Blog debate: SEC, Big Ten motivations

July, 14, 2011
7/14/11
11:00
AM ET
Delany/SliveAP PhotosCommissioners Jim Delany of the Big Ten, left, and the SEC's Mike Slive support paying athletes.
Two of the most powerful men in college sports, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany and SEC commissioner Mike Slive, came out this past spring in support of providing more money to college athletes to cover the full cost of attendance. When these guys speak, people listen, so naturally there has been a lot of talk about the issue. Some wonder whether it's merely the start of a seismic shift in college athletics. What does it all mean? Big Ten blogger Brian Bennett and SEC blogger Chris Low break it down.

Brian Bennett: Chris, Jim Delany caused a stir at the Big Ten spring meetings when he said his league was looking at increasing scholarship money. It wasn't a new idea -- the late Myles Brand and current NCAA president Mark Emmert have publicly supported the same plan. Still, things are different when Delany and Slive get behind an idea.

We know that the Big Ten and SEC are flush with money thanks to their lucrative TV contracts, so they can afford an extra $3,000 per athlete if they decide to go this route. I guess the big question is, are these leagues merely exploring this idea with the student-athletes' best interests at heart, or are they trying to move toward a model in which the richest schools operate on a different playing field? What do you think?

Chris Low: The SEC (and the Big Ten) trying to gain a competitive edge? Surely you jest, Brian. Nah, I think Slive is serious about exploring every realistic possibility to try to share the wealth with the athletes. As South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier reminded us all in Destin, Fla., at the SEC spring meetings in June, the athletes are the performers and the ones who are bringing in all the big dollars. They're the ones who deserve a piece of the pie or, at the very least, enough money to help bring in their families every weekend to see them play. Remember, too, that Spurrier was willing to give up part of his salary to pay each player a $300 stipend for every game, and that would equate to a little less than $300,000 per season. That's a lot of coin. But when nine of the 12 SEC head football coaches are making $2.5 million or more per year, they can spare a few extra dollars.

Obviously, Spurrier's proposal has no chance of passing, even though six other SEC head coaches signed it. But his point is well taken. This is a movement, Brian, that I think will just keep gaining momentum. What do you see as the biggest hurdle to paying athletes? To me, it's the simple fact that you're going to have to pay all athletes (on both the men's and women's side) and not just football players. When you do the math, that's a lot of cash ... even for leagues with seemingly endless pockets.

BB: With Title IX, it's impossible to envision a scenario where only players in revenue-generating sports receive extra money. But I have done the math. The average gap in cost of attendance is about $3,000. At a place like Ohio State where there are about 400 varsity athletes, that works to about $1.2 million a year. That's a lot of money, but when the Big Ten is raking in more than $20 million per year per school from its TV deals, that figure is not outlandish.

And why shouldn't these leagues do this? Do SEC and Big Ten schools really need to pay coaches more? Do they really need to build even bigger stadiums and spotless weight rooms? There has to be a limit to the arms race at some point, and putting this influx of cash into the players' hands is a noble goal in many ways.

I guess the concern here is that Western Michigan isn't the same as Michigan, nor is Alabama-Birmingham the same as Alabama. Outside of the big six leagues (or maybe big five; it's questionable whether the Big East is rich enough), very few conferences could afford to go this route. Many athletic programs are in the red already and need student fees to stay afloat. Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith suggested in May that non-AQ teams shouldn't try to spend like the big boys and that the playing field does not need to be level. Are we headed for a scenario where the wealthy schools gain even more of an advantage through cost-of-attendance increases, or an eventual split among the FBS haves and have-nots?

CL: Brian, I think there's already an unofficial split between the FBS haves and have-nots. You mention the arms race in college football. Try walking around an SEC campus these days. There are new football facilities going up all the time, and I'm talking about state-of-the-art digs. Auburn is getting ready to open a brand-new indoor practice facility, and Arkansas is poised to spend $34 million on a new complex. It truly is an arms race and recruiting-driven in most cases. Prospects do keep count. If Alabama has one, LSU and Auburn have to have one. And if Florida has one, you can bet Tennessee and Georgia will be angling to get one.

I don't see any way the FBS have-nots can keep up in the facilities arms race or the paying-of-coaches arms race. The SEC has an assistant coach (Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn) making $1.3 million. I'm old enough to remember when it was a big deal that then-Tennessee head coach Phillip Fulmer hit the $1 million plateau just before the Vols won the national championship in 1998.

With all this money flying around, there has to be some practical way to share it with the players. I know the cynics insist a lot of the players are already being paid under the table, and there's no denying that. But what about the second-team offensive guard who was lightly recruited and comes from an impoverished background? He's the guy I think about in this whole deal.

BB: Some might suggest that SEC players are already getting some extra money. But I digress.

Giving players the true cost of attendance is a worthy cause, but I'm not sure it will ever fly. There will be many objections from the non-AQ leagues, and unless the big six are truly ready to strike out on their own, I don't see it happening for a while. I do think that eventually things have got to change. With all the recent scandals, the lawsuit over player images in video games and the huge dollars being thrown around, sooner or later this concept of amateurism in college sports needs to be revisited and revised for a more equal partnership. I just don't know whether that will happen in our lifetimes.

OK, Chris, since I just took a cheap shot and your league has won all the national titles, you get the last word. Where do you see this all heading?

CL: Where do I see it heading? Honestly, nowhere. There will be considerable grandstanding. Players will speak out, and Slive and Delany will continue to push the issue. But the whole concept of paying collegiate athletes is a road too many people simply don't want to go down. Hey, it quit being an extracurricular activity a long time ago. A successful football program at a place like Ohio State or Alabama is worth millions of dollars to that university and to that state.

I, too, don't expect to see any significant changes in the system in our lifetimes, and in the meantime, those intent on breaking the rules will see to it that certain players and hotshot recruits are compensated ... be it in cold, hard cash or maybe even tattoos.

Chris Low | email

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