Delany: Big Ten could de-emphasize athletics if O'Bannon plaintiffs win
Ohio State versus Mount Union in a regular-season football game? Wisconsin against Wisconsin-Whitewater in a regular-season basketball game?
This isn't an outreach program between Big Ten schools and their Division III neighbors. It's one possible future Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany envisions if the plaintiffs prevail in Ed O'Bannon vs. the NCAA. In a declaration filed last week in federal court in support of the NCAA's motion against class certification, Delany threatened that any outcome that results in athletes getting a piece of the schools' television revenue could force the schools of the Big Ten to de-emphasize athletics as the Ivy League's schools did decades ago.
"...it has been my longstanding belief that The Big Ten's schools would forgo the revenues in those circumstances and instead take steps to downsize the scope, breadth and activity of their athletic programs," Delany wrote. "Several alternatives to a 'pay for play' model exist, such as the Division III model, which does not offer any athletics-based grants-in-aid, and, among others, a need-based financial model. These alternatives would, in my view, be more consistent with The Big Ten's philosophy that the educational and lifetime economic benefits associated with a university education are the appropriate quid pro quo for its student athletes."
In an interview Monday, Delany told SI.com that much of the wording in his declaration came from an op-ed he wrote for the NCAA News in 1996. He believes now as he believed then: A pay-for-play model involving contracts and individual negotiations with players would not interest the schools of the Big Ten.
"It's not that we want to go Division III or go to need-based aid," Delany said. "It's simply that in the plaintiff's hypothetical -- and if a court decided that Title IX is out and players must be paid -- I don't think we'd participate in that. I think we'd choose another option. ... If that's the law of the land, if you have to do that, I don't think we would."
The "plaintiff's hypothetical" is represented in a paper written last year by Stanford economics professor Roger Noll at the behest of the plaintiffs that suggests players should receive 50 percent of television revenue. (The money, according to the plaintiffs' plan, would be placed into a trust and given to the players upon graduation.) Given the values of the contracts recently signed by several conferences, that's half of billions of dollars. Sound high? Of course it is. But the plaintiffs consider this the start of a negotiation for a settlement that could become a fait accompli if Judge Claudia Wilken certifies the class in June. Figuratively speaking, the plaintiffs wrote down 50 percent on a slip of paper and slid it across the table; Delany and his colleagues wrote down zero percent and slid the paper back to the plaintiffs. The cost of a settlement now would probably be relatively low. If the NCAA and schools lose their gamble and the class gets certified in June, that cost will rise significantly because class certification makes quite real the specter of a courtroom loss that would financially destroy the NCAA.
Delany insists that this is only his belief and that he has not polled his presidents, but he seems confident that if conferences began negotiating with players and schools began paying one type of player more than another, the Big Ten's schools would not participate. "If that were to happen I think our presidents, our faculties and our boards of trustees would just opt out," Delany said. "I don't know what the opt-out means, whether that's Division III or another model."
If the Big Ten schools dropped athletic scholarships and moved to Division III or into the non-scholarship FCS realm occupied by the schools of the Ivy and Pioneer leagues, it would inject some intellectual honesty into this debate. Schools and leagues say they want to run amateur sports that enrich the collegiate experience, but then they run football and men's basketball like professional sports. This would mean a group of 14 schools leaving millions of dollars on the table to run true amateur athletic programs that exist only to enhance the university experience of their students.
If this happened, I would stand and applaud. Finally, someone would be putting higher education ahead of high finance. But the actions of the Big Ten's presidents in the past few years make it difficult to believe they would follow the example of the Ivy League schools and Big Ten founding member the University of Chicago, which de-emphasized sports in the 1940s.
Five months ago, the presidents of the Big Ten schools voted to poach Maryland from the ACC and Rutgers from the Big East. They did not do this because the football or men's basketball teams at Maryland and Rutgers offer a terrible amount of value to a wealthy league already chock full of brand names. The value to the Big Ten lies in the location of those schools, which sit in heavily populated metropolitan areas. That means those areas boast more cable subscribers who, Big Ten leaders hope, will soon have to pay more than $1 a month to their cable or satellite provider for the Big Ten Network -- whether they actually want that programming or not. Assuming the millions of subscribers who now find themselves in the Big Ten footprint are charged that fee, it will result in a massive financial windfall for the conference.
Delany said the additions of Maryland and Rutgers came in response to a changing landscape. "We're all in competition with each other -- as the SEC comes into Missouri and Texas and as the ACC comes into New York and Pennsylvania," Delany said. But if it's not about money, why does that matter? Delany also disagreed with my oft-repeated assertion that the Big Ten changed the revenue model for major college sports when it launched the Big Ten Network. Delany counters that the league took control and assumed half the financial risk -- Fox has the other half -- because ESPN's stranglehold on college content allowed that network to lowball leagues. "We simply wouldn't deal with a company that simply wouldn't pay us what we thought we were worth," Delany said. Football stars whose jerseys get sold in the school bookstore might say the same thing about the organizations that insist they are no more valuable than the setter on the volleyball team. The difference is they don't have the financial clout to start their own league. They can, however, put the squeeze on the people controlling the money now.
