Big Ten looks at more pay for athletes

CHICAGO -- The Big Ten is flush with money thanks to its lucrative TV contract and other sources. During the league's spring meetings this week, conference officials discussed whether some of that cash should go into athletes' pockets to cover the full, real cost of their education.

And if that gives the Big Ten a clear advantage over other conferences that aren't as rich? Some league administrators feel that's the way it should be.

An athletic scholarship pays for tuition, fees, room and board and books. But it doesn't cover such items as transportation, clothing and other living expenses -- the so-called full cost of attendance. Studies have suggested that there's a gap of about $3,000 per player between the scholarship allotment and the cost of attendance.

There have been calls to close that gap. In 2003, former NCAA president Myles Brand publicly favored a proposal to use men's basketball tournament funds to give athletes more pay. Current NCAA boss Mark Emmert has come out in support of the same idea and brought the issue up at the NCAA's April board meeting.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said his league talked about such a model this week in Chicago.

"Forty years ago, you had a scholarship plus $15 a month laundry money," Delany said. "Today, you have the same scholarship, but not with the $15 laundry money.

"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?"

It's that line about "level playing field" that might make some other schools and leagues nervous.

Thanks to the Big Ten Network and other deals, league schools are reportedly raking in $20-22 million each in TV revenue. So it's not a stretch to think they could pay an extra $3,000 per athlete. If the Big Ten limited that to 85 football and 13 men's basketball scholarship players, it works out to an extra $294,000 per year. The cost would be significantly higher to do it for all scholarship athletes -- Ohio State, for example, has more than 400 varsity athletes on campus and the Big Ten as a whole has 9,500 -- but it still would be financially feasible.

"The reality is that schools can afford it more than you realize," Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith said. "Just look at some of the television contracts that have come out recently."

That's fine for the Big Ten, SEC, Pac-12 and perhaps even the other BCS AQ leagues and Notre Dame. But what about the MACs and Sun Belts of the world? How much more of a disadvantage would they face if they could offer $3,000 less to recruits? That takes us back to Delany's level-playing field quote.

"There are some conferences and some institutions that have higher resources than others," Delany said. "I don't know if there would be any interest around the country for that."

But maybe it's time, as Smith suggested, to fully embrace the notion of haves vs. have-nots at the FBS level. A former athletic director at Eastern Michigan, Smith knows what it's like to try and chase the big boys from the mid-major world. He said he advised his coaches and players there not to worry about Michigan and Michigan State but to focus on beating Akron, Kent and Toledo. At a place like Ohio State, he said, the stakes are simply higher.

"The reality is, if there's cost of attendance and you can't afford it, don't do it," Smith said. "The teams you're trying to beat can't do it either. Don't do it because Ohio State's doing it. That's one of the things schools at that level get trapped into thinking."

It almost sounds as if Smith is suggesting a split between the AQ teams and the rest of the FBS.

"That's a logical thought," he said, "but I don't know about that. That's higher education at a different level than me. But we have to begin to recognize that we are diverse in our membership."

None of this is imminent. Delany said that while the proposition of extra scholarship money was seriously discussed within the Palmer House Hilton conference rooms this week, "there's a long way between the talk and the action." But he added that the Big Ten is interested in talking to other conferences about the idea.

The Big Ten has a lot of money. There are worse places those funds could go than toward athletes' living expenses. The ramifications of that idea, however, could lead to radical changes in college sports.