The push for better care for football and men's basketball players, whether through collective bargaining or antitrust lawsuits, is the landmark issue facing college athletics.
It's not that the NCAA's membership—or, at least, a portion of the membership—is unwilling to yield on certain demands, like covering the full cost of attendance. It's that the membership hasn't figured out how to do it yet. That's a big reason why legislation for extra stipends has sat on the drafting table for the better part of three years.
More than anything, the sheer size and bureaucracy of the membership is the roadblock. Unwilling to wait any longer for change, athletes have understandably started to take matters into their own hands.
Alicia Jessop of RulingSports.com tweeted an interesting, albeit impermissible, alternative solution to the full cost of attendance debate. According to NBA commissioner Adam Silver, the league would be willing to help fund additional stipends to cover the full cost of attendance:
Adam Silver who proposes raising the minimum NBA entry age now says the NBA may consider help fund full cost of attendance scholarships.— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) April 10, 2014
Here's the problem with Adam Silver's suggestion that the NBA fund full cost of attendance scholarships: The NCAA doesn't allow it.— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) April 10, 2014
The idea is novel, but obviously not allowable as it stands.
But what if it was? What if, down the line, the NCAA said that if the NBA is willing to pay, it's willing to allow it? To take it a step further, what if the NFL made a similar offer?
Of all pro leagues, the NFL is the biggest benefactor of the collegiate system. College football essentially acts as a development league for the pros without any actual ties. Yet the NFL's organizations reap the benefits all the same while remaining the most lucrative sport in the world, according to Forbes.com.
Bigwigs in college athletics aren't ignorant to that fact. Speaking with media during the NCAA men's basketball Final Four, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby called the NBA and NFL "irresponsible" for the status quo. Via Chuck Carlton of The Dallas Morning News:
I really think the NFL and NBA have been irresponsible in not providing other legitimate opportunities for kids that really don’t want to go to college. I think that’s really where the rubber hits the road. There ought to be some other feeder system than the ones that kids get forced into as a result of the profile of our programs.
Of course, folks like Bowlsby can complain all they want. The NCAA and its membership have no control over the matter. Furthermore, the NCAA has contributed to the problem by allowing football and men's basketball to become multibillion-dollar enterprises while lumping it with nonrevenue sports.
It's hard to justify that model when athletes still have to apply for additional money, like Pell Grants, to cover all expenses. According to Jon Solomon of al.com, college athletes "at the eight public Division I universities in Alabama received a combined $4.8 million in Pell Grant aid during 2012-13."
Among the seven Alabama universities that provided Pell Grant information by sport, football players totaled $2.1 million and accounted for half of all athletes' need-based aid. Roughly a quarter of the Division I athletes in Alabama are football players.
John Infante, an expert in NCAA compliance and author of The Bylaw Blog, said Pell Grants are only useful as a debate tool to answer the "starving artist" argument of whether athletes have enough money to eat. The aid, he said, doesn't answer claims that players should share in revenue they produce. Nor do Pell Grants end the debate of whether tying compensation to a scholarship is fair, or whether athletes legally can collectively bargain.
The scope of the athlete compensation debate is huge, but this is solely a conversation about covering the full cost of attendance. If the NFL—or any entity—wrote the paycheck necessary to cover all athlete expenses, Jessop believes there wouldn't have been a unionization push to begin with.
The DI ADs I've talked to & I agree that if the NCAA approved full cost of attendance scholarships there'd be no unionization attempt.— Alicia Jessop (@RulingSports) April 10, 2014
That may be true, but the platform for unionizing also includes scholarship protection and better health benefits, among other things. It's possible there would still be a push for collective bargaining even if the full cost of attendance was awarded.
That would be a great place to start. On the off chance that the NCAA would allow it, the NFL absolutely should open its checkbook.
But like most major enterprises, anything the NFL doesn't explicitly have to do, it probably won't. More likely, a new NCAA governance structure would pave the way for richer conferences to provide benefits to some of the demands made by athletes.
Still, it seems like the least the league could do.
Ben Kercheval is a lead writer for college football at Bleacher Report. All quotes cited unless obtained firsthand.