Redefining amateurism is the most highly charged topic at NCAA headquarters and was the dominant subject of a two-day staff retreat last fall. It is nothing more than a euphemism for allowing college athletes to accept money.
When addressing the subject, Dempsey composes each sentence in his head before speaking, mindful of his many constituents. One can almost see the words materialize in a cartoon thought balloon before he utters them. "I do not believe in most cases that student-athletes are exploited," he says. "But I think the inconsistency is hard to understand. That is, we pay coaches a lot of money; a lot of money is generated, primarily through football and basketball; and why shouldn't the student-athlete receive the benefits?"
Dempsey, 64, was the nation's second-leading rebounder as a junior at Albion College in Michigan in 1952-53. (This is less impressive when he points out that his team averaged 90 points a game while shooting 33%.) Poised above a foothill of angel-hair pasta at Martini's restaurant in Leawood, Kans., he speaks eloquently of all the benefits that accrue to a scholarship student-athlete, not the least of which is an education worth as much as $26,000 a year.
"Now, addressing the financial issue," says Dempsey, chewing each word as if it were the sourdough bread in front of him. Pause. "I personally feel that needs to be reevaluated. Our grant-in-aid does not meet the cost of attendance. With the time demands of Division I athletics, it is difficult for that needy student-athlete to exist."
Existence: It is vital to a student-athlete's well-being. Or so Dempsey is conceding on this balmy autumn day. It is, in itself, an epochal acknowledgment, born of an NCAA study that concluded that a full athletic scholarship (which covers tuition, books, room and board) falls short of the actual cost of attending college (with its odd night out, its occasional visit home, its biennial trip to the laundromat) by $1,800 to $2,400 a year. That works out to at least $200 a month from September to May, and it doesn't take Earl Grey to read the tea leaves: This is the sum by which the executive director of the NCAA feels some student-athletes ought to be further, shall we say, compensated. Dempsey avoids the word stipend and disdains the word paid. In Overland Park paid is a four-letter vulgarism, like UNLV.
At its January convention in Nashville, the NCAA passed a rule to allow student-athletes to work during the school year, though only to make enough money to meet the actual cost of attendance, only after their freshman year and only if they are in good academic standing. Whenever stipends were broached, the subject was shot down like skeet. Stipends are not likely to fly anytime soon. But should they?
"Some people say we ought to pay student-athletes a thousand dollars a month," says Dempsey. He suddenly sees that his Freudian slip is showing. "I mean a hundred dollars a month! A hundred. Other people say, 'No, that's pay-for-play.' But if you put it in a context of 'Maybe they need two hundred dollars a month to meet the cost of attendance,' is it pay-for-play? That's why I don't like the term."
It might be truer to say the NCAA dislikes the term pay-for-play because paying athletes would put colleges in a Pandora's box-and-one of legal horrors. The member schools would become employers of athletes and thus be required to pay payroll tax, workmen's compensation and the like. "The federal tax code," writes Byers, "has indeed replaced amateurism as the rationale for the current rule book." The tax code trumps any philosophical argument about amateurism.
The IRS no doubt pines to engage the NCAA in court. Imagine the authors of the federal tax code versus the authors of the NCAA rule book in a bureaucratic sumo match for all eternity. It is a fate that both parties may well deserve. However, schools would likely befuddle the IRS with some semantic sleight of hand—for instance, by "capping the grant-in-aid at the cost of attendance," which is NC-double-A doublespeak for paying athletes the difference between their scholarship and the true cost of attending college: say, $200 a month. So why not do just that?
"The main reason we haven't gone up to the cost of attendance is a financial one," says Dempsey. "Most institutions can hardly afford their programs now"—only 48 programs turn profits—"and you can't get away with doing it only for football and basketball players. You're talking about the whole population [of college athletes]. You're talking about 300,000 kids."