Because he had to show up for an alumni function across town, Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne slipped out of a Pac-12 athletic directors’ meeting in Phoenix last Wednesday at 5 p.m.
The meeting was supposed to end at that hour anyway but wasn’t about to.
Of course it didn’t. The workload is pretty intense these days for Pac-12 administrators, and their colleagues around the country, during a spring that is threatening to bring unprecedented change in college sports.
If it isn’t the sight of Northwestern football players voting on unionization, or the talk of midnight hunger pangs from Connecticut basketball star Shabazz Napier, it’s that the NCAA’s increasing football and basketball riches have added new fuel to the ages-old pay-for-play argument, a threat that could eventually destroy the current college model where football and men’s basketball typically pay for a school’s other sports.
Meanwhile, as Byrne and USC athletic director Pat Haden said, there’s already been internal pressure pushing for more athlete benefits. In 2011, the NCAA proposed adding a $2,000 stipend on top of athletes’ scholarship packages, only to have the idea shot down by schools who didn’t want to or couldn’t pay for it.
“It’s all been fermenting for a long time,” Haden said.
Whatever the impetus, something had to change. And it has already.
This spring, the NCAA has moved to give wealthier conferences such as the Pac-12 more autonomy to make changes benefiting athletes, such as providing enough money to cover the full cost of attendance, while also saying schools can now provide unlimited snacks and meals to its athletes.
Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott said external pressures haven’t forced the issues but are “bringing a healthy focus, a healthy push to get this stuff done.”
As a result, Pac-12 athletic directors had to discuss plenty more at their meetings last week than just between-the-lines issues, media rights obligations or marketing initiatives. One of the biggest items on the table Wednesday was trying to define what is the full cost of attendance, and how all the major conferences can determine that consistently and fairly.
Here’s one breakdown of how the trending topics are playing out in college sports this spring:
- The atom bomb.
- Simply put, the idea of pay-for-play is one that could destroy the current model of college sports.
Football and men’s basketball are the only profitable sports for many athletic departments, which means paying players could cut into the funding for other sports at many schools.
Then there is Title IX, which mandates equal treatment for women’s sports, among other issues.
“You just can’t say ‘Hey, I’m going to pay football players $50,000,’ ” Haden said. “It’s not quite as easy as that.”
However, most of the talk about outright salaries is on the outside. Neither the Northwestern case nor the mission of the National College Players Association is about salary type payments as much as securing current and long-term medical coverage, as well as for the full cost of attendance to be covered.
While Ramogi Huma, president of the NCPA, has said the NCAA “hasn’t come to the table” with ideas about concussion reform issues (Huma was unavailable for comment for this story), there has been a strong push to compensate up to the full cost of attendance.
Not paying players “is absolutely my position and my conference’s position,” Scott said. “We are completely for doing more for student athletes, providing them more support but not going beyond the full cost of attendance, not paying them salaries, not compensating them as professionals. They’re students first and foremost. They’re not employees. And we’re treating them as such.”
That’s where UA football coach Rich Rodriguez is hoping to draw the line, too.
“I think either the meals or the extra stipends will go a long way for the guys,” Rodriguez said. “But to change the whole model and start paying them? We have a pro league, and it’s called the NFL.”
- The unions.
- When Northwestern football players voted on unionization last month, after the National Labor Relations Board cleared the way to do so, it was a watershed moment to Huma.
“The NCAA cannot vacate this moment in history and its implications for the future,” he said, according to The Associated Press.
The votes are remaining sealed while Northwestern is challenging the effort to unionize, and any change would only affect private schools that are subject to federal labor law, since public schools such as UA are under state law. But the simple act of a vote may have created additional pressure for change.
Just a day before the vote, in fact, the NCAA moved to allow high-profile conferences more autonomy in establishing increased benefits for athletes. Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, who pushed for the unionization vote, is hoping the effects are far-reaching.
“We’re one step closer to a world where college athletes are not stuck with sports-related medical bills, do not lose their scholarships when they are injured, are not subject to unnecessary brain trauma and are given better opportunities to complete their degree,” Colter said, according to the AP.
At Arizona, Byrne said, athletes are covered primarily by policies they may have through their families, though deductibles and co-pays for sports-related injuries are covered by the school. However, it is unclear who is responsible for injuries that are suffered in college but may affect an athlete later in life, such as a knee that needs replacement or long-term concussion damage.
