Jim Delany's Pay for Play Threat May Be Empty, but That Doesn't Make Him Wrong

Alex SimsCorrespondent IIIApril 4, 2013

July 26, 2012; Chicago, IL, USA; Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany speaks during the Big Ten media day at the McCormick Place Convention Center. Mandatory Credit: Reid Compton-USA TODAY Sports
Reid Compton-USA TODAY Sports

Talk is cheap, but the prospect of paying athletes isn’t.

Jim Delany, the verbose commissioner of the Big Ten Conference knows this. He also knows that the outcome of Ed O’Bannon’s class-action lawsuit against the NCAA could completely redefine Division I collegiate athletics as we know them.

That is why, in mid-March, Delany made a declaration in support of the NCAA’s case (via Andy Staples of Sports Illustrated). In the declaration, he essentially stated that the Big Ten would take it’s ball and go play elsewhere, rather than abide by the pay-for-play structure that could come as a result of the O’Bannon lawsuit (Via SI.com):

“…if current NCAA rules prohibiting student-athletes from being paid for playing in college sports did not exist, I do not believe…that The Big Ten would participate in a 50/50 revenue-sharing or any other “pay for play” model with student-athletes. Rather, it has been my longstanding belief that The Big Ten’s schools would forgo those revenues in those circumstances and instead take steps to downsize the scope, breadth and activity of their athletic programs.”

Delany went on to identify the Division III model as a possibility for the conference, claiming that the D-III need-based financial model would be more aligned with the Big Ten’s philosophy regarding student-athletes.

In all likelihood, Delany is simply blowing smoke—using his position atop one of the major collegiate athletics conferences as posturing on the side of the NCAA in this lawsuit. Even Big 12 Conference commissioner Bob Bowlsby deemed his statement “a little bit overcooked” when he talked about the issue with Ian Fitzsimmons on the air on ESPN Radio in Dallas.

However, even if the juicy red center has been cooked out of Delany’s statement, much of his declaration had to be said.

O’Bannon—who played basketball for the UCLA Bruins in the early 1990s—didn’t see his professional career pan out after winning the national title at UCLA in 1995. Now working for a car dealership in Las Vegas, O’Bannon has decided come back to take a slice of the ever-growing NCAA pie.

O’Bannon and the many other former collegiate athletes represented in this lawsuit believe that monetary slice is owed to them, and it’s easy to see why. The NCAA, conferences, broadcasting companies, video game companies and athletic apparel companies are all reaping the commercial benefits of collegiate athletics, while the actual athletes are compensated with a college degree.

However, Delany—a former basketball player at North Carolina—understands very well what supporters of pay-for-play fail to see. He understands the idea of amateurism, but more importantly, he has an idea of what would happen to collegiate athletics if the NCAA was to implement any kind of pay-for-play or revenue sharing model.

Delany is far from the only voice in the fight against the pay-for-play uprising. Bowlsby, Pac-12 Conference commissioner Larry Scott and Texas athletic directors DeLoss Dodds and Christine Plonsky all filed declarations along with the Big Ten boss, but none of them brought the same gusto that Delany did.

When Delany climbed atop his soapbox and made his declaration, he had no choice but to make it count. So he made his statement that if pushed, the Big Ten would push back.

Was it a bit outlandish and excessive? Perhaps, but it was certainly necessary from the Big Ten’s perspective.

Only 22 NCAA member institutions currently operate in the black, while the vast majority of their peers operate at a deficit (via USA Today).  How can schools pay athletes with money they don’t have?

Athletic departments that have already been forced to cut programs would be saddled with yet another expense, likely leading to even more cuts, particularly in non-revenue sports. Currently, more than 82 percent of all athletic department revenue comes solely from football and basketball programs—a total that eclipses $4 billion across all of Division 1-A (via U.S. Department of Education).

At some individual institutions, that percentage is even higher. So, what will happen to less lucrative programs like women’s soccer and wrestling if schools start paying football players?

It’s hard, even for the likes of Delany, to predict exactly what will happen to the NCAA landscape if pay-for-play is implemented. So instead of waiting, he knocked down the first hypothetical domino himself.

And while it may just be posturing move, it made people talk. It made writers like Andy Staples fire up their laptops and publish, which will make the college sports fans think.

What if the NCAA loses its lawsuit? What if student-athletes have to be paid by their schools? Would that really prevent boosters from offering a little extra cash for good performances?

What if a conference as influential as the Big Ten does deemphasize athletics?  

Other conferences and institutions could certainly follow suit.

Title IX even further complicates the situation, as Delany pointed out in his declaration. While Title IX is excellent in creating opportunities for female student-athletes, its guidelines would be increasingly difficult to follow under a pay-for-play model that brings favor to football and men’s basketball programs.

So whether Delany’s threat is valid or not, some institutions may have no choice but to deemphasize athletics under a pay-for-play model.

If nothing else, many baseball, softball, field hockey, rifle, wrestling and other programs will be cut as a result—meaning less opportunities for student-athletes of both genders—all because guys like O’Bannon are sour about their “likeness” being used in a video game.

As the commissioner of a conference that will make money either way, Delany could still be bluffing.

But whether he’s serious or not, there’s no doubt that he’s using this declaration to help paint a picture of what could happen if the NCAA loses this lawsuit.

We can sit around and label Delany a prickly old man, but that doesn’t make him wrong.