Jim Delany sat down with Dave Revsine to talk about the commissioner testifying in the O’Bannon trial last Friday in California. The interview aired Tuesday night on BTN. Watch the interview here and read the full transcript in this post.
Revsine: There has been so much attention on the O’Bannon trial going on out in California, you testified in that trial on Friday, give us a sense of what the biggest points you were trying to convey during that trial were.
Delany: Well basically I was trying to be responsive to the questions that were presented by the NCAA Counsel, as well as, O’Bannon Counsel – so I was on the stand for about an hour and ten minutes and 55 minutes or so for cross examination. I think the key areas based on my 25 years here and forty years in intercollegiate athletics is that they wanted to know my opinion on various things, they wanted to know how the Big Ten worked, they wanted to talk a little bit about the job justifications for the restraints that we have in regards to scholarships and what are the reasons for having those, how do they create better competition, how do they allow for more colleges to participate-to provide more educational opportunities, so that was one thing. Why do you have these rules? What are the consequences of having them and what would be some of the consequences if there were no rules? Or if some of the rules were eliminated? That was one strain that was discussed pretty deeply.
The other one is -How is college different from professional? Why are you different than professional? What is the history of that? So, how is the educational experience being a full-time student, pursuing a degree, how is that integral to the intercollegiate system, as say compared with the NFL or NBA. So there was a lot of focus on those two areas and then there were a lot of hypotheticals – What if this? What if that? And those are conjecture, you know, those are opinion. But I think that the feeling was by the judge and attorneys based on 25 years here and 15 in other parts of intercollegiate athletics, that I had a basis at least to apply it.
Revsine: Let’s get to the news of the day today, which is the Big Ten is issuing a statement, kind of articulating its thoughts on the collegiate model right now and maybe what it should be going forward. And I think there is an important distinction to make here that it’s not the conference office necessarily that is issuing this statement as much as it is all of the presidents, all 14 in collaboration. Why do you think that distinction is important?
Delany: Well it is important because the Big Ten is governed by a Board of Directors. The Board of Directors is made up of both the chancellors and the presidents of the 14 campuses. I work for them; they set general policy for the conference. Obviously these issues have been issues of the day since 2009, when O’Bannon first filed his lawsuit. It’s sort of morphed and changed as there have been a variety of other lawsuits that have been filed in the last three or four months. So I feel that our presidents have felt like it’s important for them to make a statement of priority in terms of inter-relationship between athletics and education, number one. Number two, they wanted a statement they could all sign onto, not a statement without one or two of them, and then they chose to make themselves available to the media for comments and questions about that. So I think it is important, I’m an executive, I work for them and with a lot of others. I have my opinions based on my experience and what I think they believe, but I think this is a statement of belief that is collective in nature, and on which many of them are willing to step up and take responsibility for.
Revsine: Take them through your points made last summer about what collegiate model should be.
Delany: Well, as you recall, most of the major conferences had their football summer media meetings and there is a lot of discussion about restructuring NCAA. My point was if we are going to restructure NCAA we need a substantive agenda. So I identified a four point plan and some people are coalescing around it, some people are not. But basically we need to change the definition of the scholarship from room/board fees and tuition to the total cost of education which is a federal definition that institutions put a dollar figure around. Number two, that we would work hard for the at-risk student, so that if we are going to provide opportunity and access for the at-risk student, that they are surrounded by the academic support that is necessary going forward. I also talked about a life-time trust for completion of the undergrad degree. Some students interrupt their four years for professional interest; some of them get disinterested in college, for one reason or another – start exploring other avenues. But I want our commitment to be such that any of those individuals could come back on our dime to finish their degree. I think the commitment we have to them ought to include that. And we also talked a good a bit about the health and safety issues, providing adequate insurance and protection not only from the playing rules perspective but also from the perspective of insurance. So we are trying to move through restructuring the treatment of the athlete from 1975 or 80 into the 21st century and I’m hopeful that we can do that. You’ll note that our presidents at their June meeting spoke to a number of these issues coming out of that meeting in response to some questions posed by the PAC-12 presidents and I think their statement today reinforces those in even more specific detail.
Revsine: How can you get there?
Delany: I think we have to get there. These are things we have control over. We will know in August whether or not the NCAA has granted the autonomy, flexibility to the 65 institutions who have asked for that. I’m reasonably optimistic we will get that restructuring and then I think we will set out a sprint to address these issues during the fall of 2014. Hopefully we will have a vote in early 2015 and we will be able to deliver on this reform agenda. I think that generally everybody is supportive; the devil is often in the details, but I think there is a lot of momentum to not only change the outcome for 21st century student athletes, but also impact the narrative.
Revsine: Where is the end game in your opinion on these cases?
Delany: Great, Great Question because there is a lot of activity, the waters are pretty choppy as they say. So the first is the restructuring and reform, we have control over that, we need to deliver. Citizens, whether they’re student citizens or any other citizens – have access to our courts if they think they have a grievance. Likewise, we have responsibility and an obligation to defend ourselves if we think we are right on the law and right on the principle. In many of these cases we feel strongly about that. So they will be litigated, we will get great defense, and we will move them through the court system. My guess is that is a three to five year process of litigation. Where it is appropriate to settle or compromise, we will. Where it is inappropriate, we will not. And so those will make their way through the courts and I would say that will be a three to four year process, maybe a little longer. Ultimately, these are not issues of constitutional law, there are statutory issues-the labor laws of America-the Title IX laws of America-the Antitrust laws of America-I believe the American public appreciates higher education, appreciates intercollegiate athletics. This is my hope, that if we can move the needle in terms of the reform agenda, we will get to the sweet spot-where we really for the 21st century bring in athletics and academics in a more coherent way. And that If we are not successful in the courts- that congress or in-state capitals will help us restructure the basic understanding. I don’t think people want colleges to be semi-professional or part of an official NFL Minor League. We have developed into that, we were playing sports 50 years before the NBA or the NFL, so there is no doubt about it that we have developed into that for some extent. But we need to rebalance the equation not only for the student-athlete but also for the appropriate balance between academics and athletics.
