The dimes, they are a changin’…
Earlier this week Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples that if a federal court rules in favor of the plaintiffs in the case of Ed O’Bannon vs. the NCAA, a ruling that would compel participating schools to share television revenues with student-athletes, that he could foresee the Big Ten de-emphasizing athletics as both the Ivy League and the University of Chicago – a founding member of the Big Ten which just also happens to be the alma mater of the inaugural Heisman Trophy winner, Jay Berwanger – have done.
To see how we arrived at this crisis, let us first take a good long look at… gay marriage. The inherent problem that occurs in most debates about whether homosexuals should be allowed to legally wed is that too many hot and bothered voices engaged in the debate forget that marriage is both a legal contract and a religious rite (that’s r-i-t-e, Hoss). And so, alas, when members of my religion, Catholicism, reject gay marriage on the basis of Catholic tenets, they forget that not everyone is Catholic. That not everyone is religious. That a homosexual couple may just want to enjoy the same legal rights as it pertains to marriage as a heterosexual couple.
What you have transpiring, then, is two diametrically opposed sides who are skirmishing one another based on two entirely different perspectives on what marriage is. How do they ever expect to find harmony when one side is thinking of marriage as a religious rite and the other as a legal right?
Which brings us back to Ed O’Bannon, Jim Delany and the enormous fiscal cash cow that is NCAA Division I football and basketball. When Delany spoke to Staples earlier this week, he said all of the correct things in establishing the precedent that intercollegiate athletics are simply an extracurricular activity that also happen to be a conduit to a young man (and a few young women) earning an education and establishing himself for a lifetime of economic self-sustainability.
“…the educational and lifetime economic benefits associated with a university education are the appropriate quid pro quo for its student athletes,” Delany told Staples.
And we might actually chomp on that baited worm, that big-time collegiate athletics are primarily about higher education, if the men in charge of it were not constantly reminding us that it is, if not first and foremost, then at least every bit as much, a business in which tens of billions of dollars are at stake.
Last week the final Big East tournament as we know it, with founding members of the basketball-centric conference such as Syracuse, took place in Madison Square Garden. While the Big East only lasted for three decades, it holds a memorable and vital place in the history of college basketball. In the 1980s schools such as Georgetown, St. John’s, Connecticut and Georgetown pumped new life into a sport that before then had been the province of Tobacco Road, Indiana and UCLA.
On Friday night Syracuse, which is headed to the Atlantic Coast Conference next year, defeated Georgetown in one semi-final. Afterward Georgetown coach John Thompson III lamented the end of the Big East, saying, “It’s a shame they’re heading down to Tobacco Road for a few dollars more.”
Those words might as well be the epitaph for the NCAA.
During the Big East tournament, member schools such as Cincinnati and Notre Dame sported uniforms that were the sartorial equivalent of wearing your grandfather’s polyester checked blazer to an important job interview. The Bearcats and Fighting Irish wore this because both are members of the Adidas family, a membership that in big-time college sports operates on a far greater loyalty basis than conference affiliation.
How egregious were these uniforms? You know when someone says, “You couldn’t pay me to wear that?” Well, it turns out that you could pay Cincy and Notre Dame to wear that and Adidas knows exactly the price. Adidas is in the first year of a new, ten-year contract (their relationship began in 1997) with the Irish that is reportedly worth $60 million.
Watching Notre Dame, my alma mater, play in lime-green uniforms and Zubaz-style trunks that would even induce the two dudes in LMFAO to, well, LTFAO, I thought, It’s almost as if Adidas is punking Notre Dame. As if they are saying, Just how ridiculous a costume can we get you to wear before you decide that your school’s integrity is more important than our check? And, well, apparently we still have no answer to that question.
It’s an old anecdote but one worth repeating here: A man offers a woman $10 million to sleep with him. She agrees. He then lowers his offer to one dollar. “What do you think I am?” she says, offended. “We already know what you are,” he replies. “Now we are just negotiating price.”
We already know what Division I football and basketball is, too, even though its paternal figures would have us believe it is all about educating the student-athlete. Delany, for example, earned $1.8 million in 2010, the most recent year his tax records are available. I would hazard a guess that Mr. Delany earns at least three times more than the highest paid tenured professor at any Big Ten institution. Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA, earns approximately $1.6 million.
