MORGANTOWN — Nothing suggested last week by a seven-member NCAA steering committee looking into the separation of the haves from the have-nots is etched in stone.
A lot of it, though, is fascinating.
Be it the specific notion of enhancing scholarships to pay for the full cost of tuition (read, if you will: paying players) or just the more general notion that 65 of the NCAA’s 340 Division I institutions will be able to essentially write their own rules, the times they are a changin’ at warp speed.
Or are they?
In truth, the NCAA is simply acknowledging that the 65 members of the Big Five conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — are different than everyone else. That difference is not news, not by any stretch of the imagination. Those five conferences and their members are responsible for nearly every penny of the obscene amount of money generated by college football and the lion’s share of money brought in by college basketball. They are also responsible for the vast majority of the spending of that money.
And because of that, they are just different than the other 275 Division I schools. In some cases they are dramatically different, as if they were the New York Yankees and everyone else was the Durham Bulls. Again, everyone has always known that, but the NCAA pretended that by giving Texas State the same voting power as Texas or Ohio University the same voting power as The Ohio State University, the playing field would somehow be leveled.
This is just the first real acknowledgment that equality can’t be legislated. Those Big Five schools were about to pull the trigger on a complete separation from the NCAA (a threat they knew they wouldn’t have to carry out, but one that wielded huge impact) at the same time the NCAA itself was facing multiple legal threats from athletes demanding a bigger slice of the pie. So the NCAA is quickly conceding power legislatively to those who already have it financially and in almost every other way.
Just what those 65 schools will do with that power is part of the fascination. The other part is how the other 275 will respond.
The Big Five schools can’t simply run amok. For instance, the central aspect of the power that the NCAA is proposing be handed to the Big Five schools is that ability to pay the full cost of a scholarship. Presumably that would include such things as food, personal needs, transportation or even entertainment. Call it a cost-of-living stipend if you will. But don’t simple economics dictate that the cost of living for a student-athlete at, say, UCLA in Los Angeles is far different from that of a peer at Mississippi State in Starkville (or one at West Virginia in Morgantown)?
The difference has to be determined, does it not? And if the stipend at Boston College is far greater than that at Iowa State (or, closer to home, Pittsburgh versus WVU), is that suddenly a recruiting advantage? Also, all Big Five schools are not inherently equal. While a stipend at near-Chicago Northwestern might be deemed far greater than at near-nowhere Penn State, Penn State has a whole lot more money coming in thanks to a 107,000-seat football stadium.
There is also the question of federal law, not the least significant of which is Title IX. Do stipends for athletes in non-revenue women’s sports match those of football and basketball players? Probably. But it’s not just the stipends. There are also proposals for paying for travel for players’ families to bowl games and/or NCAA tournaments. Will that extend to paying for families to attend the national rifle championships or the NCAA swimming or track or cross country championships?
In other words, there’s a whole lot of money involved in this and a whole lot of details to be ironed out. That’s why the NCAA has set up a 60-day comment period before it acts this summer. But the fact is, most of those things will be ironed out and come August the legislation will pass.
What I find just as intriguing, though, is how those other 275 schools will respond. They are a diverse bunch, from the Boise States and BYUs that aspire to keep up with the Big Five schools on the football field, to those in Conference USA or the American Athletic Conference who still want their best teams to have a chance to compete, to the basketball-centric schools of the Big East and Atlantic 10 and others, right on down to those on the fringes of Division I (from which NCAA tournament Cinderellas emerge).
How do they respond?
Many may have to make choices, if they are able to do so. Does Georgetown, for instance, create a stipend for its basketball players? If it doesn’t, does it now almost automatically lose recruiting battles to Big Five schools that are paying the extra? And if it does pay a stipend, will it face legal challenges from within, say from its own soccer or lacrosse players the school can’t afford to pay? And what of Title IX? If 13 men’s basketball players are paid, 13 women have to be paid, too.
How about Boise State? Can it pay a stipend to 85 football players? Boise State (or any other non-Big Five school) was already at a recruiting disadvantage against the power conference schools because of the exposure they could offer. Now they can offer exposure and more money. Can Boise afford to keep up by paying 85 football stipends and another 85 to women to satisfy Title IX (if it would even be legal to pay some athletes at a particular school and not others)?
And it’s not just Boise State. There are 274 other non-Big Five schools who, to enormously varying degrees, have to 1) figure out how to keep pace, and 2) decide if they even want to try.
That’s not to condemn the NCAA for its current attempt to sate the power brokers, nor a denunciation of those 65 for demanding it be done. There is really no other option short of those 65 simply leaving the NCAA, which is not what anyone wants to see. Anyone who believes that’s a preferable option hasn’t considered what that would do to the NCAA basketball tournament.
It’s just going to be fascinating to see how it all shakes out.
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.