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

Published: Tuesday, July 7 2015 9:16 p.m. MDT

Jim Delany is commissioner of the Big Ten. (M. Spencer Green, ASSOCIATED PRESS) 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."

Jim Delany is commissioner of the Big Ten. (M. Spencer Green, AP) Jim Delany is commissioner of the Big Ten. (M. Spencer Green, AP)

"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."

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive talks with reporters during the SEC football Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Tuesday, July 16. (Dave Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive talks with reporters during the SEC football Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Tuesday, July 16. (Dave Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.

Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive talks with reporters during the SEC football Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Tuesday, July 16. (Dave Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Southeastern Conference Commissioner Mike Slive talks with reporters during the SEC football Media Days in Hoover, Ala., Tuesday, July 16. (Dave Martin, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

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.

Second, by paying their players, the power conferences will have achieved a huge football recruiting advantage — maybe the largest ever — which is the whole reason why small schools have killed proposals to begin paying players.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby talks to reporters during a break from a meeting of the Bowl Championship Series football conference commissioners in Pasadena, Calif., Tuesday, April 23. (Reed Saxon, AP) Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby talks to reporters during a break from a meeting of the Bowl Championship Series football conference commissioners in Pasadena, Calif., Tuesday, April 23. (Reed Saxon, AP)

If change does happen, you can stop wondering who the next Cinderella will be in the College Football Playoff, because it will only ever be one of the 70 or so schools with the richest athletic programs in America.

In short, there will never be one.

There may be one or two crappy, rich programs that turn things around and have a few really good years, but it will still be a team raking in tens of millions of dollars more than someone who was left out.

Even if some sort of Division IV in college football doesn't materialize, no recruit in his right mind will choose Northern Illinois or Tulsa if Kansas or Kentucky come calling, checkbook in hand. As anyone who ever has scrounged the classes and club meetings of a college campus looking for free food knows, money is what matters when you're poor.

On the other hand, if some sort of Division IV is created, and if colleges who pay their players are segmented off from the rest of the college football world, how well non-stipend-offering clubs play will be irrelevant. Such teams will never be able to ascend to the highest stage of the college game.

This Oct. 21, 2010, file photo shows Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott announcing the splitting of NCAA college football divisions during a news conference in San Francisco. (Paul Sakuma, AP) This Oct. 21, 2010, file photo shows Pac-10 Commissioner Larry Scott announcing the splitting of NCAA college football divisions during a news conference in San Francisco. (Paul Sakuma, AP)

No big games means no big money, and no big money means drawing players away from a major program, even a poor one, will become more and more difficult over time, which all of course plays back into the hands of power and money.

This all, of course, is happening because smaller schools have proven that they can consistently win football games against major schools.

Ever since the University of Utah broke through after the 2004 season, at least one team in the mid-major world has been the thorn in the BCS's side almost every year. The little guys just keep winning big games, and by so doing, they keep threatening to take money out of the pockets of those who, according to some, rightfully deserve it.

In the nine years since the first time the BCS was busted, the power schools have tried to figure out a way to bolt the door and lock it up tight. The strategies they've employed to this point have failed, yet they persist in trying to separate themselves from the riff-raff.

Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby addresses the media at the beginning of the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days Monday, July 22, in Dallas. (TIM SHARP, ASSOCIATED PRESS) Big 12 Conference Commissioner Bob Bowlsby addresses the media at the beginning of the Big 12 Conference Football Media Days Monday, July 22, in Dallas. (TIM SHARP, ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Should they eventually succeed, it is conceivable that a number of athletic programs on the outside would drop the sport entirely in order to economize — football is among the most expensive of collegiate sports — but many would survive to carry on tradition in their own way.

Such schools could even organize a championship of their own — perhaps a real playoff — and figure out a way to create an entertaining product on the field that would satisfy their fans and make some decent money for their schools.

Yet, no matter how well one of those teams did, no matter how many games a team at that level could win, they would never get a chance at the nation's premiere championship.

So much for the spirit of open competition. … So much, that is, until the antitrust lawsuits start up again.

Landon Hemsley is the sports web producer for DeseretNews.com. Email: lhemsley@deseretnews.com. Twitter.com/EarlOfHemsley

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