Was the Gamecocks football program at the University of South Carolina really concerned about being accused of breaking the rules in its choice of the icing it put on cookie cakes given to recruits visiting the campus?

That happened, according to recent news reports. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is said to have a set of regulations prohibiting the customizing of gifts for recruits. But the organization, after spending some time looking into the USC case, apparently gave the all-clear.

Really? Really.

No wonder some of the powerhouse football schools have been talking about pulling out of the NCAA and forming their own association. College athletics are way too big a business to be slowed down by these kinds of minutiae.

Fast-forward a week, and the powerhouse conferences did sort of pull out of the NCAA as they had known it and formed their own deal. The “Power 5” leagues — including the ACC, the SEC, the Big Ten, Big 12 and PAC 12 — passed a resolution that allows them to essentially make new rules for those conferences over and outside the rest of the NCAA.

These include things like the ability to increase scholarship offers to four years instead of one-year renewals, pay additional money (stipends) on scholarships to cover the “full cost of college” (food money, gas money, laundry, etc), and provide improved health insurance for players.

Before you get your shorts in a wrinkle, these are likely to be all good things, as far as they go. Four-year scholarships won’t be offered to everyone. But for those who get them, it means they will get an education even if they get hurt, don’t play, and don’t figure in the long-term plans of the program.

Unknown is whether this will extend to nonrevenue sports or how it will impact Title IX requirements for leveling the playing field for women athletes.

Stipends aren’t a bad thing, at least in concept. Athletes work nearly full time during their season on their sport, plus going to classes and doing homework and reading assignments and meeting the exact same requirements for graduation as do other students. Well, at least most of them do. A 65-hour week is the norm.

I’ve argued that the college sports world is built on the backs of essentially free labor, and that’s not right when the laborers aren’t even allowed to hold a summer job because of the fear of abuse by boosters. It’s also not right that a business enterprise that generates revenue through its members of a reported $1 billion a year just in men’s basketball can’t find a way to give up a little walking-around money.

I know this is an issue, because I was a parent of a college athlete. I know what it took to keep him in school from a financial standpoint, over and above any scholarship money he received. I also have a good sense of the commitment it takes for a college athlete to get a degree. It’s hard, demanding well beyond what most people recognize. It is akin to four or five years of intense, year-round military training. If you can make it, there is a certain discipline instilled that most people lack.

Stipends would at least put a few dollars in their pockets for spending money, which they more than earn. Yes, the potential for abuse increases significantly, but television money long ago tore away the facade of pure amateur college sports, at least for the Power 5. And these athletic programs, at least, can afford it. There are 65 teams in the Power 5, and 57 of those football coaches make more than $2 million a year. The top earner, Nick Saban of Alabama, earns $7 million a year.

Yes, Saban is good and has to win to keep his job. The university’s president, Judy Bonner, has to perform too, and she made $535,000 in 2013. Not a bad living, but is Saban’s work is worth 13 times the value of the university president he works for? It surely shows something about our collective priorities.

Improved health insurance for players is a no-brainer. When my son dislocated his shoulder playing during his junior year, it was my insurance and out-of-pocket that paid for the MRIs and the treatment. There was rehab at the school once he was treated, but the medical expenses belonged to me, even though he got hurt in a college game.

And yes, this move will almost certainly further the divide between the haves and have-nots, but that split actually started about the time television started dictating college sports scheduling. Nick Saban makes over $4 million more than the total paid to all the coaches in the Sun Belt Conference, which includes Appalachian State.

Working the System

That doesn’t make Saban a bad guy; he’s just working the system. It’s all about television money, and eventually it’s about moving college football from free television to paid. Fans will either subscribe to a league’s network – which they are all in the process of building – or you will pay on a per game basis, similar to Netflix.

The long-term question is whether these broad changes and the creeping influence of TV will be good or bad for college sports going forward. We are a football-crazy tribe in the USA, but are conferences of 16 teams spread all over the country conducive to keeping fans engaged? Will they keep buying ever-more-expensive tickets? Will fans from Wake and State learn to love Louisville and Pitt, at the expense of giving up a 60-year rivalry with Duke and Carolina?

I think the leagues have overlooked the passion for that and overbooked on television, and in so doing, are moving past many of us in the gold rush. I, for one, drifted away after 50 years of passion, but I’m no longer in the desired 25-54 market that television advertising seeks to reach.

The move to give more autonomy to the biggest conferences and programs was bound to happen; television’s influence and its fountain of revenue dictated it. The college game as we know it may not even be recognizable in 10 years, given the move to more professionalized college sports.

Fans Don’t Pull for Leagues

I predict college players will eventually be paid just like pros, only at a reduced rate. One effect might be to keep bubble players from jumping early to the pro drafts. It would also lend more continuity to college team lineups, another problem in the One-and-Done Era.

Fans pull for players and for teams, not leagues. It’s hard to be passionate about a team if you don’t know who’s even on it from year to year. Someday the leagues will allow players who don’t do well in the draft to come back to college to play and finish their degree. The system is too punitive now.

To have a rivalry, you have to have teams and fans that don’t like each other. Otherwise, that made-for-TV match-up on the big screen TV is just another picture on the living room wall. Playing half the teams in a league every other year in football, and having your divisional teams located in faraway states, make it hard to create passion.

As evidence, the ACC football championship fills only about half of Panthers Stadium each December to determine its league champ. And there is less noise outside the arena for the ACC basketball tournament than I’ve never heard. I couldn’t give away tickets to the first day of the ACC tournament last year!

How’s that for passion?

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