Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby made his thoughts on the possibility of paying student-athletes abundantly clear Wednesday at a public lecture on Kansas State’s campus.
“If college sports enters an employer, employee relationship, we will have forever lost our way,” Bowlsby said while sharing a stage with ESPN president John Skipper, former Texas athletics director DeLoss Dodds and K-State president Kirk Schulz.
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That topic, along with many others, was discussed at length in a two-hour forum on college athletics in front of a large crowd at McCain Auditorium. The Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board recently issued a groundbreaking ruling in support of Northwestern football players that are attempting to unionize, making it a hot-button issue at many universities.
“I disagree with the characterization,” Bowlsby said. “I don’t think student athletes are employees. I don’t think they should be characterized that way. I don’t think that is what higher education is about. I think it would forever change what Americans have come to love.
“Having said that, there are a number of other stages in the process. Northwestern and the union folks will go through that process. I expect that it will end up in court at some point.”
Skipper agreed. As president of ESPN, he has worked closely with college athletics for years and has influence on the sports and conferences his network partners with.
He said he hated the idea of one-and-done basketball players and promoted the idea of “four-and-done.” In his mind, paying college players would disconnect fans from college athletics. He also thinks it is impractical.
“I’ve never seen a system that works for paying players,” Skipper said. “Who are you going to pay? You really want a system where Johnny Manziel makes $8 million and his teammates don’t make anything? They need to put a system in place that feels fair.”
Bowlsby and Schulz are both working toward other reform. They each pointed out that student-athletes benefit from scholarships and leave college debt free, a big advantage compared with traditional students who pay their own way.
They also stressed that traditional students often envy the college experience of student-athletes. They think those factors can often get lost in the conversation.
Bowlsby said he is focused on other areas of NCAA reform, including revamping the way coaches recruit — he thinks the current system ignores social media — and the way the NCAA uncovers wrongdoing.
“Our national organization, when it comes to enforcement, is in my opinion virtually defenseless,” Bowlsby said. “Cheating pays.”
Later, he added: “We never want to lose track of the fact that we are involved in higher education.”
Schulz said university leaders from across the nation will present a proposal in the coming weeks that should solve some of those problems. Will it be a perfect solution? No, but he expects it to create progress.
“The way we did it for the last 30 years isn’t the way we should do it for the next 30 years,” Schulz said.
The one area he is most focused on: Creating autonomy for the five major conferences.
“We want to make sure we can make some of our own rules and put things in place that we think are important for our student athletes,” Schulz said. “That’s the fundamental thing we are aiming for.”