CHICAGO — If you’re searching for fairness in collegiate athletics, forget it. Competition has never been fair.
The admissions office at School X permits enrollment of athletes who don’t meet the standards of School Z.
School W has geographical, population and resource advantages over desolate School Y.
Southern Illinois, which plays Illinois Aug. 31, is allowed 63 scholarships while the Illini can have 85. Penn State suffered severe sanctions and scholarship limitations, but will still present a stronger squad than visiting Illinois Nov. 2.
So let’s not get caught up on fairness. It doesn’t exist.
With this as background, changes are coming that will test NCAA leaders as they attempt to find a payment system for revenue-raising athletes that would be acceptable to academicians, Title IX, the courts and Congress. This is a truly tricky business. How do you pay some athletes and not others?
Leading this quest will be five big-school commissioners including Jim Delany, who spoke over, around and through the subject at Wednesday’s Big Ten Kickoff.
These five have swept past troubled NCAA president Mark Emmert as the nation’s decision-makers.
“I think anyone who has been in our bubble of college sports for the last three years can’t help but be fascinated by the rate of change,” Delany said. “We now have 130 radio stations devoted to 24-hour sports. We have an Internet that is global. We have Twitter, which has gone to 400 million tweets in a day.”
And there is an uprising of athletes who want a piece of the giant financial pie ... and to hear Delany, a stipend for some is on the way.
The effort to establish a pay scale (beyond scholarships) runs parallel to the Ed O’Bannon court case that finds six current football players, including two from Minnesota, filing suit to be paid like union workers. It is hard to fathom retroactive payments, but that’s part of the case.
Fight is on
Delany’s idea, which will be tugged in various directions, is to maintain the academic arrangement while establishing a stipend of somewhere between $2,000 and $5,000 to athletes in only the full-scholarship sports.
At Illinois, 15 of 19 sports are limited by NCAA rules to partial scholarships, leaving only football, volleyball and both basketball teams. Trouble is, this would mean stipends to 98 men and one-fourth that many women. Oops. That won’t work.
How do you do it? While Big Ten schools can afford it with their ever-increasing TV income, what about others? Where is the dividing line between haves and have-nots?
The wrangling will be wild. And Delany eludes unresolved specifics as he offers a personal plan. He wants to (1) offer a lifetime education opportunity for those who leave early in good standing, (2) put constraints on the time demands on athletes, (3) make sure marginal student-athletes aren’t being exploited by providing some with a year of readiness before competition and (4) establish financial support, which could be a fixed stipend or based on need.
“Restructuring is great, particularly for high-resource institutions. But if we don’t reconnect on these educational-based initiatives with commitments on finances, time demands, (educational) readiness and miscellaneous expenses, we’re not going to be where we want.”
Whether or not other commissioners are in step with Delany’s wishes, they must find an answer to player stipends that meet Title IX rules. This will be exceedingly difficult as they attempt to skirt a federal law to resolve a football problem.
As for the O’Bannon case, Delany said the NCAA will fight it to the Supreme Court if necessary, and respond accordingly.
From any perspective, Delany is a force of nature as he enters his 25th year as Big Ten commissioner.
He runs a conference that has prided itself in tradition while being a leader in change ... pointing to decades-old rules requiring academic progress and gender equity, and carrying on to instant replay, well-planned expansion, a mix of bowl alliances from coast to coast, and the Big Ten Network.
That six-year-old TV network, which arrived with such trepidation, is already invading 53 million homes and (with more subscribers outside the Big Ten footprint than inside it; I double-checked that) and saw dramatic increases in ratings (12 percent) and advertising income while mapping plans to hit a Rutgers-Maryland population that potentially amounts to a 30 percent increase in Big Ten coverage.
The conference already provides $150 million in scholarships for 10,000 student-athletes, and spends $9 billion on federal research, thus offering the national model for mixing sports and academics.
So when Delany speaks, people listen. But the ultimate result of the O’Bannon case be settled by the courts and by Congress.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at email@example.com.