Big Ten scholarship proposal bad for hoops

By now, you've probably heard a lot about the Big Ten's big proposal, which it announced at the league's spring meetings last week.

In case you're out of the loop, let's review. Last week, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delaney discussed a somewhat novel plan. In addition to the current scholarship figures, the Big Ten's proposal could allow schools to restructure scholarships to include more money -- anywhere from $2,000 to $5,000 -- on top of current scholarships cover athlete expenses outside of room and board: things like transportation, clothing and the like.

The proposal appears to address one of the fundamental complaints about college sports -- that college athletes stuck in the strict world of amateurism and who receive nothing more than a scholarship are essentially toiling in poverty while generating huge amounts of revenue for their universities, conferences and cash cows like the Big Ten Network. Moreover, the idea comes with the backing of new NCAA President Mark Emmert and was favored by former NCAA president Myles Brand.

None of these facts make it a particularly good idea for college hoops.

First, more explanation, via ESPN.com's intrepid Big Ten college football blogger Adam Rittenberg, who discussed some of the finer points of the proposal with Chad Hawley, the Big Ten associate commissioner for compliance. There are at least three key takeaways from Chad and Adam's conversation.

  1. The scholarship structures would work the same for athletes of all sports -- revenue-producing and non. As Adam writes, "A women's soccer goalie would have the same scholarship structure as a quarterback."

  2. The proposal wouldn't create a mandate. Rather, it would let schools choose whether or not they can afford to add the structural scholarship increases, similar to schools who choose not to use their maximum allotment of scholarships in any given year.

  3. This one is the most important, so I'm just going to quote it (bold emphasis is mine): "Hawley said the proposal had been brewing for a bit but wasn't brought up in a league-wide forum until the spring meetings last week in Chicago. The discussion hasn't reached a phase in which every school evaluates its ability to restructure scholarships in this way. 'The reality is it would cost more money,' Hawley said. 'There's certainly a presumption that institutions with more resources would be able to do it.'"

That presumption exists for good reason: Because Delaney basically said as much at the Big Ten meetings. To wit (and again, bold type is mine):

"How do we get back more toward the collegiate model and a regulatory system that is based more on student-athlete welfare than it is on a level playing field, where everything is about a cost issue and whether or not everybody can afford to do everything everybody else can do?" Delany asked.

It doesn't get much more obvious than that. The Big Ten -- which, thanks to its television network, just so happens to be the richest conference in the country -- wants to create the ability to give athletes more money within the federal limits on financial aid. But it doesn't want to mandate the rule. Nor has it "reached a phase" where it can verify that most schools around the country can afford to add that financial burden to their respectively tightened budgets.

Nor is there some plan to distribute money throughout the NCAA to make the system equitable. After all, outside the major conferences -- and even at times within them -- there aren't too many programs capable of giving women's soccer players, and every other athlete on campus, an extra $5,000 a year.

If you were a particularly cynical person, you might wonder if the Big Ten was just as interested in securing a competitive advantage as it is with the welfare of student athletes. You know. If you were cynical.

That might work in the Football Bowl Subdivision, a 120-team system that already excludes non-power conference teams with soul-crushing regularity. It won't work in college hoops. College hoops has 345 teams. Many of them can barely afford existence as it is. Lots of these teams require guarantee games (read: guaranteed losses) at high-major arenas just to keep the bus fueled for next season.

Still, despite all that financial inequality, college basketball manages to be as talent-diffuse as at any time in the sport's history. Mid-majors are no stranger to the second and even third weeks of the NCAA tournament. Smaller programs find ways to exist just outside the power conference system. Teams without considerable football revenue -- the Gonzagas and Xaviers and Butlers of the world -- can still become national programs with the right combination of intelligence, management savvy and luck.

Can all of those schools afford to bake in a $5,000 boost to scholarship structure? No. High-majors can. You can see the endgame coming a mile away; Basketball Prospectus's John Gasaway sums it up as such:

If the Big Ten wants players in its revenue sports to have “full cost of attendance” scholarships, the league has the resources to make it happen. [...] But creating these new dollarships, while merely cementing existing imbalances in college football recruiting in place, would revolutionize college basketball recruiting overnight. The elite high school football player already chooses between programs that can afford full cost of attendance scholarships. Not so the top high school basketball talent. In a sport where TV exposure and NCAA bids are spread (relatively) far and wide, talent currently has far less incentive to travel in packs. That will change, dramatically, when major-conference programs can offer recruits a better financial package than what mid-majors are able to afford.

Raise your hand if that sounds like a good thing for college basketball. Anyone? I didn't think so.

Again, the idea is valid on its face. Plenty of student-athletes, stuck in the strict financial limbo that is amateurism, need -- or, at the very least, deserve -- more than what they get from their scholarships at present. The idea of boosting those scholarships to include some walking-around money isn't inherently bad. It won't corrupt college sports. This isn't "pay-for-play," and criticisms to that effect are inaccurate.

But if the concern is really student-welfare, there are other ways to go about this, including and up to what John calls a "funding mechanism" -- basically, a big pool of money -- to be spread evenly throughout the FBS conferences to pay for these scholarships at every school. (Or, you know, the NCAA could let athletes take loans or sponsorships or any of the other things Olympic athletes have done for years without ruining the "purity" of the Games.)

But that's not what the Big Ten wants to do. Instead, the conference's proposal would make college hoops -- which overcomes its have vs. have-nots dynamic through sheer force of quantity -- even more stratified and static. The unique opportunities available at small basketball-first schools -- the intimate atmosphere, the close guidance, the hyperlocalized fan base, the runs to the NCAA tournament -- would face yet another recruiting hurdle. Talent at those schools would dwindle even further. An essential quality in the game would be lost.

If that sounds overdramatic, well, maybe it is. But here's the bottom line: If the Big Ten and the NCAA care about helping money programs gain yet another competitive advantage, this is a dandy idea. But if they care, as they say, about "student-athlete welfare" -- well, they can do a whole lot better than this.

Figuring out players' finances should be a major priority. The idea itself is a step in the right direction. But "torpedoing college hoops as we know it" shouldn't have to come as a standard feature.