LOUISVILLE, Ky. (WDRB) -- This is a long, dry discussion. It is weighed down by numbers -- big ones -- and even drier, perhaps, a touch of senate committee testimony. But it is a necessary discussion. The problem is too complex, but also too important, not to tear into some detail that might shed light on where things stand.
If the writing is on the wall that NCAA athletes, in some way shape or form, are due a larger percentage of the college sports revenues that they help to generate, then a number of questions are raised.
In due time, some of these questions will be answered in the courts. Will college athletes get the right to collectively bargain? Will they be judged to have a stake in the commercial products the NCAA is selling, including television air-time and team gear? These are moving targets.
But the questions that remain once they are resolved, if the landscape continues to shift in its current direction, leave an over-arching question: How much should the athletes get?
Certainly, changes already under way in response to outcry over outdated NCAA rules and shortcomings in the system will raise the percentage that athletes receive in the coming years. The NCAA lifting restrictions on food will make a difference. NCAA president Mark Emmert's recent promise to Congress that the organization will devote more time and resources to medical care, even care after the playing careers of athletes have ended, will mean more money.
I've long called for a uniform system of accounting to be imposed on all NCAA athletic departments. Frankly, just getting at the amount of money spent directly on athletes is a difficult thing.
Yet that's what I have tried to do with a couple of local universities, because it illustrates some of the complexities of these questions, and some of the injustices of the situation. It also illustrates that depending on how you look at it, athletes are getting close to what they likely deserve, or not nearly enough.
HOW MUCH SHOULD ATHLETES GET?
In American professional sports, athletes have collectively bargained in their most recent deals for revenue splits between 45 and 50 percent with professional sports leagues. It's unlikely that even if given the right to collectively bargain, college athletes could claim such a high percentage.
But even if college athletes could demand a third of all revenues, how would that compare with what they get now?
At the University of Louisville, for instance, during the 2012-13 season, the department generated about $89.4 million in actual revenue (not counting depreciation and a few other items that don't represent actual dollars coming into the department).
How much of that went straight to athletes? That's tough to get at. The NCAA doesn't require that kind of reporting in its most detailed assessment. Making an effort to get at that amount -- and to have its member universities make it public -- would seem a necessary step for NCAA accountants.
Universities, as NCAA rules stand now, can reward athletes in four basic ways: Student aid (tuition, room and board, etc), team travel, equipment and medical care and insurance. That's not a perfect measure. Some team travel is devoted to coaches. Equipment is a gray area, but surely there are some dollars outside of these areas that go to athletes. (The pay of tutors and academic advisers and academic support staff being one, but these aren't listed separately in NCAA reports). At any rate, these are the numbers we have. They are imperfect, but I'm only looking to show larger principles.
So at U of L, taking those four areas, out of $89.4 million in revenue, direct spending on athletes comes to $19.1 million, or 21.4 percent. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that given extra benefits which look like they're on the way, full-cost scholarships and increased medical care, U of L athletes could realize close to a third of athletic department revenue very soon.
At the University of Kentucky, from a revenue of $95,720,724, athletes drew a comparable percentage, 21.2 percent. And it's quite likely at both schools that the actual total, once everything is said and done, is a bit higher than that.
Compare those with these percentages: At U of L, administrative and support salaries account for 16.6 percent and coaches salaries account for 20.4 percent. At UK, administrative salaries and benefits draw 13.5 percent of the revenue and coaches salaries account for 20.1 percent.
THE MARQUEE SPORTS
So what's the problem? If athletes are generally getting close to a quarter of the athletic revenue already, why is there such a clamor for them to get more? Even in the most extreme scenario -- if they were given the right to collectively bargain -- they likely wouldn't end up with dramatically different benefits.
The problem comes when you start to bore into the two money-making sports on most campuses -- men's basketball and football.
For all intents and purposes, when you hear the talking heads discussing college sports and compensation, these are the only two sports that exist. Period.
UK demonstrates an interesting phenomenon here. UK basketball, in 2012-13, generated $23.2 million in revenue. Of that, men's basketball players, in aid, travel, equipment and medical care, received only 7.6 percent, $1.78 million. Their head coach, John Calipari, took home 27 percent of that revenue all by himself ($6.27 million) and the combined salary of the coaching and support staff chewed up 36 percent of the program's revenue. A raise for Calipari will only skew these numbers more. (This is a major reason you can expect UK's arena situation to change one way or another before too long. There's too much untapped revenue potential in its basketball program.)
This is where injustice begins to creep into the equation. The relatively few players who play a key role in generating that basketball revenue have a legitimate question: How is one man (the coach) worth so much more than the entire team? How can the assistant coaches and support staff receive more than the players?
