In an empty hotel ballroom in late May, Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany told a gathering of reporters that conference officials had just discussed the idea of covering student-athletes' true cost of attendance. At the time, his remarks didn't gain a lot of attention, as issues like the Big Ten championship game site and future scheduling took precedence.
But when ESPN.com published Delany's comments, plus those from Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith, the following afternoon, what Delany calls a "tsunami of opinion" took off. The Big Ten tossed around an idea that had been pursued by late NCAA president Myles Brand and current NCAA chief Mark Emmert. Delany says his league is not pushing some radical change or suggesting the end of amateurism in college sports.
"It's just part of a very broad-ranging discussion about how we could re-establish a system that is a little more about student-athlete welfare rather than a level playing field," he told ESPN.com last month. "It's just whether or not the grant-in-aid could include all of the elements of the cost of education, all of the elements as defined by the government of going to school. No more."
Just about everyone has an opinion on the subject. The Big Ten hasn't formally endorsed the issue or proposed any rule changes yet. But many in the league see it as an idea whose time has come -- at least to be talked about.
"My personal belief is we should be doing a better job of providing student-athletes with the resources necessary associated with the cost of education," Michigan athletic director Dave Brandon said. "How do we make sure when we sign a kid to come to Michigan and compete and represent our university and provide them with a scholarship, that the nature of that scholarship is such that it doesn't create need for them to reach deep into their pockets and pay for things that should be paid for by the scholarship?"
Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald supports the idea in theory but questions its implementation. Like many others, he wonders how it would impact not just football and men's basketball, but the non-revenue sports as well. Federal statistics say the average gap between a so-called full scholarship and the true cost of attending a university is about $3,000 per student. That could cost schools millions per year if all scholarship athletes are covered.
"We have to figure out what our priorities are," Fitzgerald said. "If our priorities are to be paying bills for excess -- i.e. cell phones, video games, phones. If it's travel back and forth to home. I've always been a big believer that a scholarship should pay at least for a trip home whenever their scheduled vacation periods are. That's why the cost of attendance makes a little bit more sense."
Big Ten power Ohio State is reeling from an NCAA investigation that was sparked by a handful of players selling and trading memorabilia for a few hundred bucks. While no one can say whether those players would have done the same thing if they had an extra $3,000 per year, Brandon says the gap in cost of attendance "opens up the door for negative things."
"It's a vacuum that can be filled by people and agents and boosters who frankly can take advantage of the fact that these young people are in a situation where they require resources for their education that they can't fund on their own," he said. "We should be coming up with ways to mitigate that risk."
Penn State assistant coach Jay Paterno, however, seriously doubts whether a cost of attendance stipend would reduce NCAA violations.
"Right now it seems like a lot of schools are under investigation for recruiting violations or getting paid for autographs, whatever the case may be," Paterno said. "Every time we have one of these cycles, there seems to be a movement in everybody's minds that we ought to go pay student-athletes and that will take care of it. But human nature is such that if all of a sudden you're getting $3,000 stipends, somebody is going to want more than that. I'm not against it, but it's not a cure all."
The Big Ten rakes in millions of dollars in revenue from its football TV contract. The league distributed more than $20 million to each school last year, fueled in part by the success of the Big Ten Network. That leads many to ask if the players should share in some of that windfall.
But Paterno argues athletes are already getting more value from their scholarships than most people realize.
"If they can graduate college with zero student loans, they're far ahead of the curve," Paterno said. "There are [regular] students who are working at McDonald's and busing tables and all that. The average student at Penn State graduates with $27,000 in debt. So society in general is not going to look at a student-athlete's deal and say, 'They're getting a bum rap.'"
Fitzgerald adds that each case must be viewed separately. And despite the year-round demands placed on college football players, employment opportunities can be pursued, especially in the spring and summer.
"I've got some guys that will visit with me and our director of player development and say, 'Listen, times have gotten a little tougher at home. I need to get a job that's going to help pay some bills that my folks were able to help me with before,'" Fitzgerald said. "And we go get them a job that might pay a little more and they might have to be more involved and they might not be able to go to summer school."
The debate is far from settled. The Big Ten will likely continue to take a leading role in wherever this is heading.
"I don't see it as a stand-alone; I see it as part of a dozen to a half-dozen reform-related issues," Delany said. "The good news is we're having this discussion, both publicly and internally."