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Big Ten’s Stance Against Pay-For-Play Cloaked In Red Herring Veil

By Matt Natali



The Big Ten firmly asserted its position against pay-for-play this week in a release supported by the presidents and chancellors of each member school. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images.
The Big Ten firmly asserted its position against pay-for-play this week in a release supported by the presidents and chancellors of each member school. Photo by Marvin Joseph/The Washington Post via Getty Images.


Players fighting for collective bargaining have been joined by former and current athletes suing the NCAA for image and likeness royalties in gobbling up the headlines while the revenue-generating collegiate sports take a summer break.

The Collegiate Athletes Players Association, led by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, is battling for labor rights with former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon as the point man in the antitrust class action lawsuit against the NCAA. Meanwhile, the Big Ten asserted its position on the matter last week.

It is a position that is firmly rooted in the red herring idiom.

Presidents and chancellors from each of the Big Ten schools countered and co-signed an official release reiterating and supporting efforts to "(work) within the NCAA to provide greater academic security and success for our student-athletes."

This comes on the heels of the Pac-12''s call to reform last month in a letter to the presidents of each university outlining 10 “principle objectives.”

“The Big Ten presidents' statement has come after more than a decade of ignoring our calls for these and other basic protections for college athletes,” CAPA President Ramogi Huma told Football.com. “While it is encouraging to see some college presidents begin to advocate for our agenda, it is revealing that this step was avoided until current and former players began successfully using lawsuits and federal labor laws to challenge NCAA sport's unethical practices.”

The main affirmations from the Big Ten include:

  • We must guarantee the four-year scholarships that we offer. If a student-athlete is no longer able to compete, for whatever reason, there should be zero impact on our commitment as universities to deliver an undergraduate education. We want our students to graduate.
  • If a student-athlete leaves for a pro career before graduating, the guarantee of a scholarship remains firm. Whether a professional career materializes, and regardless of its length, we will honor a student's scholarship when his or her playing days are over. Again, we want students to graduate.
  • We must review our rules and provide improved, consistent medical insurance for student-athletes. We have an obligation to protect their health and well-being in return for the physical demands placed upon them.
  • We must do whatever it takes to ensure that student-athlete scholarships cover the full cost of a college education, as defined by the federal government. That definition is intended to cover what it actually costs to attend college.

The release briefly addresses potential negative effects from pay-for-play, but the focus is quickly diverted from compensation to the academics crutch shared with the NCAA:

Across the Big Ten, and in every major athletic conference, football and men's basketball are the principal revenue sports. That money supports the men and women competing in all other sports. No one is demanding paychecks for our gymnasts or wrestlers. And yet it is those athletes - in swimming, track, lacrosse, and other so-called Olympic sports - who will suffer the most under a pay-to-play system.

The revenue creates more opportunities for more students to attend college and all that provides, and to improve the athletic experiences through improved facilities, coaching, training and support.

If universities are mandated to instead use those dollars to pay football and basketball players, it will be at the expense of all other teams. We would be forced to eliminate or reduce those programs. Paying only some athletes will create inequities that are intolerable and potentially illegal in the face of Title IX. 

The amateur model is not broken, but it does require adjusting for the 21st century. Whether we pay student-athletes is not the true issue here. Rather, it is how we as universities provide a safe, rewarding and equitable environment for our student-athletes as they pursue their education.

The Big Ten takes an idealistic academic counterstance against the pay-to-play efforts from the likes of CAPA and O’Bannon. That is not surprising considering that universities are, in fact, academic institutions. In addition, non-revenue sports do provide invaluable educational opportunities for student-athletes whom may not otherwise possess the means to attend college and earn degrees.

But to firmly state that universities would be “forced to eliminate or reduce those programs” is a difficult sell without hard, intrinsic data. It is hard to believe that appropriating a portion of the merchandizing and television revenue glut that universities pocket every year to compensate student athletes (while the attorneys work to maintain their amateur status) would sink non-revenue sports programs.

During his testimony  in the O’Bannon vs. NCAA trail earlier this week, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said that the conference earns approximately $270 million in television and bowl revenue and that the Big Ten gives about $190 million in scholarships each academic year — a number that will increase next month when Maryland and Rutgers officially join the conference.

When asked during the trial last week if the Big Ten would pay student athletes for their name, image, or likeness, Delany said, “I think it invades an area of understanding of how intercollegiate athletics is intercollegiate athletics —  how it is different from professional athletics — and how the student athlete, the participant, whether it’s male or female, football or basketball, should be about education and supported by their purpose.

“And the paying of a player for name, image or likeness is inconsistent and not part of that. (It is the) consensus among not only our presidents but our faculty, our followers, and our coaches.”

CAPA references NCAA Division II athletics on its website as a counterpoint:

The average Division II football and men’s basketball team generates more expenses than revenues. Football and basketball do not fund any of the other sports yet there are almost 300 Division II athletic programs with 109,000 athletes nationwide.  Division II programs provide athletic scholarships, fund athletic facilities, pay for travel to games, and employ coaches.  In addition, despite generating a fraction of the revenues Division I programs generate, participation in Division II has grown 140% over the last ten years.

Much like the Big Ten suggests that the amateur model requires an adjustment, maybe the same is true for Title IX, which is over 40 years old. so that pay-for-play does not “create inequities that are intolerable and potentially illegal.” CAPA maintains on its website that, “Title IX will still be the law of the land and athletic programs will still be required to comply with its requirements.”

The reforms that the Big Ten (and Pac-12) have suggested are ideal standards that ultimately benefit the student-athlete. They are all positive maxims that have the best interest of the student-athlete at hand (ensuring academic achievement for long term success, covering all associated costs, providing long term health care, etc.). But these are ideologies with broad strokes that universities uphold for all students, not just athletes.

There is nothing inherently negative about the amendments these conferences are steadfastly proposing. But besides the flimsy argument that paying athletes would eliminate non-revenue sports and could potentially be illegal, these reforms skirt the issue at hand and still don’t address the main question, which is: Why aren’t collegiate athletes paid?

“Verbal promises and reversible reforms like the $2,000 stipend that died weeks after it was initially approved by the NCAA Board, are no substitute for guaranteed protections from a collective bargaining agreement,” Huma said. “CAPA will continue to pursue its mission to secure basic protections for college athletes through collective bargaining just as players in other multibillion dollar professional sports industries have done.”