College sports' billion-dollar issue: Who pays freight on pay-to-play?

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Mark Emmert

NCAA President Mark Emmert has called a move by college football players at Northwestern to unionize "ridiculous," but acknowledged the potential implications would be "profound, to say the least." (Eric Gay / Associated Press / April 6, 2014)

The commissioner of one college conference recently compared the state of the NCAA to that of a delicate ecosystem being threatened by the heat of what is shaping up to be a long and litigious summer.

Ed O’Bannon’s lawsuit against the NCAA, set for trial this month, is one issue. The former UCLA basketball All-American is leading a class-action complaint that challenges the NCAA’s right to use the images of former players for commercial purposes. Billions of dollars are at stake, and a favorable outcome for the plaintiffs could radically alter college athletics.

Another is the vote of Northwestern football players to unionize, an idea NCAA President Mark Emmert termed “ridiculous” before acknowledging the potential implications were “profound, to say the least.”

In both instances, it could take years for the cases to be adjudicated. Which is why athletic administrators from across the country for now are focused on a different, more pressing topic: A stipend for athletes that would cover the full cost of college attendance — the difference between what a full athletic scholarship costs and what it actually costs to attend a particular university, as determined by federal guidelines.

The nation’s biggest and most influential college sports programs — 64 schools from the “Big Five” conferences, plus Notre Dame — are willing and able to fund the extra payment by dipping into the windfall created by television mega-deals for football and basketball.

The stipend, they believe, should at least partially pacify critics who contend the NCAA is getting rich on the backs of college athletes who in some cases are living poor.

A similar solution was floated before but was stymied by the smaller, less-affluent schools that comprise the vast majority of the 351 that compete at the NCAA Division I level. Those universities don’t have athletic programs that turn a profit, and they are concerned that the already significant chasm between the haves and have-nots is about to grow.

The difference this time is that power schools are using the threat of secession to get their way.

“If we didn’t help those guys out, the thought of them breaking off and doing their own thing was probably very viable,” said Dennis Farrell, commissioner of the Big West Conference.

The Big West is among the 22 conferences that don’t play major-level football, and whose schools have essentially been brought to their knees.

In the Greater Los Angeles area there are 10 universities with Division I sports programs — a cross section of schools private and public, big and small. USC and UCLA are the football juggernauts from the Pac-12 Conference. The others — Cal State Fullerton, Cal State Northridge, Long Beach State, UC Irvine, UC Santa Barbara and UC Riverside of the Big West; Pepperdine and Loyola Marymount of the West Coast Conference — don’t field football teams.

In August, the NCAA Board of Directors is expected to consider, and pass, full-cost-of-attendance legislation. What happens after that has athletic directors around the country on edge.

Asked what worried him most, Loyola Marymount Athletic Director William Husak replied, “I don’t know where to quite begin.”

Said Steve Potts of Pepperdine: “What is it going to look like? That’s what I want to know.”

The stipend for a particular university would be determined by the school, not its athletic program. One recent survey estimated the payments might range from $1,000 to $6,904 per year, depending on the school and related variables. When a stipend was proposed before, it was for $2,000 per athlete, regardless of the school.

The athletic programs from the power conferences have the financial resources to raise the stakes. Schools from the Pac-12, for example, benefit from a recently signed $3-billion television deal with ESPN and Fox.

Those schools also know that providing an additional stipend — which universities from other leagues might not be able to afford — strengthens their competitive stranglehold.

Offering an athlete an educational scholarship, which at some schools is worth in excess of $200,000 over four years, once seemed a reasonable trade for the services of student-athletes. But that deal doesn’t seem as good in an age when universities from cash-cow football conferences are paying coaches as much as $7 million a year.

Larry Scott, the Pac-12 commissioner who negotiated the league’s lucrative network deal, was paid an estimated $3 million last year.

The NCAA has mostly itself to blame for a disparity in college sports that has grown steadily in the last three decades. Its tightfisted control of football broadcasting rights led to a landmark antitrust loss in a 1984 Supreme Court case brought by Oklahoma and Georgia.

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