Big 12 Conference hosts second forum on college athletics

By Jake Eisenberg

The Big 12 Conference held their second forum on the “State of College Athletics” with the intent to explore and discuss money in collegiate athletics.

The first forum was held in New York City on Aug. 6. The second, convened at the National Press Club in Washington on Oct. 21, and highlighted two main topics.

Photo courtesy of
Photo courtesy of

“It is our goal through these forums to bring some of the brightest minds in sports into the same room to talk about the current state of college athletics,” said Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby about the forums “As leaders in intercollegiate athletics we fully understand that in order to impact change one must frankly look at the past with an eye toward the future. Addressing these issues will have a transformative effect on college athletics, with implications far beyond the high-profile sports.”

The first topic was, “Where Does the Money Go – The Business of College Athletics,” with panelists Chris Del Conte, Texas Christian University Director of Intercollegiate Athletics, Steve Patterson, University of Texas Men’s Athletic Director, USA Today’s Steve Berkowitz, Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel and Patrick Sandusky, USOC Chief Communications and Public Affairs Officer. NBC broadcaster Jimmy Roberts was the moderator.

With two athletic directors on the panel, the discussion soon became a back and forth between Del Conte and Patterson and the rest of the group. Del Conte and Patterson were met with a barrage of questions relating to money for student athletes. Both stressed that athletes were compensated via free higher education.

“At the end of the day there’s this misperception that the labor is free in college athletics, and that’s not accurate. If you’re a full-ride football player at the University of Texas, the benefit you get for room, board, books, tuition, training, meals, fees and medical is $69,000 a year. That’s tax free,” said Patterson. “So yeah, the taxes on that, that puts you at the top third of the household incomes in the United States. If you’re a basketball player at the University of Texas, it’s $77,000 a year, which you add the taxes to, puts you in the top quartile household incomes in the United States. So I don’t think that student athletes are being taken advantage of.”

Del Conte, clad in cowboy boots, was able to provide a different perspective. As the conversation turned to the power of the NCAA, Del Conte was able to provide insight about how “smaller market” teams, like TCU, mesh with those in the larger area. TCU, which played five different conferences in the past 16 years, recently moved to the Big XII, one of the “Big 5” conferences (SEC, Big 10, ACC, Big XII, Pac-12), after spending a year in the now-broken up Big East, and previously, the Mountain West Conference.

“I was the New York Yankees of the Mountain West Conference. I had the biggest budget, we won, we were it,” said Del Conte. “Today I’m in the Big 12. I have the lowest budget. There’s a huge, huge gap. They have 100,000-seat stadium. We’re rolling in at 45,000.”

He spoke at length about the struggles of a lower-tier school in a big conference, specifically with athletic budgets. Larger schools, such as Patterson’s Texas, spend more than double what other schools spend on athletics, namely football and men’s basketball.

“I was the New York Yankees of the Mountain West Conference. I had the biggest budget, we won, we were it,” said Del Conte. “Today I’m in the Big 12. I have the lowest budget. There’s a huge, huge gap. They have 100,000-seat stadium. We’re rolling in at 45,000.”

In fact, the large revenue and popularity of football and men’s basketball worried the panel the most. Many agreed that is revenue continued on the current trajectory with no change in NCAA structure, schools would be forced to focus funds on those revenue sports at the expense of Olympic sports.

I think one of the places where we’re headed right now that’s scary to me is that as — especially at the lower tier schools in the big five, as they struggle to build buildings to compete, as they struggle to catch up, I think we could see a purge of non-revenue sports in order to focus more money on the sports that matter financially most,” said Thamel.

The panel concluded cemented on the idea that change is coming to the structure of college athletics—an idea replicated by the second panel, called, “Are Student-Athletes Employees?”

The second panel featured USA Today’s Christine Brennan, CBS Sports’ Len Elmore, a former University of Maryland men’s basketball player, former Arizona State University Athletic Director Lisa Love, Tom McMillen, former University of Maryland men’s basketball player and now Maryland Board of Regents member, University of Texas Women’s Athletic Director Chris Plonsky and Sheanon Zenger, University of Kansas Athletic Director.

Much of the flow of the panel was the same. As former student athletes, incidentally for the same team, Elmore and McMillen fielded questions about the life of a student-athlete, while Love and Plonsky took the side of the administration.

To start, Jimmy Roberts, who moderated the second panel as well, asked them each whether or not they supported the payment of student-athletes. Brennan, Elmore, Love and Plonsky declared they were not in favor of student-athletes as employees.

“I also think it’s important when we talk about paying athletes as we have, when many of my colleagues and dear friends in the media talk about paying them salaries, unionize, let’s picture that, visualize what that looks like. If we start doing that, we see an offensive lineman who is at Tennessee who halfway through the season says, I’m going to go take that better offer at Alabama for the final game of the season, I’m going to go to Iowa and play for a game,” said Brennan. “We want that? We really like that idea? You mentioned agents, the money. If we stop and take a look at what that future would look like, I think everyone would agree we don’t want that.”

Zenger agreed partially with both sides, and McMillen said he thinks that while they should not be employees, they deserve a stipend.

If you have a system that was generating billions of dollars, you would certainly address the equities for the players,” McMillen said, mentioning the $15 of laundry money he received from Maryland as a student-athlete as an example. “The fact is that I do think you can create equities across the board for every athlete, women, men, where they get a basic stipend that allows them to have a life. I think that there is plenty of money in college sports if you took the dollars that are out there and redistributed them.”

From there, much of the conversation focused on the ideal world of college athletics, and quickly turned into a debate about who is really in charge. The panelists were in agreement that, as Love said, “Everybody is in charge and nobody is.”

Elmore, despite disagreeing that student-athletes should be paid, recognized the need for change or an adjustment.

“The reality is going to be, this is still a big business, whether we like it or not,” he said.

Across the stage, the consensus was that a congressional committee of some sort would be needed to sort out the issues surrounding collegiate athletes being paid. Either that, or, a “benevolent dictator,” as McMillen put it, needs to step in and oversee the organization. In other words, he said, “inexorable change is coming.”

“What we need is someone in charge of college sports that’s going to be working in our true national interests promoting the things that are truly important to America: competition, gender equity, academics, minor sports, and most of all being in sync with our institutions of higher learning which are the most important assets in this country today,” McMillen concluded.

The panels both concluded posing more questions than they answered, but each boiled down to the idea that change is needed. At their core, the panelists for both forums were engaging, intelligent and each proposed ideas and viable solutions to issues in college athletics today.

According to Bowlsby, the forums will continue, perhaps one a year going forward. Roberts found the event equally productive, and praised the Big XII for spearheading the movement.

“When I was approached about doing this, I was told in no uncertain terms that there were no holds barred, and it was not about casting the best light on the Big XII—it was about asking questions and about trying to talk about the issues, and that‘s the only reason I did it; because I knew it would be an honest exchange of ideas,” said Roberts.


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