HOUSTON -- The NCAA's new president is adamant that, on his watch, there'll be no straying from college athletics' most time-honored tenet: "It's grossly unacceptable and inappropriate to pay players ... converting them from students to employees," Mark Emmert said.
But as the NCAA basketball tournament's Final Four gathers in Houston this week - capping a three-week showcase that generates more than $771 million a year in television rights alone - Emmert acknowledges it's time for a serious discussion about whether and how to spread a little more of the largesse to those doing the playing and sweating.
"The sooner, the better," Emmert said.
He's not thinking big. Maybe bump up the value of players' scholarships by a few thousand dollars to take care of travel, laundry and other typical college expenses that aren't covered now. And Emmert isn't promising anything, only that he'll bring it up at the NCAA's board meetings in April.
"I will make clear that I want this to be a subject we explore," he said.
He has plenty of company.
In an era of spiraling rights fees, sold-out luxury suites, full-speed marketing and an ever-growing roster of multimillion-dollar coaches, there are calls - from inside college athletics and out - to find ways for athletes to share in the proceeds of their sports' popularity. Some proposals arguably would bend the NCAA's amateur ideal by, among other things, allowing them to cash in on endorsements or profit from the use of their likenesses in video games, perhaps directing the money to trust funds that couldn't be tapped until they were out of school.
If change doesn't come voluntarily, legal analysts say, the courts eventually may require it. The NCAA has long argued that its strict no-pay standard is necessary to preserve the line between college and professional sports. But have college sports become so commercial that they've already blurred the distinction?
"It puts intercollegiate athletics in a precarious position," former NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey said, "when you see the money and the kind of salaries you see now and the only group in the system that hasn't received any additional funding is at the student-athlete level."
At North Carolina, Hall of Fame basketball coach Roy Williams questions why athletic scholarships can't measure up to top academic awards, such as UNC's Morehead-Cain scholarship, that take care of a recipient's travel, computers and other incidental extras. He lobbies in particular for players in the revenue-producing sports of football and men's basketball.
"Human nature, is those kids are saying, 'Look at all this money we're bringing in. And I have to beg, borrow and steal to get an extra meal?'" Williams said.
The what-to-give-players debate has percolated from the time the NCAA was formed in 1906. The current guideline - scholarships covering room, board, books and tuition - was set in the 1950s, though today's athletes also can draw modest amounts from special assistance funds set up by the governing body.
Most everywhere else, the evolution of college athletics has been striking. The money, especially.
Football's Bowl Championship Series is coming off the first season of a $125 million-a-year TV deal. Dwarfing that, the NCAA put the basketball tournament out to bid and last June landed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner Sports.
Throw in conferences' TV packages, including the Southeastern Conference's whopping 15-year, $2.5 billion arrangement with ESPN. Fans are spinning turnstiles in expanded stadiums and arenas, including the 77,000 or so expected for Saturday's and Monday's Final Four games in Houston's Reliant Stadium. Schools' marketing and multimedia rights go for tens of millions of dollars to IMG and other companies.
Annual athletics revenue reaches into nine figures at a growing number of schools, topped by Texas and fellow football powers Alabama and Ohio State. Sizable amounts are trickling down to coaches. Rick Pitino, whose basketball team flamed out in the first round of the NCAA tournament, is being paid $7.5 million at Louisville this year, including a $3.6 million bonus simply for staying put for three seasons. At least five others in Division I basketball, including Duke's Mike Krzyzewski and Kansas' Bill Self, are guaranteed more than $3 million.
'A certain level of resentment'
This is a time of year that underscores the players' essential role in all that capitalism.
Two Sunday nights ago, standout sophomore Derrick Williams hit a dramatic, stumbling drive to the basket in the closing seconds of Arizona's NCAA tournament game against Texas, tying the score. With the crowd roaring in Tulsa's BOK Center, he stepped to the foul line and added the free throw that beat the Longhorns and lifted the Wildcats into the Sweet 16.
Such moments are the lifeblood of the tournament, and they carry well-defined financial stakes. Williams' decisive foul shot was worth more than $1.4 million for Arizona and its Pacific 10 Conference co-members - the amount they'll pocket for each game the Wildcats play in the tournament during the next six years under the NCAA's revenue-sharing plan. With another win over defending champion Duke five nights later, Arizona earned another $1 million-plus.
"It may create a certain level of resentment in athletes," said Pittsburgh basketball player Gilbert Brown, a senior and the third-leading scorer on a team that won the Big East Conference's regular-season championship. "You put yourself on the line for the success of the program, and it really is sometimes only benefiting one side instead of the person that's going out there."
Senior All-American Nolan Smith said: "It's definitely a conversation in the locker room. ... We feel like we've paid our dues. We bring a lot into the university, and we might want to see a little more."
The NCAA's Emmert argues that the payoff is not as one-sided as some portray. Athletic scholarships cover a median $27,923 in costs each year at the 120 schools in the top football-playing Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). Beyond that, players get equipment and apparel, complimentary game admissions for family and friends, tutoring and other academic support, among other things.
In trying to assess the full value of a Division I men's basketball scholarship, USA TODAY also folded in benefits such as coaching, media exposure and impact on future earnings. Its calculation: a worth of at least $120,000 a year.
Even so, on average, a grant-in-aid's face value falls nearly $3,000 beneath the full cost of attending college, counting a trip home or two, laundry money and other incidentals. And Emmert says the new basketball and BCS contracts offer a chance to examine what else athletes can be offered.