Presidents who will vote to attack other leagues to increase revenue seem highly unlikely to turn down millions of dollars and nationwide television exposure for the sake of a principle to which they've never actually adhered in practice. This is what makes the opt-out scenario difficult to believe. What makes it somewhat believable? The very real possibility that to comply with Title IX in a pay-for-play scenario, departments may have to cut sports, which means they have to cut scholarships, which means actual educational opportunities would be lost. Of course, there is a solution that would work for both parties, but the leaders in college athletics want no part of it.
Delany isn't alone in joining the NCAA in its fight against the O'Bannon plaintiffs, who originally sought payment for the NCAA and schools' use of the likenesses of former players for commercial reasons but have since expanded the case to seek a piece of television revenue for current and former athletes. Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, SEC executive associate commissioner Mark Womack, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby, Texas athletic directors DeLoss Dodds and Chris Plonsky, Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch and a host of others also filed declarations. Some were more forceful than others. The Texas ADs said the school had "no interest" in a pay-for-play plan, but the Joneses stopped short of threatening to de-emphasize sports. Fresno State president John Welty appeared to use the same legalese template as the Texas duo, repeating passages word for word. It's unclear who came up with the language first, but someone plagiarized someone. (At most of these schools, such plagiarism would result in a failing grade. It's apparently OK in federal court filings.) Welty's declaration did differ from the Texas duo's in one way: It suggested Fresno State might have to eliminate football to save the rest of its sports. This is probably not a bluff. But Fresno State probably wouldn't have to do that if it didn't attempt to cast its lot with Alabama, Michigan and the rest of schools in a much higher income bracket. Wake Forest's Hatch also threatened a move out of the FBS, which probably wouldn't register a blip of resistance outside the school's own fan base.
If Michigan, Ohio State, Penn State, Nebraska and the rest of the Big Ten suddenly downsized athletics, though, it would profoundly change college athletics by ticking off some massive alumni bases and by sending more revenue to the SEC, Big 12 and Pac-12 if they didn't follow suit. Would Urban Meyer still coach football at Ohio State if he saw his salary cut and lost the ability to offer scholarships to the best players? Would Tom Izzo still want to coach basketball at Michigan State if Central Michigan could offer recruits a more attractive financial package? Probably not. Would the schools of the Big Ten continue to be elite institutions of higher learning without big-time sports? Absolutely. The Ivy League schools once ruled college football. Then they de-emphasized athletics. The move didn't hurt them at all from an academic or reputation standpoint. It didn't hurt major college football, either. The sport rolled merrily along without them. Just like the Ivy League schools, the Big Ten schools don't need major college football, and major college football doesn't need them. De-emphasizing athletics would be an awfully noble move by the schools of the Big Ten, but their actions suggest they don't have the guts to take that drastic a step.
Remember, Delany said his opinion hasn't changed since he wrote that op-ed in 1996. What has changed? The money. According to a 1995 court filing, the Big Ten distributed $43.5 million to 11 member schools in 1994. In 2012, the Big Ten distributed $284 million to 12 schools. That's a 600-percent increase in revenue per school. In November, SI's Pete Thamel reported that Big Ten officials presented Maryland with a projection stating each of the league's schools would receive $43 million from the league in 2017 after the Big Ten signs its next media rights deal. That would be a 1,088-percent increase over the per-school take in 1994. Delany counters that tuition costs have risen in the neighborhood of 300 percent and Big Ten schools are giving scholarships to 50 percent more athletes. Still, the math favors the league and not the athletes in the two sports that make all that money.
The money has gone somewhere. It has gone into fancier stadiums and into the pockets of football coaches, basketball coaches, athletic directors and conference officials. It also has gone into scholarships for more athletes -- specifically more female athletes. I can't blame anyone for a second for wanting to protect their personal revenue stream -- and it's certainly a worthy goal to protect scholarship opportunities -- but they can't be surprised someone finally ran the numbers and realized there is a substantial payday awaiting the attorneys who motivate the labor force to ask for a larger share of the pie. When a sport becomes a multibillion-dollar business, someone has to be Curt Flood, and someone will want to represent that guy.
So now they'll dance in briefs and motions. So far, Delany has made the most dramatic statement with a hint that some of the nation's most iconic programs may de-emphasize athletics if the plaintiffs prevail. This may simply be gamesmanship. Write a doomsday scenario, hope someone like me finds it and distributes it and sit back and watch as panicked fans of Big Ten schools turn their vitriol on plaintiffs, who currently enjoy a favorable public opinion. But Monday, Delany sounded as if he really means it. "It's not a bluff," Delany said. "It's a statement of belief. I think that's what would happen. I do not believe that the hypothetical case being put forth -- if it actually became the case -- that Big Ten institutions would engage in that."
Bear in mind that Delany also said in December 2011 that he doubted Big Ten schools would agree to take part in any kind of football playoff. In June 2012, the Big Ten agreed to participate in a football playoff. But just in case Delany is correct, savor watching some excellent Big Ten basketball programs these next few weeks in the NCAA tournament. The Division III tournament might be a bit more difficult to find on your cable box.
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