Running for the roses.

Photographer: V.J. Lovero /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Private Colleges Wouldn't Pay for Play

Henry Bienen is the president emeritus of Northwestern University and a member of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
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The National Labor Relations Board has overturned an earlier regional NLRB ruling that permitted Northwestern University’s football players to unionize. A California appeals court is reviewing the so-called O’Bannon case, in which a federal district judge awarded $46 million in fees against the NCAA because of universities’ use of athletes’ images. A lawsuit referred to as “Kessler,” named for the plaintiffs’ lawyer, ongoing in California would, if successful, allow a free market for student athletes to shop their athletic prowess. There is talk within collegiate athletics of going to Congress for an anti-trust exemption to head off this possibility. 

QuickTake College Sports

What is lost in the fog of legal cases and discussions about “Big Time” athletics’ future is what the universities would do should unionization occur or, more generally, should a “pay to play” model come into effect. I suggest that most, if not all of the private universities who participate in the so-called Power Five conferences -- the Big Ten; ACC; SEC; Pac-12; and Big Twelve -- would opt out of the model.  These private universities are: Boston College; Duke; Miami; Northwestern; Stanford; Syracuse; the University of Southern California; Texas Christian; Vanderbilt; Wake Forest.  

Maybe not all would abandon their athletic programs as now configured in a new professional era. But most would, and so would independent Notre Dame; perhaps Rice in Conference USA and Southern Methodist University in the American Athletic conference, and possibly some public universities. Indeed, Notre Dame’s athletic director, Jack Swarbrick, said as much in an interview with CBS and in an USA Today article.  So did Stanford President John Hennessy, as reported by the Stanford Alumni Journal.

Why should universities continue or accelerate the increasing professionalism of college athletics? Some would answer: “The money of course!”  Revenue will govern.  However, only about 10 percent to 15 percent of Division I schools make money, net, on athletics. Nor could they insulate non-revenue sports from a pay-to play model.  Neither Title IX nor fairness would allow payment to football or men’s basketball players while not paying women athletes or men in non-revenue sports.

What about allowing schools to  spin off a semi-pro, or pro, fully owned affiliate in football or basketball. But why do that either? If the startup United Football League could not compete for revenue, why would a university affiliate be able to do so? And why would a university go that route?  Students, I predict, would bail.  Faculty would oppose. Most alumni would not feel a commitment to the enterprise.  As Swarbrick has said: “the Stanfords of the world are not going to allow that 4 percent business unit to take them places they don’t want to be.”

What about the academically very strong public institutions, among them Cal-Berkeley, UCLA, Michigan and Virginia? It is harder to predict what they would do, because other constituencies come into play: state legislators, governors and taxpayers. My guess is that there would be huge pressure from faculty and administrators, and even students, to back away from the path of professionalization of sports at least at some public universities.

We have already traveled far down a path that in too many places has nothing to do with learning, teaching, research and the dissemination of knowledge. Huge athletic staffs, high salaries for coaches (who often are the highest paid public employees in their states), now new “cost of attendance” stipends added to athletic scholarships -- all these have ratcheted up expenses and moved higher education along a path that has led to calls for unionization and paying student athletes.

None of this is meant to say that I do not value athletics at universities. I do. I was thrilled when Northwestern went to the Rose Bowl in 1996, my first full year as president. I avidly follow Northwestern teams.  I even watch videos of our recruits. But I also value the idea of student athletes where athletes take classes, are serious about their studies, graduate and become valued members of their communities, as they do at Northwestern. 

Of course, professional football, basketball, soccer and tennis players also can be great citizens and role models. They don’t need to be tied to higher education to accomplish their private goals and to contribute to their communities.  Many soccer and tennis players never attend college. They go straight to the pros. The National Football League and the National Basketball Association should eliminate all restrictions on age or otherwise, to allow for a player’s entrance into their leagues if skills allow.

I hope it does not come to unionization and pay-to-play. If it does, I suspect that many universities that now try to play Big Time Sports and also enforce academic standards will part ways and end scholarship athletics and highly paid coaches. 

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Henry Bienen at hsbienen@northwestern.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net