"There are those who see student-athletes as incredibly privileged in that they have access to all that support. And then there are those who see them as exploited," he said. "The truth is obviously somewhere in between. It really depends on which end of the telescope you're looking through."
'We've got to do something'
Emmert's predecessor at the NCAA, the late Myles Brand, also floated the notion of full-coverage scholarships when he took office in 2003, and member schools quickly talked him down. Their issue: The spigot of TV and other revenue is open only for football and basketball, and often must subsidize at least a dozen more men's and women's sports.
Because of that, money actually is tight in most athletics programs. In fiscal 2009, only 14 of the 120 FBS schools were operating their overall programs in the black.
Giving 85 scholarship football players an extra $3,000 would cost $255,000 annually. Spreading it across all athletes in all sports - Stanford counts 475 scholarship athletes, Ohio State has 448 in 30-plus sports - could take $1 million or more a year and lead some cash-strapped schools to pare teams.
Though it almost certainly would draw resistance from women's sports advocates and others, there is some sentiment to narrow any additional aid to football and men's basketball, the sports in which the competitive and financial stakes, pressures and rewards are highest.
"The hardest thing for our association to do is treat those kids differently," Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith said. "But you know what? Their lives are different. They're different than the field hockey athlete. They're different than the swimmer. They're under different pressures."
He acknowledges concerns about Title IX, the federal law that mandates equal opportunities for women, but says, "It needs to be explored. ... We've got to do something."
It's a matter of fairness, he said.
Dempsey, who was athletics director at Arizona before running the NCAA from 1993-2002, agrees. "The rationale is, 'We don't have the money,' " he said. "Well, that's not the problem. It's how we spend the money."
The NCAA's powerful first CEO, Walter Byers, was more deeply critical in a book he wrote eight years into his retirement in 1995 that he titled Unsportsmanlike Conduct. (Intensely private, he declined an interview request last month.) It repudiated much of what Byers was instrumental in building during his 36 years with the association, railing at what he saw as the exploitation of college athletes and maintaining that "the major hope for reform lies outside the collegiate structure."
Wrote Byers, "What the colleges will not do voluntarily should be done for them."
Indeed, the U.S. Justice Department is now poking into one area, examining the NCAA's stipulation that scholarships be awarded year-to-year rather than guaranteed over an athlete's career. It's also looking into the limit of five years that an athlete can receive scholarship money.
But a more likely agent of change appears to be the courts.
The NCAA already has settled a class-action lawsuit that targeted its rule limiting scholarship coverage to room, board, books and tuition. Among other things, it agreed to widen athletes' access to special assistance funds available from the association on a case-by-case basis. The money can be used for such things as computers and other educational necessities, medical expenses and emergency travel.
The NCAA has earmarked nearly $60 million in such funds this year, carved out of an overall $757 million budget. Another $22.5 million is set aside for academic enhancement, buttressing schools' academic support programs.
Eyes currently are on an array of lawsuits filed and moving jointly through federal court in California. One, fronted by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon, challenges the use of athletes' images and likenesses in commercials, video games and elsewhere once they've left college. Another, in which former Arizona State and Nebraska football player Sam Keller is the principal plaintiff, specifically targets video games that carry unidentified but easily recognizable images of players. Both claim the players should be sharing in revenue generated by such products.
"Those cases are not directly about current players being paid by the NCAA," said Vermont Law School professor Michael McCann, who specializes in sports and antitrust law. "But clearly, they're about that topic in an indirect way."
Jon King, lead attorney for the players in the O'Bannon suit, says the case could "drill into the value of a scholarship vs. the revenue generated" and "whether there is a disparity, at least today, that didn't exist 30 years ago."
Since 1984, the NCAA has drawn legal strength from a notation by U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens in a landmark case involving football television rights. Control was stripped from the NCAA, but the court said in its decision that the association was entitled to other restrictive power to maintain the college game's difference from pro sports.
Stevens wrote that "in order to preserve the character and quality of the 'product,' athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like."
But what does "character" mean in today's environment?
If a player and some savvy lawyer were to challenge the NCAA on, say, the limits on compensation, "I can see some liberal judge, a federal judge someplace, ruling in favor (of the athlete) ... someone who is a pure academic and would feel intercollegiate athletics is a tail that's wagging the dog," said Dick Schultz, who succeeded Byers as NCAA executive director and ran the association from 1988-93. "I think every year that goes by, it becomes less of a long shot."
He added, "If I were at the NCAA, I would be preparing for it, hoping it would never happen. But I would have a plan to deal with it."
For some, simply lifting scholarship values to meet all the costs of college attendance isn't enough. Ohio State's Smith also wants to beef up the NCAA's athlete assistance fund and expand its uses - raising the cap for clothing, allowing players to tap it for gas money or to furnish an apartment or simply go out.
Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football linebacker who now advocates athletes' rights as head of the California-based National College Players Association, wants to allow players to cash in on their commercial value. Let them do endorsements, he says.
"It doesn't cost the NCAA or the schools one dime," he said "And it doesn't jeopardize amateurism. It's not pay-for-play."
But would even that be enough?
"One estimate is that a top-flight (Division I) basketball player, somebody like (North Carolina freshman) Harrison Barnes or (Duke freshman) Kyrie Irving, is probably worth about $300,000," said Paul Haagen, a law professor at Duke and co-director of the university's Center for Sports Law and Policy. He's talking about market value if they were to get paid.
"I don't know what it would be for football players," Haagen said. "But if you're talking that kind of money, I don't see any way to solve the problem. It's not going to go away if you're just giving them a sweater or an extra plane trip or spending money.
"Unless you're paying something like a market rate, all of the pressures are still there."