Column: NCAA moves highlight need for real reform

TIM DAHLBERG - AP Sports Columnist
Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson, center left, sing the school fight song with defensive tackle Mike Martin, center right, and teammates after an NCAA college football game against Purdue, Saturday, Oct. 29, 2011, in Ann Arbor. Michigan won 36-14. (AP Photo/Tony Ding)

To hear the people at the NCAA talk, the vote this week to allow students an extra $2,000 in scholarship money while also getting tougher on grades is the biggest change in college sports since they began making football players wear helmets.

"These changes demonstrate a remarkable resolve by presidents," crowed NCAA President Mark Emmert. "They represent a return to and a focus on values that are at the core of what intercollegiate athletics are all about. They also represent a clear signal to the world about what we care about and what we stand for."

On the last part, Emmert is at least close to being correct. The NCAA does care a lot about money, and it at least pays lip service to the crazy notion that athletes should be students first.

Unfortunately, the reality doesn't match the rhetoric. A few more bucks in an athlete's pocket is a good thing, yes, and everyone wants to see kids who go to college actually graduate from college.

Take a look at what was accomplished at the Division I Board of Directors meeting in Indianapolis, though, and it falls short of real reform. Always will, until there is a plan in place to limit the influence of those who really control major college sports.

That would be the television networks that pour tens of millions of dollars into college football and basketball rights, as well as the big conferences and schools that profit from their largesse. They've staked out positions that not only create uneven playing fields among schools but summarily exclude many from even reaching for their piece of the pie.

Improved academic standards won't change that, especially with talk already about allowing exceptions in the first year of rules requiring that teams graduate more players. University of Connecticut basketball coach Jim Calhoun said Friday that he hoped his school — which won the national title last season — would receive a break and not be declared ineligible for the 2013 postseason because of miserable graduation rates.

Paying players $2,000 a year won't do much, either. Although it might give athletes pocket money for a Saturday night date, it's little more than a bone thrown in their direction by a system that exploits them at every opportunity.

Worst of all, the payments threaten to create a whole new problem: They likely will increase the disparity between the haves and have-nots in college sports — a gap that already has schools engaged in a dizzying dance for positions in realigned conferences so that they don't get left behind.

The big schools — such as Ohio State, which brings in more than $100 million a year through athletics — will be able to give everyone on full scholarship their $2,000 without giving it a second thought. But schools with tight budgets — and just 22 of 120 schools in the top tier of football operated their athletic departments in the black in 2009-2010 — will have to scrape to find a way to pay what could easily be an additional, say, $500,000 a year or so.

Many won't be able to do it. And that will leave them at even more of a disadvantage when it comes to trying to compete with their richer siblings.

Assuming all other things are equal would any potential recruit give up $2,000 a year in easy cash to sign with a school that doesn't offer it?

There is a solution to the problem. Instead of having schools give money to athletes, why not take a percentage from every new television contract — the $3 billion pact the Pac-12 inked recently would be a prime candidate — and put it into a fund to pay them? Use the money to give $2,000 a year to every Division 1 athlete on full scholarship, whether it's a star quarterback or an unknown on the women's rowing team.

Want them to go to class, too? Pay a little extra for good grades and toss in a bonus for graduating.

The money is there, thanks to the football and basketball players who provide all those hours of televised entertainment for nothing more than books and board. Despite Emmert's recent claims that "this is not the NFL, the NBA, it's not a business," the many millions pouring into the big schools and big programs are all the evidence needed to prove him wrong.

If the NCAA is serious about reform it must do more than hand out spending money to athletes and threaten sanctions that may never come for poor academic performance. Either take steps to regulate what has indeed become a big business or drop the façade.

Until then, real reform can never happen.

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Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg(at)ap.org or at http://twitter.com/timdahlberg