Shi: Separating the haves from the have-nots in college athletics

Jan. 20, 2015, 12:34 a.m.

In the last week, the ruling class of college sports took a big step in making life better for student-athletes across the country. With autonomy from the other Division I schools in hand, the five most influential athletic conferences (the “Power Five”) decided to use some of their TV money windfall to improve the athletic experience on campus.

No longer will college players get their scholarships yanked because their coach doesn’t think they’re good enough. Athletes will be entitled to stipends covering the full cost of attendance; at a school like Stanford, where students can spend thousands just traveling to and from campus, these reforms are extremely significant. Best of all, these reforms were approved with substantial athlete representation: nearly 20 percent of the voter pool. There is now a precedent for athletes having a genuine say in how they can live their lives, and an expectation that future leaders will have to live up to. But reform will have major ripple effects, many of which will be unexpected. If that’s the case, then, do allow me to try to predict some of the changes we will eventually see.

The first thing to acknowledge is that once the Power Five got autonomy, the first thing they did was to entrench their own lofty position in the hierarchy of college sports. The new reforms are limited to the Power Five, and so they will accelerate the process of separating the reformers from the other Division I conferences. While the Automatic Qualifier conferences in the BCS era were clearly on a higher level than the mid-majors, these measures pretty much set that in stone.

That wasn’t always the case. Once upon a time, being an AQ school implied that you had more to offer than a mid-major, but it did not guarantee it. As it turned out, for five chaotic days in June 2010, when Utah and TCU and BYU and Boise State were still in the Mountain West Conference, the MWC could hope to displace the crumbling Big East in the college football pecking order.

These days are gone now. After all, a Division I scholarship from a Power Five school is now objectively worth more than a scholarship from a Georgia Southern or a Boise State. While an upstart program – a Gonzaga in basketball or a Fullerton in baseball – may attain excellence, and deep-pocketed mid-majors like Connecticut basketball can still match top-tier offers, the Power Five conferences are not going away.

So this is the world in which we now live. It is definitely and unashamedly a haves-and-have-nots scenario. It acknowledges the hard realities in college sports – some schools and conferences can command bigger TV contracts and profits, others can’t. That’s why the Division I-II-III structure exists, after all. This should not be new.

But while the Power Five managed to strong-arm the weaker schools into giving them autonomy – for the mid-majors, they could either approve autonomy or be forced to adopt reforms that they simply could not afford – the issues that reform raises will also impact the Power Five in the years to come.

The Power Five acknowledged differences between schools when they called for reform, but they also insisted on equality within the bloc itself. That fails to recognize that there have always been differences within schools. Is Stanford supposed to water down its education so that its athletes get the same teaching as everybody else? Should LSU shrink Death Valley so that it won’t have as much of a home-field advantage? These are certainly smaller differences than those between the Power Five and the rest. But in the absence of old divisions, new differences will be amplified.

As with the Division I split, the key battleground within the Power Five itself will likely be money. Some schools have it, some don’t. And it’s very possible – probable, even – that the most powerful schools within the ruling class itself will try to make a power play, pricing the weaker Power Five schools out of the college athletics market that they themselves have helped create.

Stanford has an athletic endowment estimated at $500 million, providing $27 million in funding every year – note that the Cardinal’s 300 athletic scholarships take up about $19 million of that. It means that Stanford is in prime position to win a money fight. If the Cardinal cannot play at the highest level of college athletics, whatever that may end up being, it will not be because they have been priced out: it will be their own decision. But is Stanford really something that other schools can replicate? I’d hazard a guess that most schools don’t even have academic endowments that large.

Despite these changes, the issue of money will remain, even though for any athletic program in the country, only a few teams actually turn a profit. The new rules are good for Power Five players as a whole, but most of the arguments in favor of NCAA reform have been free market arguments, and if there’s anything that these new rules do not honor, it is the free market. Every athlete in the Power Five is treated equally regardless of how much money they generate.

Is that tenable? The logical extension of the free-market slogan “Athletes should receive a share of the profits they generate” is “Athletes that don’t generate profits shouldn’t get money.” Should non-revenue athletes pay Stanford for the privilege of playing their sport? Or should they be forced to ask the student body for ASSU special fees every year, as similarly unprofitable club teams do? I don’t think so – I think Stanford benefits from having a vibrant and large athletic community. But it is clear that this reform by no means ends the controversy. Only some of the reformist crowd has been satisfied.

The rest will continue to fight, bearing banners of health insurance and profit sharing. They certainly have a point: In the grand scheme of things, the reforms that have been passed are fairly limited. They improve the student-athlete experience, but they do not threaten to overturn the existing order. But right now, in the absence of a true revenue sharing system, all but 23 Division I public athletic departments lose money, and only seven operate without any subsidies at all.

If a truly transformative pay-for-play system is enacted, or even only if moderately larger stipends are approved, football and basketball players will make money, but many Power Five athletic departments will go out of business. Others will have to cut many of their non-revenue sports. Every school will have to decide on its own whether that bargain is worth it.

Perhaps the Texases and Alabamas of the world, flush with money and influence, will decide that they benefit from having a lot of other healthy schools to compete against. Or perhaps they will decide that they stand to gain far more from using their deep pockets to bid as much as they can for the best players. This I can’t predict. If I ever had one, my crystal ball ends here.

What we can conclude is that in an environment of rising costs, many non-revenue sports will get the axe. A field hockey player or a water polo player may be every bit as good at their particular sport as a basketball player or a football player, and creditably argue that he/she deserves to be recognized and compensated equally – but basketball and football make money; field hockey and water polo don’t. Revenue sport athletes’ work is simply more marketable, more profitable and more well-known. That’s the case within Division I; soon we will realize that it is also the case within the Power Five. Autonomy was ultimately an inevitability. So were the costs that come with it. The Power Five may be creating a new world, but it is only what we expected to grow from the old one.

It is good to know that the NCAA has decided, in return for the significant revenue and positive publicity that student-athletes generate for their respective schools, that less than 20 percent representation is adequate compensation for their efforts. To continue the conversation with Winston, please e-mail him at wshi94 ‘at’

Winston Shi was the Managing Editor of Opinions for Volume 245 (February-June 2014). He also served as an opinions and sports columnist, a senior staff writer, and a member of the Editorial Board. A native of Thousand Oaks, California (the one place on the planet with better weather than Stanford), he graduated from Stanford in June 2016 with bachelor's and master's degrees in history. He is currently attending law school, where he preaches the greatness of Stanford football to anybody who will listen, and other people who won't.

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