Commentary: 'Power 5' commissioners' strategy could mean the end of social mobility in college football

Published: Friday, July 26 2013 12:34 a.m. MDT

Jim Delany is commissioner of the Big Ten.

M. Spencer Green, ASSOCIATED PRESS

What do the University of Utah, Boise State University, Texas Christian University, the University of Hawaii and Northern Illinois University have in common?

Jim Delany, Larry Scott, Bob Bowlsby and Michael Slive are in the process of ensuring no one will ever again be able to repeat what these schools have done. If they have their way, the days of the BCS buster are numbered.

One by one over the last week, the commissioners of four of the five power conferences have told the media — some more vehemently than others — that the big boys are tired of the way the NCAA is run. Specifically, they feel the schools they represent are being held back by a very large group of much, much smaller schools.

"We will continue to push for changes we believe are in the best interest of our student-athletes," Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive said at the SEC's 2013 media days. "Conferences and their member institutions must be allowed to meet the needs of their student-athletes. In recent conversations with my commissioner colleagues, there appears to be a willingness to support a meaningful solution to this important change."

"It is just very difficult to do anything … that doesn't get voted down by the larger majority," Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said at Big 12 media days earlier this week. "I think we've permitted or even sometimes encouraged institutional social climbing by virtue of their athletics programs, and I think the fact is we've made it too easy to get into Division I and too easy to stay there."

"From my conversations with all of my colleagues, they think change is at hand," Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said Thursday. "… I think the five of us have to have a feeling that when we agree on something, we're going to be able to achieve it, and it hasn't always been the case."

"I'm certainly aligned with what you heard from my colleagues this week in terms of the need for transformative change, but I think it can be evolutionary and not revolutionary," Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott said. "I don't think it will be as confrontational and controversial a process as some of the reports I have heard this week."

In short, they want change, and as with most issues in college football, this issue comes down to who controls the money and power.

"Cost of living stipend" is a phrase college football fans should get used to hearing, because in the end, the ability for major programs to pay their players is what this is all about.

On its surface, the offer to pay players, many of whom struggle to live comfortably while playing in college, seems a magnanimous, gracious gesture. Who are we to say there is absolutely no spirit of charity in the offering?

Even if the power men are the slimy, conniving money-grubbers that fans of mid-major schools like to think they are, at least a spirit of equity shines through in the proposal to pay the players that earn the schools for which they play hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

Yet, two factors in this equation cast an illuminating light on very realistic ulterior motives these commissioners and the schools they represent may have in suggesting that they would like to pay their players the actual cost of attending school rather than just tuition.

First, by paying their players, the leaders of the college football world cannot be held liable for licensing their likeness without compensation. Those who have followed the Ed O'Bannon litigation know what that means. The NCAA and its schools are rightfully terrified, but they have not been able to agree on changes to protect themselves from litigation.

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