It’s a game of thrones by folks with powerful arsenals that could change the landscape of college athletics.
In the midst of the building fireball, there is the question of what amateurism means in the modern culture.
Mike Slive, Southeastern Conference commissioner, fired a warning shot last week by saying the so-called Power 5 conferences (SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and Atlantic Coast) are going to get what they want as far as governing autonomy or they’ll take their balls and equipment and create another structure separate from the NCAA and do their own thing.
Slive talked about the overall picture.
Monday, Bob Bowlsby, Big 12 commissioner, took a direct shot at rules enforcement, boldly claiming at Big 12 Media Days that "cheating pays." He fell short of saying cheating was rampant but said NCAA enforcement is broken.
"We certainly are operating in a strange environment in that we have lawsuits," he said. "Plus we have the (O’Bannon v. NCAA) lawsuit (concerning payment to athletes for use of images and names). I think all of that in the end will cause programs to be eliminated. I think you’ll see men’s Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pipe. I think there may be tension among and between sports on campus and institutions that have different resources. It’s really unknown what the outcomes will be."
Mike Gundy, football coach at Oklahoma State, said some schools are operating on a "catch me if you can philosophy."
Jim Delaney, Big Ten commissioner, said NCAA enforcement is now overmatched and that going seriously after cheaters is like going after howitzers with BB guns.
It raises the question of whether the traditional NCAA structure is the best model for the future, especially in the elite levels — for what Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson classifies as the "High Resource 5" conferences.
Tom Burnett, Southland Conference commissioner, had a different moniker.
"The ‘other five’ conferences have always been the ‘other five.’ There is no confusing the two. The big five have the resources to do what they want."
The SEC stands to gain about $600 million just from its own network. The major conferences intend to toss a few more bucks and perks at the athletes, who play a major role for image, ticket and merchandise sales, alumni support and likenesses on video games. Coaching salaries at the bigtime level — half a million at least for coordinators — are at an all-time high.
Will athletes be satisfied with some extra perks and try to unionize?
Will the IRS define athletes as employees of the university and tax accordingly?
The major perks are directed to football and basketball, the only college sports that generate major revenue. Most athletes in what is now termed the "Olympic sports" (the politically correct name for minor or non-revenue sports) are not on full scholarship, to whom most of the proposed new perks are directed.
It is estimated that for the average institution to have an unlimited training table (bottomless meals and snacks) would cost an extra $1 million a year. Budgets are finite. Something will likely have to give and some fear that could result in severe cuts for many non-revenue sports.
And 85 percent of United States Olympians are produced and trained through collegiate athletics.
That raises both fairness and gender equality issues.
"It is hard to justify paying student-athletes in football and men’s basketball and not recognizing the significant effort that swimmers and wrestlers and lacrosse players and track athletes all put in," Bowlsby said. "Football and basketball players don’t work any harder than anybody else; they just happen to have the blessing of an adoring public who is willing to pay for the tickets and willing to buy the products on television that come with the high visibility.
"We have both a legal obligation and a moral obligation to do for female student-athletes and male Olympic sports athletes just exactly what we do for football and basketball student-athletes. I don’t think it’s even debatable."
Ironically, the subject is a prime topic of debate throughout college athletics, with some schools trying to flex their muscles and others attempting to live within their means and staying out of the line of fire.
Alabama’s Nick Saban, who currently has one of the most loyal of thrones in college athletics has said, "We need to keep the college model the college model. They’re amateurs."
Saban’s contract for coaching amateurs is $6.5 million a year.
"The big five are going to get a lot of what they want," Burnett said. "When it comes to recruiting and transfer rules, we’ll have to see how that stakes out ... I don’t think the sky is falling, so there is no need for panic."
So where is the line (and where will it eventually be) concerning collegiate amateurs, collegiate semi-pros and pros?
It will likely depend on the kingdom.
(Sports columnist David McCollum can be reached at 501-505-1235 or firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on twitter @dmaclcd)