There are a variety of reasons why the idea of providing college athletes with a yearly stipend -- or a "cost of attendance scholarship," whichever you prefer -- is fundamentally intractable.
As NCAA President Mark Emmert acknowledged to us at the NCAA tournament this spring, it isn't as easy as Emmert snapping his fingers and making a new rule, no matter how vocal he might be. The NCAA is a big, bureaucratic organization with 330-plus Division I members alone. Those members vote. They can block measures -- which is exactly what happened when the NCAA attempted to move on a $2,000 cost-of-attendance scholarship rule last January. Emmert has vocally supported the stipend rule, and has remained steadfast that it will eventually become codified NCAA law, but as long as 161 of 355 members are concerned about upsetting competitive balance among less-monied conferences and schools, it won't move forward.
And yet, it almost feels inevitable. Why? For precisely the reasons Bill Self described to the Kansas City Star Monday night:
“I used to be totally against it,” Self told The Star. “I used to be totally against doing anything other than room, board, books, tuition and fees. But I’ve changed. And the landscape has changed also. It was always big business; now it’s huge business.
“And when you’re sending players from the West Coast to East Coast to play sports, to miss more classes, and the schools benefit from that financially, why shouldn’t the people that are responsible for the business, and that would be the student athletes.”
I haven't taken a formal survey, but from what I can tell, Self's view is symbolic of where most sports fans stand on the issue right now. In the past two years, we've seen the NCAA sign a $14 billion NCAA tournament TV rights contract. We've seen leagues draw huge revenues from their own TV rights, both from rights deals and from their own upstart cable networks. We've seen schools realign on a near-constant basis, with little regard for geography or traditional rivalries, followed by frequent we're-just-doing-what's-best-for-our-bottom-line laments. We've ended up with a world in which San Diego State is soon to be a member of the Big East.
The NCAA doesn't control all, or even half of, these trends. They have come about as part of the landscape's natural evolution. But it is impossible to view this constant evolution -- driven almost entirely by money -- and not be somewhat offended by the idea that the very athletes generating all that revenue can't get an extra $170 a month for gas and pizza. Emmert realizes this. The wheels are in motion.
Again, there are reasons why it will be difficult. If you give $2,000 to football players, you have to provide it to water polo players and rowers and soccer players, and the same mid-majors that voted against the stipend are rightfully concerned about their athletics budgets' abilities to take on that kind of expense. They don't have Big Ten Network money rolling in, after all.
But even so, everyone in college athletics will eventually have come along for the ride. Or, let's hope so, anyway. A feeling of inevitability isn't the same as the genuine article. But despite its initial defeat, a stipend does feel like a matter of when, not if -- and the sooner the better.