Big Ten chief walks line on unionization

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at the Penn sports law symposium. The Big Ten Network is a model for money-making.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany at the Penn sports law symposium. The Big Ten Network is a model for money-making. (MICHAEL S. WIRTZ / Staff)
Posted: March 02, 2014

The most powerful man in college sports was in a basement auditorium Friday at the University of Pennsylvania Law School on Sansom Street, talking at a symposium.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, the event's keynote speaker said nothing particularly incendiary. A trial is due to start in June where, among other issues, it could be decided whether athletes should be compensated for their likenesses.

Meanwhile, a drive to unionize college athletes has begun, at a Big Ten school, Northwestern.

Delany, a smart man by anyone's estimation, tops the most powerful list because his conference, with its Big Ten Network, has become the model for making money.

In an informative kickoff address at the symposium, Rand Getlin, a lawyer and top investigative reporter at Yahoo Sports, quoted former Ohio State president Gordon Gee: "The addition of Maryland and Rutgers gives us 40 to 50 million more viewers, makes the BTN worth more than God."

Delany was more politic, saying the value of the Big Ten has skyrocketed because of technology, "adding I will say that the University of Michigan has been filling its stadium for decades and decades and decades."

These are interesting times. The schools and conferences that have the most also have the most to lose right now. If the O'Bannon trial over player likenesses goes against the NCAA, it probably won't be Big Five basketball or Ivy League or Division II players that benefit a great deal. It's the 23 Division I schools making a profit, and rivals trying to keep up.

Delany walked the line on unionization this way, saying recently graduated NCAA athletes should be at the table as voting members. (He suggested current athletes would be too busy.)

Delany also reiterated his stance that the Big Ten and the other big conferences are ready to pay for full cost of attendance. "If you're not interested or not ready," Delany said of other leagues, "we ought not be put in a position of exploiting student-athletes."

That was his only eyebrow-raiser. Arguments about exploitation and which schools are doing it generally don't suggest that schools that are losing money and unable to keep up with the big boys are the ones doing the exploiting.

The most interesting discussions about college sports occurred at panels earlier in the morning.

Penn State law professor Stephen Ross made the point that "what the NCAA is really all about is what the antitrust [laws] can't deal with - taking monopoly practices and using it for worthy causes."

Penn State, for instance, takes $90 million in athletic revenue, "almost all of it from football," Ross said, and uses it to support other student-athletes.

Ross said after his panel discussion that a professional sports union leader also there agreed with him that the greatest value of the professional sports unions was their ability to establish a relatively high minimum salary.

That's already happened in college sports, he suggested, with full scholarships.

Ross said if he were Delany, he'd welcome athletes organizing a union. Then he'd lock them out "until you agree to a collective bargaining agreement far worse than what you have now."

And, he pointed out, fair value could go in interesting directions. At Penn State, Ross said, the value "of the top volleyball player is greater than the backup middle linebacker.''

Panelists talked about how keeping boosters willing to overpay away is a challenge if schools are interested in fair value, since fair competition also is part of the equation.

NCAA general counsel Scott Bearby, who had joked to the moderator about wearing body armor to the panel, said he doesn't think future college-sports funding models "are going to be based on a legal decision."

We may soon see about that.

Delany did talk about how college athletes are working much longer hours than he did as a basketball player at North Carolina. He cited a study that showed Division I athletes average 41 hours a week at their sport.

So they have a full-time job. The hard part is determining fair value for it across a very uneven landscape.


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