As the leader of ESPN — one of the single most powerful entities in pop culture and the driving force behind how most Americans have received their sports fix in the last 30 years — John Skipper believes if there’s one thing that can still bring people together, it is sports.
“In a world in which much of what we’re interested in is fragmented, one of the few things people can talk about together is sports,” he said.
But Skipper, who was the featured guest Wednesday night during a Landon Lecture panel discussion at McCain Auditorium — joined by Kansas State University president Kirk Schulz, former Texas athletic director DeLoss Dodds and Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby — addressed many issues that have polarized and fragmented the sports world beyond the simplicity of who won the big game last weekend.
Moderated by K-State athletic director John Currie, the panel tackled the issues that surrounded conference realignment, one-and-done athletes, recruiting reform, unionization, the paying of college athletes and the state of the NCAA that has come under fire in recent months from a variety of fronts.
One thing is clear: The NCAA is changing. But will it be enough to save college athletics, as you know it?
“There are a lot of things that aren’t right and things we need to improve — things we’ve identified that we would like to pursue and haven’t been able to get the support within Division I in order to do that,” said Bowlsby, who took charge of the Big 12 in 2012 after a tumultuous conference realignment frenzy almost destroyed the conference.
Bowlsby has been one of the loudest critics of the current way the NCAA does business, saying it must make sweeping changes if the governing body is to survive.
That starts with the way the NCAA governs its member schools, more specifically the five power conferences — the Big 12, ACC, Big Ten, Pac-12 and the SEC — he said.
“Those 65 schools win more than 90 percent of the NCAA championships annually, we bring 95 percent of the financial equity to the environment,” Bowlsby said. “We bring a lot of value, and as a result we have some things that are important to us that may not be important or may not be attainable for the other 285 schools that are in Division I.
“It’s difficult to paint that environment with a broad brush, and that’s what we’ve sought to do, to legislate and manage college athletics based upon competitive equity, and I’m not sure that’s reasonable and that we are all the same.”
That said, Bowlsby wants stronger punishments for institutions and coaches who aren’t playing by the rules, citing that 80 percent of all NCAA violations take place at those five major conferences, because of the environment the NCAA has created.
“There’s an enormously competitive environment that is in play there, and not everybody is doing it the right way,” he said. “Our national organization, when it comes to enforcement, in my opinion, is virtually defenseless. Cheating pays, and it pays in significant ways for institutions and for coaches and coaching staffs…
“We ought to do things that call (the cheaters) out. I think we’ve started down that path with access to the postseason… and we need to have more of that. The rules need to be more responsive, more contemporaneous. We need to tie initial scholarships to graduation rates, and we need to do it in ways that don’t allow a coach to do a poor job, leave the campus, go to another place and make more money and do the same thing over again.
“In short, we need to put our money where our mouth is, and we haven’t always done that.”
Schulz, who is part of a seven-member steering committee to reform the NCAA, agreed and said there will be a proposal released in a couple weeks that will address many of Bowlsby’s concerns.
“It will address a lot of things, and represents a good, fair, honest effort to make some of the changes we need to make to keep this thing together and keep it rolling, while acknowledging that the way we did it the last 30 years isn’t the way we need to do it for the next 30,” said Schulz, who was appointed to the NCAA Executive Committee in 2013.
One thing all panelists agreed upon was that paying student athletes is not the solution.
“Paying the players would be one of those things where the unintended consequence, would be a worse cure than the disease,” said Skipper, who has been the president of ESPN Inc. and co-chair of Disney Media Networks since 2012.
“I’ve never seen a plan that would work for paying players,” he said. “Who are you going to pay? Are you going to pay the stars? Are you going to pay the walk-ons, the wrestlers, who are you going to pay? Are you going to pay based upon their importance, relative to licensing? Do you really want a system where Johnny Manziel makes $8 million and his teammates don’t make any money?”
Skipper said the recent decision by some Northwestern football players to unionize and talk of paying athletes is just “noise” in an otherwise solid environment for college sports and that the NCAA needs to reform itself before the courts and Congress get involved.
“Right now there’s all this noise in the environment about how unfair it is and we need to do something,” he said. “If you have that situation, you better fix something in a hurry before somebody you don’t want to fix it decides that they’re going to regulate it.
“It’s important for the institutions to get their own houses in order.”
Bowlsby echoed Skipper’s sentiment.
“I don’t know where it would ever stop if we once went down that path,” he said. “Somehow, kstateathletics.gov just doesn’t resonate.”
Bowlsby said student athletes do need a greater voice and more benefits in the modern athletics world we live in, but that at the end of the day, “We never want to lose track that we’re involved in higher education.”
“If we go down the path of creating an employee-employer relationship with our students, we will have forever lost our way,” he added.
Schulz acknowledged the high demands put on student athletes, which requires a full-time commitment both in the classroom and on the field or court, but he said what is lost in the pay-for-play debate is the value of an education.
“If you look at the average debt load when an undergraduate student comes out, $25,000, and then when folks are talking about paying players, it’s like the scholarship they get for four years, there are an awful lot of families out there that would love to have the opportunity to have their son or daughter to be able to come to a school and graduate debt-free,” he said.
Schulz recently was quoted in a national interview saying a four-year scholarship at K-State would be valued at $175,000 — a figure that includes the cost of meals, tutoring and other services provided by the university.
“We have great expectations for student athletes, so it’s not free, but I think that’s missing from the conversation — the value of a scholarship at some great universities that will lead them out to a great career,” Schulz said.
“We’re going to work your tail off for four years, and you’re going to reap the benefits for 40 years,” Bowlsby added.
Dodds, who is from Riley County and served as the K-State AD and track coach before joining Texas, said institutions do a poor job selling themselves and what they do for student-athletes.
“We did some research on this and found that if a youngster’s scholarship for four years is $100,000, we probably put on top of that another $150,000 to $200,000 in tutoring, mentoring, training room and all the things we do for that student,” he said.
“We need to sell that, that we’re doing a better job with the kids than what the public maybe sees that we’re doing.”