It's time to help the scholarship athlete
In the immortal word of Saturday Night Live's Seth Meyers: "Really?"
Think about it: A college athletics power broker recently proposed an idea that actually helps the Division I scholarship players responsible for generating billions of dollars in revenue. But by the time the skeptics and cynics were done mangling the facts beyond recognition, the proposal needed reconstructive facial surgery.
The power broker -- Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany -- suggested a plan that would bridge the growing financial gap between the value of a scholarship and the actual sticker price of going to school. That average estimated annual gap of about $3,000 would be given to the D-I player to help defray the costs of, say, transportation, clothing, laundry and pepperoni pizzas. It works out to a whopping $8.22 a day.
Instead of getting a standing ovation for trying to improve the rust-coated system now in place, Delany was accused of grandstanding, of creating a play-for-pay scenario, and of attempting to deflect attention from the stench of Jim Tressel's violations landfill at Ohio State.
The logic behind some of the criticism makes Homer Simpson look like a Fulbright Scholar. Delany ran a proposal up the flagpole, nothing more. It wasn't an edict, a demand or an ultimatum. It was an idea, a starting point for serious conversation to a serious problem.
"I never used the words, 'play-for-pay,"' says Delany. "I never used the word, 'compensation.' All I said is, 'Can we have a discussion? We'd like to have a discussion about providing a grant-in-aid that corresponds to the cost of education.'
"I never once mentioned that we thought it would undermine cheating. The kinds of comments, and the kinds of headlines, and the kinds of leads are so far removed and so far from what was said, it's pretty hard to understand. I don't think in any of our discussions internally, or any of the discussions with our staff, or any of the thoughts in my mind was it ever thought about in terms of Ohio State, or agent issues, or any regulatory issues."
In its simplest terms, Delany's proposal is a cost-of-living adjustment for D-I scholarship athletes. It would make college life a little bit easier and, given the revenue the players generate for their universities, a little fairer. But nobody is going to buy a yacht with the additional money.
"It's not going to stop the cheating," Delany says. "It's not going to make it a perfect world. It's not going to make it the same as the pros."
What it would do is begin to right a financial wrong. In the late 1960s, when Delany played point guard for Dean Smith at North Carolina, players nationwide received what amounted to laundry money each week. Now, some players have difficulty making the end of their grant-in-aids meet the end of the month. Their scholarships don't cover the true cost of attending college.
Of course, no promising idea goes unpunished. Reaction to the proposal has been swift, uninformed and predictably knee-jerky. You can almost hear the wringing of hands.
My favorite anxiety-filled response from those who instantly opposed the idea: Providing scholarship athletes with a "cost of education" increase would give such conferences as the Big Ten a recruiting advantage.
Delany's response: They're right, it would. After all, it only makes sense that a recruit might be more tempted to sign with a conference whose institutions can afford to put that $8.22 in his or her pocket each day.
But it's not like all conferences are created equal, or ever will be. The Big Ten, the Southeastern Conference, the Big 12, the Pac-10, the ACC and the Big East already enjoy recruiting advantages over other conferences. Their stadiums, arenas and practice facilities are larger and more luxurious. Their geographic footprints are wider. Their TV contracts are more lucrative. Their coaches' salaries are higher. Their tradition, Q ratings and alumni bases are more pronounced.
Even before Delany's proposal was made public, the country's best high school recruits were choosing the major conferences. That isn't going to change. The only difference is that this time something extra is being done to help the scholarship athlete.
And it's not the Big Ten's fault that it has a thick wallet, just like it's not Harvard's fault that it has a staggeringly huge endowment fund. Big Ten schools spend about $130 million on what amounts to about 3,000 full athletic scholarships. In many intercollegiate sports, those scholarships are chopped up and spread like mulch to as many athletes as possible.
So if Big Ten athletic departments have the financial assets to pay for a cost-of-education increase for those 3,000 scholarships (in that conference's case, an estimated $9 million or so more a year), then I'm all for it. Not because it's good for the Big Ten or the other conferences that can afford it (such as the SEC, etc.), but because it's good for the athletes in the Big Ten and for the athletes in those other wealthy conferences.
"And somebody would say, 'You know, we can't do it, so you can't do it,"' says Delany. "So I'm saying, 'If we can do it and it's not above the cost of education, why shouldn't we be able to do it? It's a welfare issue. And if you can't do it, I understand that. But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be able to do it. We're already doing lots of things you can't do. Why can't we do this?"'
He's right. This isn't about level playing fields, because there is no such thing in Division I athletics. If there was, every athletic department would be able to do what Notre Dame did and cut Charlie Weis a $6.6 million, please-go-away payment, or build a 109,000-seat stadium like the one at Michigan. And it shouldn't be about the Have-Nots sticking it to the Haves just because their own budgets are maxed out.
Instead, it should be about the scholarship athletes who helped transform March Madness into a billion-dollar TV contract for the NCAA, or the BCS into a national title monopoly, or bowl season into the most wonderful time of the year. It should be about the nonrevenue sports athletes who play for the love of the game.
For Delany's proposal to go from the cocoon stage to actual legislative reality would require approval from NCAA membership. And a lot of luck.
"It's unlikely that this could ever get passed," Delany says.
Gene Wojciechowski is the senior national columnist for ESPN.com. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Hear Gene's podcasts and ESPN Radio appearances by clicking here. And don't forget to follow him on Twitter @GenoEspn.