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Delany’s Comments Show Hard Questions Not Being Asked

Jim Delany’s comments at the Big Ten headquarters were described by George Schroeder as a “dramatic expansion” of the theme of more autonomy for the largest schools. But his comments mostly included more of the limited results that the major conferences are seeking out of NCAA governance changes. The substantive changes to the rules are limited to cost-of-attendance scholarships and increased incidental benefits for athletes, not a dramatic rethinking of the amateur model.

Delany addressed that by pointing athletes to alternate paths:

“If (athletes are) not comfortable on campus and they want to monetize, then let the minor leagues flourish,” he said. “Or go to IMG. Train at IMG. Get agents to invest in your body, get agents to invest in your likeness, and establish it on your own. But don’t come here and say you want to be paid $25,000 or $50,000. Go to the (NBA) D-League and get it. Go to the NBA and get it. Go to the NFL and get it. Don’t ask us to change what we’re doing, because we think there are a lot of good things to preserve.”

Except Delany then shoots himself in the foot at the start of the next quote:

“I think what we offer to most kids is superior to what a minor-league experience would be,” he said.

Delany is stating this as an empirical state, trying to come to calculation of which is better, a minor league or college athletics. And he is likely correct. When athletes have a real choice between college athletics and turning professional by entering a minor league system, it is surprising what athletes will turn down to play in college (see: MLB draft).

But at the end of the article, Delany shows he has not thought about the more important normative question:

“Why is it our job to be minor leagues for professional sports?”

Given his early comment about college athletics being a superior experience, I would throw that question right back and Jim Delany and ask whether higher education ought to try and compete with professional minor leagues in the first place.

I agree with part of Delany’s sentiment here. The NCAA does not exist in a vacuum. Its issues are caused by the larger system of how we develop professional and Olympic athletes while causing other issues in that system at the same time. “Fixing” the NCAA while not addressing the other levels or involving the other players threatens to simply shift the problems onto someone else without actually solving anything.

But so much of Delany’s statement shows the exact opposite and equally flawed mindset. From the comment about providing a better experience than minor leagues to preserving the good things college athletics does and the fantastically ill-advised “do what we’ve been doing for 100 years” line, the message is clear: we might need to tweak some things, but we’re not the real problem … they’re the ones you should be mad at.

This is just one press conference, but nowhere does Delany make the case for keeping the NCAA the way it is. His argument seems to be that there are alternatives to major reform of college athletics. He then fails to address the question if college football and basketball are no longer having the role of de facto minor league thrust upon them, is the current way of doing things still appropriate? Delany talks about a mixture of entertainment and education but nowhere does he explain why the current balance is the right one, or would continue to be given the changes he is proposing.

I could go on and on pointing out my disagreements, but this quote from Delany is perhaps the most telling:

“But we can’t make that case,” he said, “unless we do everything we should do to define a fair package that fits for the 21st Century.”

That case, that universities should be allowed to operate their athletic departments more or less as they have for a century, is tied too closely to whether the package is fair to separate the two. All Delany has done is identified one part of the deal that needs improvement. It appears he is disclaiming a need to evaluate how that piece fits with the other pieces or whether the basic bargain is fair in the first place.

photo credit: pennstatenews cc

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