DALLAS — Bob Bowlsby is likely to get considerable argument from those who would suggest that other options should first be explored, but on Monday he still sounded what was meant as a dire warning for the future of college athletics that don’t involve huge crowds and television audiences.
“If you like intercollegiate athletics the way it is, you’re going to hate it going forward. There’s a lot of change coming,’’ the Big 12 commissioner said. “And I fear that we’ll get past the change and then we’ll realize that all the gymnastics programs went away or that we have agents on campus all the time negotiating playing time for student-athletes.’’
Bowlsby’s main contention is that if the current rash of lawsuits against the NCAA — primarily the Ed O’Bannon suit, but others as well — results in dramatic changes to the benefits that athletes can receive, far fewer of them are going to receive them. For every high-profile football or basketball program in which athletes stand to gain, those in other sports stand to lose.
And what they could eventually lose are the very sports they play.
“I think over a period of time what we’ll find is that instead of keeping a tennis program, they’re going to do the things that it takes to keep the football and men’s and women’s basketball programs strong,’’ Bowlsby said. “I think you’ll see men’s Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pike. I think there may be tension among and between sports on campus and institutions that have different resources.’’
At the heart of the matter are the suits that stand to greatly benefit athletes in the high-profile sports.
The O’Bannon suit is essentially about those athletes’ rights to capitalize on their names and images, rather than the universities’ athletic departments reaping the windfalls. Other lawsuits challenge schools’ rights to limit what athletes receive in scholarships. The NCAA has already taken steps to provide more meals for athletes and better health care, and one of the primary motivations in the push for autonomy by the 65 power conference schools is to gain the ability to increase scholarships to pay the full cost of tuition.
All of that is going to cost money. Big money. What the NCAA has already done regarding meals and what the power conferences certainly will do regarding full-cost tuitions will mean millions in extra expenses. The court cases now pending could increase those expenditures even more. Some schools are already estimating that the extra meals alone will cost them between $1 million and $3 million per year.
“And that’s just the enhanced meals program. That doesn’t include any of the other benefits that might potentially come,’’ Bowlsby said. “I think we should be doing as much for student-athletes as we possibly can. Three meals a day, seven days a week is all together appropriate.
“But there’s a bunch of other stuff. Transitional health care, we have even begun to figure out what that costs. The lifetime opportunity for a scholarship, there’s got to be some limitations on that.’’
And where does the money come from? Well, that’s where Bowlsby is certainly going to get some argument. He insists that over time it will mean that schools will cut sports, and they won’t be the cash cows of football and basketball.
“The scholarship is going to change and I think that’s great. I think there are ways that it costs more than room, board, books, tuition, and fees to go to school,’’ said Bowlsby, who recalls that as early as 1987 he was part of a committee that initially raised the idea of a $2,000 scholarship enhancement. “But even in an environment where we have some additional revenue coming in from television resources, primarily it is going to be very difficult for many institutions to fund that.
“In the end, it’s a somewhat zero sum game. There’s only so much money out there. I don’t think that coaches and athletic directors are likely going to take pay cuts. I think that train’s left the station.’’
That’s where Bowlsby and others like him are likely to feel the harshest criticism. Indeed, while coaches and ADs aren’t likely to volunteer to take pay cuts, universities that continue to pay huge salaries while cutting sports because of budget concerns are going to face sharp criticism. It’s one thing to cut sports to comply with federal law, like Title IX, but quite another to do so simply because of budget concerns. And it’s not just salaries. Schools are spending millions on facilities as well. One basketball facility that is used only for practice could fund a wrestling program for years.
But Bowlsby also knows that it’s going to be difficult to trim football or basketball budgets because those are still the sports that fund many others. So it is likely that Olympic sports will eventually feel the most pain.
“I don’t think it’s an abrupt thing at all. I think it’s something that evolves over time,’’ Bowlsby said. “But look at all the programs we’ve lost so far. We’ve lost 200 wrestling programs, 200 swimming programs. It’s happened over 30 years. It’s probably going to be a relatively slow evolution.
“I’m concerned for colleges, too. Universities and colleges are places of opportunity. And two or three hundred thousand opportunities could go away for kids to go to college.’’
Much of it, of course, is speculation. There is no question that expenses will increase dramatically. How much remains to be seen. While the immediate concern might be finding more money for those athletes in high-profile sports, it doesn’t stop there.
“Title IX doesn’t go away because we’re going to do something for student athletes in a couple of sports,’’ Bowlsby said. “We have both a legal obligation and a moral obligation to do for female student athletes and male Olympic sport student athletes just exactly what we do for football and basketball student athletes. I don’t think it’s even debatable. And so whatever we do going down the path in the future, I think you can make the assumption that it will be program wide.
“And so therefore the cost is higher and you begin to look and say, ‘Do we want to have 25 sports and fund this broad array of benefits, or would we be better off to fund a broader array and sponsor only 20 sports?’ So that’s why I think it’s not too much of a leap [to think sports will be dropped].
“There’s all kinds or Armageddon scenarios you could come up with, but change is coming. There’s probably a corollary to ‘If you like your health insurance, you can keep it.’ I don’t think people understand how much potential these lawsuits have to radically change what we know as intercollegiate athletics. … You wouldn’t have to be a very good fiction writer to come up with some scenarios that would be pretty scary.’’
Reach Dave Hickman at 304-348-1734 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him at Twitter.com/dphickman1.