Moving Day in Indianapolis

The grand poobahs of college athletics are convening in Indianapolis today to vote on whether the power five conferences will heretofore have greater autonomy from the rest of the NCAA’s Division I member schools. It is widely expected that the vote will be “yes,” which will pave the way for those conferences to provide additional stipends for players, among other things.

The impetus for this vote is, first and foremost, that the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, Big Ten and Big 12 are now making extraordinary sums of money and, increasingly, they believe that it makes no sense to have to pretend that the Association is an organization of equals when it manifestly isn’t.

While the vote will provide the big five with some wiggle room as they navigate a changing and increasingly perilous landscape, it won’t resolve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the big time college sports enterprise. Large institutions will still be making large sums of money off the backs of athletes who are brought to those institutions for the primary purpose of making all that money; while at the same time, the leaders of those institutions will continue pretending that their primary mission in bringing those athletes to campus is an educational one.

This basic contradiction is increasingly at odds with basic common sense and labor law itself. And it leads industry leaders to continue to twist themselves into pretzels trying to rationalize the status quo.

One example, from this week’s Big 12 convocation is illustrative. As John Infante tells it, Big-12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby and Texas AD Steve Patterson both expressed their support for greater autonomy for the power five. Why? Quite simply because, as Patterson pointedly asked, “Why should we share it if they are not generating it?”

Totally.

But the approach to sharing changed dramatically when talk turned to unionization and paying college athletes. Both Bowlsby and Patterson warned that, if college athletics goes down that road, the result could be the elimination of a large number of scholarships and sports. That, Patterson said, “is gonna be very bad for this country.”

Infante highlights the glaring contradiction in all this:

According to Big 12 leaders, athletes should have to share the revenue they generate for the school with other athletes for the good of the country. But institutions have no responsibility to share the revenue they generate with other institutions who are part of the same division within the same association. Despite the fact that the effect of further stratifying college athletics could be the same as paying athletes a salary: schools deciding to cut sports and scholarships.

Infante hesitates to call this “hypocrisy” on the grounds that he believes these thought leaders are sincere in their convictions. Regardless, it’s hard to take their declamations seriously when we know that they can reliably be counted upon to advocate for the position that keeps the most money in their coffers, regardless of the issue.

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