Revsine: How do you define amateurism at the collegiate level?
Delany: You know, I think that there are a range of definitions, I don’t think that there is any single definition. You know, in our communities you have amateur-what I call community competition. It could be little league, it could be pony league, it could be AAU basketball. Then you have another level which is pretty rigorous competition for outstanding tennis players and golfers. And you know you are limited to really the cost of the expenses of that competition. And then you have collegiate or high school competition, where there is this integration of athletics and academics and for me and I think for the Big Ten, historically it’s been about paying for the cost of going to college and anything above the cost of going to the college and the costs and expenses associated with college would be pay for play, in one form or another. So I think that is our line, we think we can go up to the cost of education, beyond that it’s something else and it’s not to say that I’m not involved in commerce because I am. I sell television rights, I do bowl deals-for what reason? To develop resources for educational opportunities for the 9,000 plus, men and women who are pursuing degrees, full-time students, and playing intercollegiate athletics in the Big Ten.
Revsine: Can you see the Big Ten operating in an environment where, depending on how these court cases come out, where players are paid for name, image, and likeness or where there is something above and beyond the full cost of attendance?
Delany: You know we have been together since 1896 and we have added members and lost the University of Chicago in the early 40’s because they wanted to do it another way- they are still involved in the academic consortium of CIC. My view would be that is a local decision so that the board of trustees at Northwestern would have to grapple with that question – the board of trustees at the University of Michigan-that won’t be made in Rosemont or Park Ridge, that would be something for each institution to grapple with. I will say this though, if different institutions come up with different answers to that question, I think it would put untenable kinds of strains on being a conference. It is hard for me to imagine that one institution would decide to pay for players whether its name, image, and likeness or a pay for play in a broader sense. Another institution would decide that that is not where its future or destiny is. That those two institutions could adequately figure out how to live together under a conference umbrella. So, I wouldn’t tell you how those conversations would all play out, but what I would tell you is for a single conference to have institutions on different wavelengths on those interests, I think makes it untenable. I would also tell you that if one conference plays another conference in a major bowl game or in a major challenge competition, I can’t see how that competition could be sustained if one set of institutions was paying players and another chose not to. I simply think that that would unwind the basic structure that we have in our non-conference competition, in our NCAA competition, and even in our conference competition- if there is not a basic template for an understanding on how you’re conducting that competition, I think that competition fails for a lack of common values, common understanding for what the rules of the game are.
Revsine: For those who are not interested in going to college, do you think that football or basketball needs to develop minor leagues that are separate now from the collegiate system?
Delany: Well let’s put it this way, in some sports they have them. In baseball, people can choose to go play baseball professionally out of high school, in some cases that can be done in hockey-obviously young people can move right from high school or college into tennis or golf, lacrosse.
Revsine: Football and basketball are the exceptions.
Delany: They are the exceptions, and those exceptions grow out of agreements between labor unions and ownership that preclude those individuals from going forward. I could guess why that occurs-if I were running a major league sports team and I saw the training and the excellence that plays out on the college campus, I would maybe restrain people from going forward as well. So I think choice is the right thing. I think the more we have of it, the better off we are-whether you’re 18, or whether you’re 22, or whether you’re 32. So my view would be-I wish there was more opportunity there that’s not something that we have any control or influence over. Some systems I think, play better for stability, other systems play better for the individual. I think that on-balance, more opportunity for the student would give us a chance to be more who we are. To me, the more collegiate we are, the more sustainable we are. The more we have the elements or the look of minor leagues, the less sustainable we are and also I think the more trouble we will have in sustaining it over time.
Revsine: Is this a case in legislating for the exceptions, rather than the rule. I mean it seems like there is a lot of focus on the big money, on the athletes who are generating a lot of money for the university. I think the truth of the matter is…there is a few number of athletes in the Big Ten in which this applies…has the discussion kind of gotten off base because of those exceptions?
Delany: You know I think to some extent it has. I think the best way to think about this from our perspective is we think that intercollegiate athletics should be available to as many people as we have the resources to support. We think they should be full-time students and we think that the academic experience and the interest of pursuing a degree should carry more weight than the athletic experience. Now it’s not to say that there aren’t individuals who define themselves as more athlete than student. To be honest with you when I was in school, if you said who are you- I would say I’m an athlete, there’s nothing wrong with that-I was a full-time student, I was pursuing a degree. I think a lot of people in performance arts-and I view athletics as a performance art in many ways. If I ask you if you are studying the violin or the piano-Are you a student or are you a musician? Are you an actress if you’re in performance arts or are you a student? You’re going to say I’m an actor – that’s at the core of what athletes are. In particular, the way America culture has changed about athletics and the youth area, it’s been dramatic in the last 25 years. Kids are being asked to specialize at pre-adolescent, hundred games, coaches are saying- line up with me and play my sport. Well, we get them at 18 and this has been going on for six or seven years. One doctor told me the overuse injury is as much a challenge as some of the concussive injuries that we are seeing. So I would say that there’s nothing wrong, we’re living in a culture of specialization and competition. But we have to make sure as we make our rules and create a system, that there is many opportunities as we can that they are as academically oriented, but recognizing that people love to play, and we need to have a series of regulations that allow both to happen in a comfortable way.