You're talking about $540 million a year. You're talking about more than twice the NCAA's annual income. And, soon, you're talking about a lasting peace in the Middle East or the solution to some other problem more easily fixed than this one.
Except that it can be done. Of course it can. A 16-team football playoff could be as lucrative as the basketball tournament, doubling the NCAA's annual income. Or, now that student-athletes may work during the school year, the Association could limit the monthly stipend to a chicken feed $100 and give it only to the 130,000 athletes in Division I. The NCAA could finance much of that $117 million shebang from, say, increased apparel sales. The NCAA licenses its logo and that of 22 universities to a Japanese company called Descente to market apparel in that nation. "That's a more-than-$20-million-a-year program," Dempsey admits, "for doing virtually nothing.
"We are preparing to increase our activities in promotions and licensing. Our potential there is still untapped. But that's a balancing act. If we wanted to go totally to an NCAA Properties concept, like the NBA or the NFL, what we could generate...." Dempsey shakes his head at these unseen millions. "But that would start moving us across the line."
"Start?" you might ask. Each day, college athletics crosses more lines than an interstate trucker, and Dempsey knows it. "I do, I do," he says. In 1995 college football's national championship was decided in the Tostitos Brand Tortilla Chip Fiesta Bowl, an obscene snack-selling circus in which the corn chips were far more prominently displayed than the Cornhuskers of Nebraska. "I thought that was way over the line," Dempsey says. He insists, perhaps too conveniently, that membership has asked the national office to keep its nose out of college football's postseason commercial arrangements. Nevertheless, the manual does proffer the preposterous Rule 2.15: "The conditions under which postseason competition occurs shall be controlled to...protect student-athletes from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprises." With the exception, one presumes, of the Thrifty Car Rental Federal Express Poulan Weedeater Tough-Actin' Tinactin Ty-D-bol bowls at the end of last season.
The prospect of further travel down this road gives some within the NCAA the heebie-jeebies. "Just as in pro sports, our costs are escalating, and we are looking for whatever revenue sources we can find," says Hancock. "But we would never"—Hancock reconsiders this never, withdraws it and then continues—"if you see the day that it's the Tostitos NCAA Basketball Tournament, you will know that we are in deep s—in college athletics."
That's the trouble: One man's revenue stream is another man's S—Creek. The Big Ten, for instance, has required each of its 11 member schools to sign a contract with a single shoe company to supply footwear and apparel for every one of that university's sports teams, thus preventing football and basketball coaches from picking those plums for themselves. But when Wisconsin signed with Reebok last summer, the shoemaker stipulated in the contract that the university "take all reasonable steps necessary to address any remark by any university employee" that "disparages" Reebok. This hit the newspapers, and the clause was removed, but not before exposing how Orwellian the world of college athletics had become: A university had sold the free-speech of its employees down the river.
Or is it the revenue stream? The NCAA has dammed the milk-and-honey flow of endorsements to student-athletes, and it applies the ban overbroadly. Maine basketball player Cindy Blodgett couldn't carry the Olympic torch last summer because the torch relay was sponsored by Coca-Cola, and Blodgett's participation would have constituted a tacit product endorsement. Basketball-playing student Dan Kreft could not write a onetime column for this magazine, without compensation, while at Northwestern last winter because that would have implied an endorsement of SI. (Posing for the cover would have been O.K.)
Journalism students are allowed to write for professional publications. Music majors may make money playing club gigs. "Why, because he's an athlete, should Darnell Autry, who's a drama major, not be allowed to earn money in drama?" asks Dempsey, referring to the Northwestern football star who had to take the NCAA to court to appear in a movie last summer. "We're really inconsistent."
His power to change that, Dempsey says, lies only in his power to persuade the member schools. He has apparently done so, for the January convention passed a rule that allows student-athletes like Autry, for example, to act. They still can't be paid for such work, which is odd: The convention seemed to be saying that athletes can now work for pay, except in their field of study. But it's a start, the result of Dempsey's traveling 200 days a year, massaging his message into the membership.
For now he has returned to his meal. Maybe he's just hungry. But twining spaghetti onto his fork, he might also be Madame Defarge, silently knitting while secretly plotting the French Revolution.