‘Chaos,’’ Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany said.
That was his short answer to what he thought would occur if big-time college football were unionized.
He spoke candidly after a formal talk at the City Club of Chicago on Thursday. The ongoing effort by Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter to have what Division-I football players do declared labor was the main topic.
Amateurs are what D-I players are now called. Or, in NCAA speak, student-athletes. Colter wants them to be called workers.
His testimony at a recently ended National Labor Relations Board hearing at the Dirksen Federal Building stated as much, with Colter declaring the NCAA resembles a “dictatorship’’ because “student-athletes don’t have a voice, they don’t have a seat at the table.’’
Work weeks of 40 and 50 hours were the norm for football players during season, Colter stated. And his estimates were upheld, even by the defense.
Delany, who has been the wildly successful Big Ten commissioner for almost a quarter-century, couldn’t comprehend what such change might wreak.
“I mean, you have a system now,’’ he said, meaning the no-pay-for-athlete NCAA rules. “But what happens if school A or school B becomes a union school? What would happen? I don’t know. You don’t know. I have no idea!
“Places where there are unions, places with no unions, no NCAA, no NCAA rules? I think you would have chaos.’’
At least as it would pertain to the cozy “amateur’’ system that now exists, the one that brings in billions of dollars in ticket and TV revenue for big-time college football and basketball programs, and sates the desire of every autumn couch potato and Big Dance enthusiast. But pays the players nothing.
Delany has been remarkably astute in finding the cracks and gaping holes in our country’s terrain of entertainment desire. He brought in bucketloads of cash to the Big Ten through TV and bowl rights, the creation of the Big Ten Network and, yes, the expansion of the league from 10 teams when he came in to the 14 it now will be.
Will the name change to Big Fourteen?
Delany snorts. “Big Ten is a brand. Some things aren’t literal.’’
All fine, one supposes.
But during this wild ride to success, there has been little new done for football players. And Delany, who played basketball at North Carolina, is aware of this.
“I don’t know how I’d feel if I were an athlete today,’’ he said. “Everybody’s sensitive to the points being made [by Colter]. But it’s uncharted territory. It reminds me of 1968 — a lot of traditions that are a hundred years old are being challenged.’’
They are. And the colleges brought this on themselves. Seasons that can be 15 games long, coaches making more than their NFL counterparts, players still limited to the barter concept of play-for-a-scholarship — all of it has made conditions ripe for player revolt.
Delany often says he is all about “choice’’ for the athletes. “If you don’t want to be in school, don’t be in school,’’ is his simple answer. He believes in the free market. You ask him about the crazy paychecks for coaches, and he fires back, “What about it?’’
Then he’ll explain how the Big Ten doesn’t have anti-trust exemption. “Unions and management have antitrust exemption, the NFL does, so does major-league baseball. We have Title IX and other constraints.
“One time we tried to control not only the number of coaches but the amount of money they could make, and it ended up costing us, I think, $55 million in antitrust settlements.’’
No salary caps, no nothing. It’s the Wild West in big-time football, or as Delany sees it, 1968, the year when the Vietnam War was dividing the nation, when Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated, when the Rascals’ song, “People Got to Be Free’’ and the 5th Dimension’s “Stoned Soul Picnic’’ were hits.
Delany is a libertarian. That is, he believes things will be fine if people work hard and seize the opportunities before them.
Yet he doesn’t like the individualism he sees in games.
“I have no sympathy for Johnny Manziel,’’ he said. “I have none.’’
Manziel was Texas A&M’s quarterback who wanted to profit from his signature and likeness. “I don’t believe Johnny Manziel is Texas A&M. I don’t think Kain Colter is Northwestern. I believe there are plenty of kids who would play [at either school].’’
Delany believes athletes should get more representation, better health insurance and a “lifetime trust’’ for education purposes. But he doesn’t believe the athletes bring anything to the schools compared to what the schools give back.
“I believe people will come to the Ohio State-Michigan game even if you could take kids out of the student body [to play]. They’re going to come to that game. I believe that. Same for the Duke-Carolina basketball game. I don’t put that much value in an 18-, 19-year-old kid as being the guy who made Northwestern a good team. In my heart, I believe you can plug players in.’’
Systems beat kids.