacking the messaging unions provide in professional leagues.

“I don’t know if most players know the specifics of the case,” Mandel said. “I don’t even know if much of the public does, but the people who are aware realize there’s something wrong here. I’ve always felt players should be entitled to royalty amounts, a licensing fee or something. I think in covering this case, most fans need to know there is a lawsuit out there, but too many don’t.”

The NCAA has already cut ties with EA Sports, and this year’s edition of NCAA Football will be the last under this name and format. EA still plans to make a college football game, but it’s clear the O’Bannon suit is having an impact at multiple levels across the college sports landscape and will for a long time to come.

Mandel thinks it’s going to be years before this thing plays out unless it ends in a settlement, and Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany predicted during Big Ten media day on Wednesday that the case would end up in the U.S. Supreme Court. But others aren't so sure; senior writer Andy Staples thinks the concerted effort by the conferences following current players attaching their names to the suit means the leagues might be putting themselves in a position to be flexible in case the sides want to settle.

"There's too much money at stake for the conferences not to be making these announcements deliberately," Staples said. "The people I've talked to have said the plaintiffs think they have a couple big things in their back pocket. The last time there was this sort of consistent messaging is when the college football playoff was announced, and even then it started with the Big 12."

Pay-for-play is coming. What it will look like, when it will arrive and how it will impact the national landscape remains to be seen. But change looms, and if NCAA president Mark Emmert’s ‘save the date’ cards are accurate, the first wave should come at the NCAA meetings in January.