I didn’t like the late Walter Byers, the man who single-handedly created the modern National Collegiate Athletic Association. Many decades ago he misused my university to solidify his power and make it clear his word was law. It was an outrageous abuse of his authority and I wondered why Indiana, an original member of the Big Ten, had accepted it at such a high cost.
Nevertheless, it was Byers who foresaw how greed by America’s top athletic universities would result in a system where young men and women become so much fodder fed into the money machine ironically that he himself had created when he negotiated the first television deals for college football in the 1950s and for the yearly basketball tournament, a $700 million annual boon for the NCAA.
In 1997, Byers, who died last year at 93, wrote prophetically that, “Athletics programs are increasingly vulnerable to challenges under antitrust and tax laws. Maximizing of commercial opportunities by the colleges and for themselves and their executives are destined to trigger even more serious challenges.” He himself had faced the anger of the schools he served by arguing for the establishment of some system to pay college athletes beyond room and board and tuition. This obviously wasn’t the Walter Byers who earlier handed down sweeping sanctions against IU for football recruiting that also penalized every sport in the university, denying them competitiveness and causing huge financial hardship. No other school before or since was treated so harshly.
But as one observes the monster that Byers’ built as demonstrated in the national football championship, it is difficult to imagine where it all will end. The revenues being generated by the Big Five Power conferences alone through their own television networks and other enterprises are staggering. They not only have created amazingly wealthy athletic departments and paid for opulent facilities, but they also have brought about a new class of super-paid employee whose steady climb up the financial ladder is the envy of chief executive officers everywhere. Yearly salaries exceeding several millions of dollars are not unusual with built in excessive increases and golden parachutes.
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As the father of three “full ride” football players at top NCAA Division I schools, I only wish that I had encouraged these talented youngsters to think about careers in college athletic management rather than in settling simply for an education and the payoff that every player faces after school, the possibility of early dementia, arthritic knees and shoulders, and a myriad of other physical problems down the road.
A friend observed recently that if someone offered him the opportunity to become either the CEO of General Motors or the Big Ten, he wouldn’t hesitate to grab the latter job. Why? He wouldn’t have to put up with stockholders’ complaints or worry about the stock price or most especially dealings with employees beyond his own staff. The kids generating all the revenue, he said, are the “unpaid” players, no union contracts just cheap labor.
A recent report on the increase of pay for Jim Delaney in the Washington Post shows that he is now earning $3.1 million a year and, by the way, he doesn’t have to talk about it except to the presidents of his member universities. He and his fellow commissioners of the power leagues with one exception, the Pac 12, refused to discuss it with the Post.
“So who wants the General Motors headache?” my friend said, to which I added “or grow up to be President of the United States for that matter.”
The world shook its head in amazement when it learned what the new head football coach at the University of Michigan, Jim Harbaugh, was paid to give up his job at a professional team, the San Francisco 49ers, to return to his alma mater. His salary was listed as above $7 million the first year making him the highest paid employee in the state by a long, long shot. The University of Alabama’s Nick Saban is a bit above that.
How is all this justified? Morally, it probably can’t be. Financially, it has become the tail that wags the dog among the biggest of the nation’s universities, most of them “public.” How much of this ocean of money filters down to support the main mission of the schools – to educate, elucidate and nurture is anyone’s guess.