Blair Kerkhoff

Former NCAA leader Walter Byers saw college sports’ future too late

Annual business meetings wrapped up late last week for the major conferences, and the financial numbers were staggering.

The Southeastern Conference will distribute a minimum of $31.2 million to each school. The Big 12 will pay out $23-27 million to each member, and all of those schools make additional sums based on media rights they retain.

The additional income will be required for power five conference schools as they enter the world of full cost of attendance. Starting with the 2015-16 school year, athletes will receive additional money for the costs of attending college, above the traditional tuition, room, board, books and fees. At some schools, that will be as much as $5,000 per athlete during the school year.

College sports is entering a new world of benefits for athletes, one that could become even more lucrative if sports labor lawyer Jeffrey Kessler, who seeks to create an open market for college sports, wins his lawsuit against the NCAA. Kessler is pushing the NCAA to do away with all limitations when it comes to paying athletes and allowing schools to decide how much it wants to pay athletes.

It left me wondering if this is where Walter Byers believed the NCAA was headed. The guess is yes, not only because he understood the media rights value in college sports’ popularity, but he later believed colleges were wrong in denying athletes a piece of the revenue they were generating with their sweat.

Byers was the NCAA’s first executive director and was among the most powerful and influential people in sports during his 36-year reign.

Under Byers, who died at his Emmett, Kan., home last week at age 93, the NCAA from its offices in Kansas City and Johnson County grew in two critical ways, and Byers hit on both in the third sentence of Chapter 1 of his book, Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes.

“I was charged with the dual mission of keeping intercollegiate sports clean while generating millions of dollars each year as income for the colleges,” he wrote.

In the next paragraph, Byers said the NCAA was “barely adequate” on investigation/enforcement and “enormously successful” at the Cha-Ching.

That was written two decades ago. The NCAA is on its fourth full-time director since Byers’ retirement in 1988, and the same perception exists.

Byers negotiated television rights for the NCAA’s college football packages, and the money poured in. Schools won a Supreme Court decision in 1984 to control their own appearances and income, and they found strength in conference membership.

When the SEC, Big Ten and others expanded, realigned and negotiated their own TV deals, the power in college sports shifted from the NCAA to the leagues.

That power assumed a greater identity earlier this year when the five richest conferences were granted governing autonomy. They can make their own rules, like providing cost of attendance.

Schools outside the power five have had to pick their spots in trying to keep up. For instance, Missouri Valley Conference members will offer cost of attendance to its men’s and women’s basketball players, and for some schools the benefits stop with those sports.

Byers advocated these changes and others two decades ago. After retiring, he said players should be allowed to hold jobs, consult with agents, be provided long-term insurance coverage and have more freedom in transferring.

Sadly for Byers, he had been out of his job for several years when offering the suggestions. He wasn’t heard. Nothing came of them. Had Byers reached similar conclusions during his tenure and acted as an agent of change, perhaps the college sports model would have evolved sooner.

Maybe schools and athletes could have agreed on compensation for likeness and image instead of the athletes having to win a decision in court. Or athletes wouldn’t have felt compelled to unionize and bargain collectively, as a court ruled for Northwestern football players.

College sports are dealing with these issues today, as Byers believed they eventually would. From his book: “Whereas the NCAA defends its policies in the name of amateurism and level playing fields, they actually are a device to divert the money elsewhere.”

But because of a foundation laid by Byers, there’s money to pay the athletes. It was going to happen sooner or later.