Until now, the debate over paying college athletes has had two diametrically opposed camps: those who fiercely oppose the idea, and those who see it as the only equitable solution to one of the National Collegiate Athletic Association's biggest challenges.
But in recent weeks, some of those staunch critics have softened their stance, conceding that the association should consider alternative benefits to players beyond the value of their scholarships.
Nearly a dozen major-conference commissioners and athletic directors told The Chronicle that they would favor the creation of a trust fund, or the provision of other educational benefits, that high-profile athletes could tap into upon graduation. While none of those officials are pushing for athletes to be treated as employees, their openness to additional player benefits signals an unexpected movement.
The idea for a trust fund-which is endorsed by the National College Players Association, a group that advocates for players' rights-is one of several gaining momentum as commissioners meet this week in Chicago to discuss ideas for a revamped Division I.
"Enhancing the student-athlete package, particularly in the major revenue sports, is something that needs to happen," said Britton Banowsky, commissioner of Conference USA. "When you have coaches making $5-million, and the student package is still a basic scholarship, something's got to give."
The most powerful athletics departments are agitating for the right to award each player an extra $2,000 toward the full cost of attending college. Less-wealthy Division I colleges have resisted the idea, which has become a lightning rod in the NCAA-redesign discussions.
Last weekend football players on at least three major-college teams wrote the letters "APU," for All Players United, on parts of their equipment, protesting the NCAA's treatment of athletes on issues including player compensation and concussions.
The players' group, which helped coordinate the protest, wants the NCAA to "direct a portion of its over $1-billion in new TV revenue to guarantee basic protections" for athletes. The protections it seeks include guaranteed scholarship renewals for permanently injured players, improved medical coverage for athletes, and more money to help players cover their full college costs.
The commissioners are in early-stage discussions about ways to improve Division I governance, clean up the NCAA's enforcement problems, and help the association better allocate its resources. Those conversations are part of a national dialogue about the association's top level that is expected to play out over the next year.
Tackling Tough Questions
Much of the public debate has centered on the five wealthiest conferences and their push to create their own grouping, which would allow them to make the rules and policies they want without resistance from the smaller leagues. But behind closed doors, some top officials say they have begun more-serious conversations about such issues as player benefits and the ability of athletes to earn money off their names.
It's too early to know where those conversations will lead, but some observers are encouraged to see more willingness to tackle the game's tough questions.
"We need to think outside the model we currently have," said Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. "It can't just be who sits in what chair for governance. We've got to recognize that big-time football is really different than men's golf or men's and women's cross-country, and we've got to create a system that recognizes that."
In conversations with commissioners, athletic directors, and other leaders, The Chronicle turned up a handful of ideas that, if approved, could significantly reshape Division I. They include proposals to reorganize big-time athletics by sport or region, and move oversight of major-college football into a separate structure within the NCAA.
The deliberations come as the NCAA faces increasing pressure to treat athletes more equitably. At the nexus is Ed O'Bannon, a former UCLA standout. In a federal lawsuit he and other current and former players argue that the association, through its antiquated concept of amateurism, has illegally prevented players from earning their fair share of the money.
The plaintiffs want a cut of the vast television revenue the NCAA generates. The NCAA has denied their claims and last week filed a motion asking a judge to dismiss the matter.
Sharing the Wealth
Regardless of the outcome of that case, which is scheduled to go to trial next summer, the newfound riches in the biggest leagues have led many athletics leaders to take a harder look at the beneficiaries, and consider new ways of helping players.
"The economic realities of today's world make those kinds of prospects more viable for at least consideration," said one major-college athletic director who, like many officials, did not want to be named because the discussions are preliminary. "There needs to be an accommodation for not only the money that's there today but what it might become tomorrow."
There is little consensus around what such a new model might look like, but some commissioners said the timing of any benefits was key.
"I don't expect we will support providing payments that exceed the cost of attendance in the current year," said Mr. Banowsky, of Conference USA. But some commissioners said they could see a deferred-benefit strategy.
"There's a way to engage in that conversation that is incentive-based for athletes relative to academics," one major-conference commissioner said. "It's not just, 'Here's some money for you, thanks for playing.' It needs to be wrapped in an educational context."
Colleges worry about Title IX implications, and say that set-asides under the federal gender-equity law could lead to cutbacks in nonrevenue sports. But proponents say the money could come from new television agreements or revenue that is being used for other purposes, such as rapidly increasing coaches' compensation or, as one athletic director put it, "the Corian counters in the coach's bathroom."
Help Beyond College Years
Many people agree, however, that any such funds should be limited to high-profile athletes who complete a four-year degree.
"It may be a motivating factor that would keep kids in," said Peg Bradley-Doppes, vice chancellor for athletics at the University of Denver, who has served on the NCAA's Division I Leadership Council.
The NCAA should also use this opportunity to rethink its oversight of player health, several athletics leaders said.
One athletic director in an elite NCAA program said he was "underwhelmed" by the NFL's recent concussion settlement, which is designed to provide $765-million over 20 years to thousands of former players.
He wants the NCAA to set aside money for athletes with dementia and other long-term problems associated with head injuries they suffered in college, accommodating both current and former athletes.
"We need to start thinking about resourcing that," this person said. "We should be in the student-athlete welfare business, not only immediate but post." ------------------------------ SIDEBAR PHOTO: In games this past weekend, some players wrote the letters "APU," for All Players United, on parts of their equipment to protest the NCAA's treatment of athletes on issues including compensation and concussions. Among them were Georgia Tech's Vad Lee (right), whose wristband carries the symbolic protest. Robert Willett/Raleigh News & Observer/MCT ****************************************** -- Jerry P. Becker Dept. of Curriculum & Instruction Southern Illinois University 625 Wham Drive Mail Code 4610 Carbondale, IL 62901-4610 Phone: (618) 453-4241 [O] (618) 457-8903 [H] Fax: (618) 453-4244 E-mail: email@example.com