Fierce, bare-bones capitalists –and I consider myself one—might argue that in terms of the revenue Delany brings in, he is worth every penny. Probably. But nobody tunes in to the Big Ten Network or ESPN to watch Jim Delany opine on the state of college athletics. They tune in to see Braxton Miller of Ohio State break out of the pocket, to watch Jared Abbrederis of Wisconsin return kicks, to see Tyler Zeller of Indiana run the length of the court to be fed by Victor Oladipo for a monster dunk.
But no matter how many touchdowns Miller or Abbrederis score, no matter how many victories – or championships – Zeller and Oladipo lead the Hoosiers to, their salary (an athletic scholarship) is static. It’s business when it’s time for Mr. Delany to get paid. It’s education when Miller wonders, Where’s mine?
Is it about education when the NCAA stages the most important games of its basketball tournament in a football stadium (and is there a better metaphor for how far the NCAA is willing to compromise itself in the name of the almighty dollar?). Two of this spring’s four regional finals, as well as the Final Four, will be staged in football stadiums, venues that severely inhibit a shooter’s ability. That the NCAA forbids each squad from practicing on the court beyond a rudimentary amount of time – a 90-minute practice on both Friday and Sunday, I believe – is a glaring statement about how much the NCAA knows about revenue generation and how little it knows about a shooter’s eye.
Two years ago Connecticut met Butler inside Reliant Stadium in Houston in a game that should simply be vacated from our memories. The Bulldgos shot 18% from the field while the Huskies, who won, shot 9.1% from beyond the arc. Stifling defense? I sat courtside and while the defense of both teams was adequate, it was clear that both teams had difficulty adjusting to the deep, deep abyss of space behind the backboards. It was disorienting.
But what did the NCAA care? Attendance was 70,376.
This all might have been avoided. Were the NCAA not so incredibly avaricious, perhaps they could have kept this ruse going longer. The lawsuit in question began when O’Bannon, a former UCLA Bruin and NBA player, objected to the NCAA allowing EA Sports use his likeness from the 1996 national championship Bruins in one of their video games…this years after O’Bannon had graduated.
A current college athlete might lack the –what’s the word, Bill Raftery – onions to take on the NCAA, but a former athlete who earned millions in the NBA? Well, why not? Besides, enough anti-trust lawyers who have a nose for major class-action windfalls were more than happy to take up O’Bannon’s cause. The NCAA became that petty thief who was robbing pennies from the tip jar and nobody noticed until the bills went missing.
Except that the NCAA was never pilfering mere pennies.
Perhaps if, during all these decades of intercollegiate sports generating major revenues that, yes, help non-revenue sports survive but also allow coaches, athletic directors and conference commissioners to be paid better than any other university employee, perhaps if these leaders had just demonstrated more forthrightly –not through words but through deeds –that it was more about education than it is business, perhaps we would not be at this impasse.
Perhaps a former UCLA forward’s lawsuit would not be putting the Big Ten as we know it in peril. But, alas, it’s always been about the dollars.
When Staples confronted Delany with the notion that his own creation, the Big Ten Network, changed the revenue model for college sports and was the catalyst between the key party currently taking place between schools and conferences, Delany countered that before the BTN there was just ESPN and that ESPN had an unfair monopoly. “We simply wouldn’t deal with a company that simply wouldn’t pay us what we thought we were worth,” Delany replied, making the best argument in favor of the student-athetes’ position that anyone possibly can.
It’s like Marshall Henderson, the Ole Miss guard and renegade du jour of college hoops, said after the Rebels won the SEC tournament last Sunday. The Rebels might not have qualified for the “Big Dance” had they not upset Florida in the SEC tournament final, and you could tell on the eve of that contest how important it was for Henderson, the aptly-named Rebel, to lead his school to a victory over the Gators and back to the tournament for the first time in more than a decade.
“I’m just trying to make a name for myself so I can get this money,” said Henderson.
You’ve taught them well, conference commissioners and NCAA hierarchy. You’ve taught them well.