ARLINGTON, Texas – Based on a steady, if slow, push of action, and backed again by words during Sunday's annual state of the NCAA address at the Final Four, it's clear that the leaders of college athletics are determined to make concessions toward their athletes.
Additional monetary stipends, a voice for the players, scholarship adjustments, stricter practice time limits are all on the table and some are inevitably going to be passed, at least at the biggest schools.
These are all small, common sense and almost impossible to oppose things that should've been done long ago, of course. The multipronged threat of union certifications, pending lawsuits, threatened lawsuits, public opinion and so on has sped up the timetable.
College sports appear to remain naïve, however, to the depth of the opposition. Once the battle is engaged, a few minor steps will appease no one on the players' side.
Moreover, they aren't ready to acknowledge how the endgame is likely not about colleges deciding whether or not to allow student-athletes to share in revenue, but football players deciding whether they should continue to allow gymnasts, swimmers, wrestlers and the like to share in their money.
College sports long ago created a system where cash brought in by essentially two sports (football and men's basketball) was pooled to fund up to two dozen other sports that, for the most part, generate little to no income or fan interest.
The concept isn't without some merit – who is against the hard working track star getting a chance to compete and even perhaps earn a partial scholarship? Seems win-win. Until the football players realize who is, and isn't, paying for it.
College sports are increasingly capitalistic. These aren't just teams representing schools anymore, they are profit points that command their own cable television networks, massive stadiums, huge media rights, national tournaments and billions and billions in revenue.
While student-athletes are rightly saying, why can't we get more of the pie, or at least the freedom to go out and get it themselves via sponsorship or advertising opportunities, the real debate is why are all student-athletes still being considered equal?
NCAA president Mark Emmert repeatedly spoke Sunday of the 460,000 college athletes out there, but there is little commonality between a Division III cross country runner who is paying their own tuition and Johnny Manziel. And it's the next Johnny (or even the current Johnny seeking royalties on Texas A&M memorabilia sales that will continue for years) that is the focus of the high-priced and unyielding lawyers and labor leaders.
The NCAA says it can only afford to share a small portion of revenue with Manziel (say, a $2,000 stipend) because it must give one to every athlete. And allowing athletes to cut into marketing money and donations that would otherwise go to the school would put the athletic department coffers that fund a full range of sports at risk.
Why is that set policy though, and why is downgrading the scope of some sports a bad thing?
Why is it just assumed that elite, revenue-generating football and basketball players should automatically concede their market value to prop up smaller sports? Why are all players the same when no school pays the football coach and the field hockey coach the same amount?
"Most universities don't have the resources to move to that kind of model," Emmert said, "So they'll probably be playing Division III style."
Exactly. That's where this is heading one day.
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College sports have expanded and so-called gold-plated non-revenue sports have grown to unprecedented and unnecessary levels. New facilities, expanded travel, conference expansion and so on have come under the ideal that all sports are equal, even when they are not in a free market place.
Non-revenue sports should operate under a less demanding, more regional manner than one that comes under the umbrella of these geographically vast conferences that were constructed solely in pursuit of football television dollars.
It's not a popular sentiment, but why would a field hockey team fly all over to games when there are plenty of schools within a bus drive? It may not be as grandiose, but it would be less demanding on the players, who can't go pro in their sport, and, importantly, it would be much more cost-effective. It wouldn't even be the end of the world if there were no scholarships in these sports, if they were operated more like club teams.
Or should a university want to use general funds to fully fund a soccer team, then go ahead and do it. Some may have to due to Title IX.
"With declining state resources, and most public institutions have that, there is no impetus to take those dollars and shift them over and fund those types of teams," Kirk Schulz, president of Kansas State said. "For us, the best thing to do is have athletics fully supporting and they cover those costs."
It's definitely best for Kansas State. Is it best for the Kansas State football players that generate that full funding though?
That's what the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, and the United Steelworkers, and labor lawyer Jeffery Kessler are going to demand. Non-revenue sports aren't a matter of concern for them.
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The trend lines here are obvious. The schools are going to have to share additional resources with the players who make the money and that means tough decisions about the players who don't generate the money. That's the endgame here. It's straight capitalistic America.
"I came up as a wrestler and I can tell you I worked just as hard as any football player in the country, as any basketball player, in fact I would say I worked harder than those guys," Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said.
"The fact is we have student-athletes in all sorts of sports that, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay football players and not pay gymnasts just because the football player has the blessing of an adoring public," Bowlsby continued. "That's the only difference. There are a lot of student athletes that are worthy."
That's all well and good but hard work guarantees nothing in the United States and is often not rewarded. Besides, there are tons of worthy students (athletes and non-athletes) out there. It doesn't mean players who have an adoring public are obligated to prop them up.
If a university had to use general funds on deciding which student is worthy of a free ride – a softball player or a biology major – everyone seems to agree the decision will go to academics. Well, isn't that the point of school anyway? We can wax poetic about non-revenue sports athletes, but if we're talking money, and it always comes down to money, what's their value?
"I am very opposed to [changing] that," Schulz of KSU said. "There is no support for that. What we want to do is enhance the financial package for all student athletes whether its women's golf, field hockey, men's basketball, football."
At some point they won't be able to meet all the demands though.
The saber-rattling that Emmert and the others did Sunday was to criticize the NBA and NFL for not having minor leagues in place to take the high-earning student-athletes out of the college game by letting them turn pro out of high school.
"[We] hope that the NBA and the NBA Players Association will make some changes," Wake Forest president Nathan Hatch said.
This is absurd and casts misplaced blame. It's not the Kentucky freshmen that are the problem. It's not Manziel. Those guys should be embraced. They are funding this entire enterprise while experiencing campus life and, it sure seems, having fun doing it. It's completely backwards to push those guys away, except the powers-that-be see them as a threat to the purse strings.
The truth is the NCAA isn't going to run from the people that are making them wealthy. The issue is demanding they prop up everyone else. Not all sports are equal. That's just reality.
"I just don't think there is any possibility of this going forward without all student athletes being considered," Bowlsby said.
Well, at some point, that's where it's headed. When the revenue inevitably gets shared, this becomes an internal campus debate and the smart money is on the guys with the adoring publics.
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