UK football has a more standard breakdown. Of the $30.5 million in revenue, players receive through aid, travel, equipment and medical care 16.2 percent, or just under $5 million. (Even this, however, reveals a head-scratching injustice. The departed coaching staff received more in severance payments -- $3.9 million -- than players did in athletic aid -- $3.1 million). UK's football coaching staff received 15.8 percent of their program's revenues in salary and benefits.
U of L's numbers in the signature sports are just as enlightening.
Men's basketball generated a nation's best $42.4 million in revenue. The players, however, received only 4.7 percent of that in the various benefits we're measuring here. Head coach Rick Pitino got 7.8 percent of that revenue ($3.3 million) and the entire coaching and support staff for men's basketball received 12.5 percent of that.
Football at U of L generated $28.07 million. Players received about 19 percent of that. Coaches and support staff took home 30.5 percent.
ARE ALL ATHLETES CREATED EQUAL?
One thing that will have to be settled upon in these discussions is whether, when we're talking about college sports, we mean all athletes at a university, regardless of sport, or we're just talking about the two major money-making sports.
This was precisely the question Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire posed when NCAA president Mark Emmert and others were questioned this week by the Senate Commerce Committee.
After nearly three hours of questioning, Ayotte asked, "If we start down the road of a compensation model, what will happen to the athletes in those sports who are not in the sports where you can sell all the jerseys? And I think about Title IX and women's sports, and suddenly this becomes an employee-employer model, what does that do for women's sports if they are not revenue generating and how do we sustain them? ... It's a big question."
The first to respond was Dr. Richard Southall, Associate Professor in the Department of Sport and Entertainment Management and director of the College Sport Research Institute at the University of South Carolina.
"It's not a zero-sum game," he answered. "If some athletes are profit athletes who have a higher market value than the cost of their grant-in-aid, then we should treat them differently from those athletes who are not profit athletes. ... If they're employees as the NLRB found, then we should treat them as employees. . . . It's not an either-or. . . . The sky will not, in fact, fall. Denying profit athletes just compensation in the market does not preclude colleges and universities from supporting athletics as an educational opportunity. If they're employees they should have all the rights of employees. Title IX does not apply in an employee setting."
Beside him, former Temple athletic director William Bradshaw took a different view.
"I certainly would like to hear that model that works," he said. "I believe it's going to be devastating for all those athletes, including women, who do not produce revenue, who aren't seen as athletes or students who create that revenue. As we all know, those who can afford to pay for that will, and those who can't, won't."
THE ONLY WORKABLE SOLUTION
The more I listen to these arguments and look at the numbers, the more I think only one clear solution exists: To allow those elite athletes who are driving merchandise sales and who play in those high-profile sports that generate big money to make money outside of their scholarships based on their talent and notoriety.
Let them sell their autographs. Give them a cut of their merchandise sales if they pass a certain threshold.
Beyond the enhancements to the basic scholarships that the NCAA is already making, some of which will alleviate many of the problems student-athletes now say rank among their most worrisome, set up a means by which these elite athletes can make additional money on their own, within guidelines set by the NCAA and monitored sufficiently.
The NCAA's membership can agree on the amounts and rules. But this is the only fair way, which also leaves college sports as they now exist fairly well intact.
The NCAA, of course, has only itself to blame for all this. It was too intractable for too long. Had it truly been watching out for the welfare of its students, these conditions wouldn't exist today. Now instead of dictating terms, the NCAA will do whatever the courts and the government direct it to do.
Not that government is the answer. Jay Rockefeller, senator from West Virginia, went after Emmert on the subject of conference realignment. He noted that some lower and middle income fans in West Virginia couldn't see their Mountaineers play on the road in the Big 12 Conference, and asked if that situation was fair.
Emmert said he wasn't pleased with all the realignment moves. But Emmert has no power to tell a university what it can or can't do.
Do you know who did have the power? Rockefeller. He interceded on WVU's behalf with the Big 12, celebrated its acceptance, and became angry when it was delayed while the Big 12 examined the candidacy of Louisville. The only man in that room with the power to have stopped WVU's move to the Big 12 was Rockefeller. But he instead cheered it on, and worked to make it happen.
Such is the lure of big-time college sports. Even senators can get drawn in.
Don't expect government to help anyone in this particular mess.
Sitting quietly through the latter stages of the hearing, Taylor Branch, whose piece in the Atlantic Monthly poured gasoline on a fire already building with regard to how NCAA athletes are treated, said that if change is going to come, he doesn't see it coming from the most powerful schools in the NCAA, those who belong to the so-called "big five" conferences.
"Big schools," he said, "won’t do anything more than be driven by the market."
NCAA leaders and college presidents must decide whether they will deal with athletes as a collective group -- all 465,000 of them, through all sports -- or whether the five percent who generate much of the revenue will somehow be their own collective.
But keep this in mind -- the money has to come from somewhere. If the five percent gets a substantial chunk of the revenue it generates, something will have to give.
And right now in college sports, there's plenty of school spirit, but it's not a spirit of giving.