Even so, Byrne said, unions aren’t the way to go. And Haden says USC has already been providing most of the benefits that Northwestern players are seeking.
Whether he can convince the Trojans they have enough to stay happily away from unionizing is another story.
“Private schools such as us and Stanford are certainly more at risk,” Haden said. “I’ve talked to our (football) team about it. We’re aware it is certainly a possibility.”
- The big boys.
- In order to avoid another impasse, such as how the 2011 stipend issue stalled, the NCAA Board of Directors voted to allow the five richest conferences — the Pac-12, SEC, ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 — to have more autonomy in making decisions that could benefit athletes.
In other words, if they can afford to make changes, they won’t be slowed down by others who can’t. Schools outside of the five big conferences won’t be required to make changes if their budgets don’t allow it.
“A lot of these things will probably be best served if we are designating the five conferences a little bit different than the rest of the membership,” Washington State AD Bill Moos said.
The NCAA is now taking feedback about the possible change, which could go into effect as early as August. Scott said he is optimistic that the measure will be implemented, though he said the possibility that a two-thirds vote for changes within the 65-school group could make it difficult.
“We’ve proposed a simple majority,” Scott said. “I think it would be a real bad step to go to two-thirds voting. That’s a really high bar. We need to do more for the student athletes, and if you get an majority — which is hard to get on anything that costs money — I think that would be satisfactory.”
- The chow.
- One of those money draining changes already came in last month. Just over a week after Napier made his comments about going to sleep hungry, the NCAA’s legislative council said schools no longer are limited in what they can provide for athletes’ meals and snacks (although officials have insisted the change was already in the works).
That could mean, essentially, a 24/7 buffet for hundreds of athletes burning thousands of calories every day.
“It’s going to be costly for us as institutions,” Moos said. “But I think it’s in the best interests of student athletes and their welfare.”
Byrne said UA is estimating the change will cost the athletic department an extra $750,000 per year, but it’s not clear yet how the expanded meal plan would work. It’s possible that the UA’s “Bear Down Kitchen” inside the new Lowell-Stevens football facility would be used to further feed the athletes.
But already, UA holds training tables (catered meals) for its athletes in a frequency that varies by sport, pays for or provides meals on road trips, and offers coverage for meals during the rest of the school year.
“I think overall they are given a lot to eat,” Byrne said.
- The ball of wax.
- While being determined to avoid pay-for-play, administrators are instead pushing to get as close to the line as they can. That’s in the idea of paying the “full cost of attendance,” that yet-to-be-defined amount that theoretically covers every penny an athlete would need to attend and play for a school.
Arizona already has a fund athletes can dip into for necessary plane trips home or clothes or other urgent needs, though the full cost of attendance might include other costs such as parking fees or other peripheral items.
“Quite frankly, we’re still trying to figure out what all of it means,” Byrne said after the Pac-12 meetings. “I think it’s still to be determined where the landing mark is. I think the full cost of attendance is a very ambiguous number because it’s different at each institution.
“What I think is going to happen is the big five conferences will have to sit down and find out how to define it. I hope there will be some consistency.”
Scott said he already met with commissioners from the other four major conferences last week in Dallas to begin hashing out the details. While there could be major differences between the dollar amount a school offers, it could actually be fairer than the stipend proposal of 2011 — a flat $2,000 goes further in Tucson than in Palo Alto, but a full cost of attendance coverage would theoretically be adjusted for each school’s cost of living.
“It’s very different from the stipend proposal,” Scott said. “It’s like how a scholarship at USC or Stanford is very different than at our state schools.
“I don’t think it’s going to be that difficult (to determine), but there will be issues to work through in terms of finding a common method and make sure no schools are going above what the true cost of attendance is. Because there is a deep level of commitment to the collegiate model and amateurism. Staying within those parameters is an important principle.”
But after the new benefits are defined, there’s still no guarantee everyone will want to stay within those parameters.
For Byrne, it’s about taking a proactive approach and hoping that, somehow, leads to a happy equilibrium.
“The reality is we are doing a lot for our athletes on the front end,” Byrne said. “What I hope doesn’t happen, and what I’m concerned about, is if we got to a free market.
“That has the opportunity to blow up our model, and there will be tough decisions to make in how you fund your program. I believe in having 20 sports, and I believe in the impact that has on the community, how it rallies around them. I want to be part of a system that continues to allow that.”