July 23, 2014 at 9:35 pm

John Niyo

College athletic commissioners are best at crying wolf

Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby says, "I think you'll see men's Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pike." (Stephen Dunn / Getty Images)

The sky is falling on college athletics. So say the men with a mountaintop view, the power brokers who’d have you believe they spend most of their waking hours — and sleepless nights — worrying about the little guys.

And if you believe that, then you’ll believe just about everything else they’ve told you about this multibillion-dollar business that has been built on the backs of a largely unpaid labor force.

But this is the biggest whopper, no doubt: the one that claims the NCAA is too big to fail, and in need of a bailout. A Goldman Sachs in shoulder pads or gym shorts, if you will.

Deregulation is what they’re demanding at the moment, and one after another they’re making their final pitch in advance of an Aug. 7 autonomy vote that’ll free the five “power conferences” from the shackles of the rest of the Division I herd.

Mike Slive, commissioner of the Southeastern Conference, stated his case last week. Bob Bowlsby, who runs the Big 12, donned his Chicken Little hat this week, while John Swofford, the Atlantic Coast commissioner, turned out his empty pockets. Wednesday, it was Larry Scott’s turn at the Pac 12 Media Day. And last but not least, Jim Delany gets his chance next week when the Big Ten holds its annual kickoff luncheon in Chicago.

They need this vote — and they seem fairly certain they’ll get it — in order to pass some legislation they hope will appease the masses, most notably by giving athletes a stipend in addition to their current scholarships to help pay the full cost of attending college. Other oft-mentioned ideas include expanded health-care coverage, four-year scholarship guarantees and stricter practice-time limits.

All of those would be important — and necessary — concessions, particularly in light of the half-dozen or so class-action lawsuits the NCAA and its major stakeholders are faced with at the moment.

But where the debate turns slapstick is when the men in charge, all making seven-figure salaries to protect their turf, start defending their treasured “collegiate model” and the notion of amateurism that provides them their tax shelter.

Current system is wrong

The mere mention of a “pay-for-play” scenario gives them the shakes. (“I don’t see pay-for-play,” Swofford said, later adding, “I don’t even think the majority of college athletes believe that’s the right route to go.”) And they’ve all got the same talking points now about how fairly compensating the Golden Geese will kill all the innocent goslings that rely on them.

“I think all of that in the end will cause programs to be eliminated,” warned Bowlsby, who is quick to note his background as a college wrestler, one of the endangered species. “I think you’ll see men’s Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pike.”

He might be right, somewhere down the line. But that doesn’t make the current system any less wrong, whether it’s a star football player being denied the right to sell his autograph or a university (Kansas) spending $18 million on a basketball dorm or the folly of, say, West Virginia paying for its volleyball team to make eight trips to North Carolina, Texas, Iowa and Kansas in a two-month span this fall.

Look, Bowlsby’s a smart man, a former athletic director at Iowa and Stanford, and a guy who managed to quote Ralph Waldo Emerson as he explained this week why his 10-team conference — with its awkward, 1,500-mile footprint — would continue marketing itself as the Big 12.

But when Bowlsby brags about how “the collegiate model is unique in the world of sports — not just in this country, but all around the world,” he ignores the most obvious reason why: Because it’s a sham.

And when he starts explaining why something more resembling capitalism in this model would mean financial ruin for everybody involved, he ignores a few other things.

Wasteful spending

There’s the money, obviously. As former Ohio State president Gordon Gee once told his own athletic council, the latest round of conference expansion means the Big Ten Network “is worth more money than God.” And in more concrete numbers, the U.S. Department of Education showed NCAA sports generated $14.3 billion in revenue in 2012-13.

There’s also no rule that says football and basketball have to fund 20 other varsity sports. Athletic directors can hide behind Title IX if they want, but there’s no question athletic department budgets are rife with unnecessary spending.

It’s not just coaches’ salaries, from Mike Krzyzewski’s nearly $10 million haul to the 50-plus coaches who earned more than $2 million last season and 50-plus assistants who made more than $500,000. It’s not just the AD’s salaries, either, though like many of his peers, Michigan’s Dave Brandon makes more than his own president. (Of Michigan’s projected $151 million budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, $51.1 million is allocated for staff salaries and benefits while $20.4 million is for athlete scholarships.)

No, it’s also what appears to be spending for spending’s sake, as athletic departments do their best to spend what they make to keep up appearances — in facilities and coaching compensation and recruiting and, oh, I don’t know … how about some fireworks!

“It’s a somewhat zero-sum game,” Bowlsby insisted, inadvertently lighting the fuse of his own argument. “There’s only so much money out there. I don’t think that coaches and athletic directors are likely going to take pay cuts. I think that train’s left the station.”

So instead, they’d have you believe that what we’re left with — at least if you insist they start paying the railworkers a fair wage — is The Little Engine That Couldn’t.

Sorry, that still reads like a fairy tale to me.

john.niyo@detroitnews.com

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