When Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany last floated a passing interest in an idea, major college athletics were convulsed by his conference's intention to study expansion in December 2009.
So when Delany casually mentioned last month that the Big Ten had had "a good, open discussion" about "student-athlete welfare," it could be surmised that he wasn't just thinking out loud and that he has the clout to put the idea in motion.
And that has brought surging from the back-burner to the forefront a debate over enhancing scholarship benefits - and over the gray line between what once was known as "laundry money" and outright pay for play. Even understood in the most innocent way, Delany's trial balloon about covering full expenses is more multi-layered and complex than it appears.
All the more so because any such discussion can't help but be tethered to a slippery slope toward professionalism, a notion trumpeted by South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier recently when he advocated paying players $300 a game out of coaches' pockets.
Jokes aside about why SEC players would settle for a pay cut, Spurrier's concept was more brazen and bold than what Delany broached - adjusting the financial difference between a full scholarship and the full cost of attendance.
The gap between the scholarship, which entails tuition, fees, room and board and a book allowance, and the full cost of attendance ranges from $2,000 to $5,000 depending on the institution. The anticipated difference, for example, at Mizzou for the 2011-2012 academic year is approximately $4,300.
In theory, this concept is meant to address gaps in living expenses such as transportation, clothing, incidentals and, say, shortfalls on utilities payments. Even within that framework, though, there would be numerous complications in how to administer even Delany's more vanilla version of change.
"I think the details on something like that, to work that out, (would be) enormous," Mizzou athletics director Mike Alden said at the recent Big 12 meetings in Kansas City, noting the difficulty of making it equitable for the range from prosperous Texas to "the lowest levels of Division I as far as budgets are concerned."
Meanwhile, not all may feel the need for equity.
One way or another, the issue has the potential to become a breakaway wedge between the six powerhouse conferences and the rest of Division I athletics.
University of Texas athletics director DeLoss Dodds, a proponent of helping student-athletes meet the total cost of attendance, acknowledged that possibility in Kansas City. While noting most university leaders wouldn't want to leave peers behind and have "bigger things in their worlds" than the structure of athletics competition, he added, "I've always been in favor of a federated kind of NCAA, where like schools vote together on common issues. So maybe that answers your question. The BCS would be a category."
From somewhat the other end of the spectrum sits Southern Illinois University-Carbondale athletics director Mario Moccia, whose program is at the level formerly known as Division 1-AA. Moccia believes such a change would "cripple" SIUC and other schools that couldn't afford the difference and is concerned about where it's going.
"The golden rule: Those who have the gold make the rules," Moccia said.
While he believes the NCAA is fundamentally against it and that the Division I voting membership would vote it down resoundingly, he also wonders if this rumbling is the first in a series of probes.
"Probes find weaknesses," he said.
‘A LOT OF TENTACLES'
At its simplest level, the idea of adding money above full scholarship might seem unobjectionable, especially as long-term conference television contracts are blossoming into the billions of dollars.
Certainly, most student-athletes would favor it.
"Some of ‘athletes shouldn't get paid arguments' are Stupid," Mizzou senior basketball player Kim English posted May 30 on Twitter.
Asked by a Twitter follower the same day if college athletes should be paid, English answered: "Ncaa tourn made $90 mill this yr. We get $880 a mth (and) rent=$550."
Athletes who live off-campus receive a stipend based on an NCAA formula to approximate the cost of living in an on-campus dorm where room and board is covered.
Concerned about the potential controversy of the topic, MU declined to allow its student-athletes to be interviewed for this story.
Chuck Gabbert, father of two former Mizzou football players from Parkway West High, acknowledged the issue has "a lot of tentacles." He also acknowledges full scholarships are a "huge, huge benefit."
But he said a combination of the time athletes invest in their sports, the use of their likenesses for commercial purposes and restrictions they have on working to earn more money makes him believe they "absolutely" should receive more money.
And he cited multiple ways that scholarship checks fall short of expenses. Those included two months of the year when football players are out of class and aren't fully compensated for off-campus apartment rents they are responsible for year-round and student-athletes from around the country not being able to afford flights home on breaks, proper clothing or utility bills.
Through the Student Athlete Opportunity Fund, though, students in all sports are eligible at Mizzou on a first-come, first-served basis to apply for assistance in travel, clothing, medical expenses and school supplies.
"I just look at it where with the revenue being generated ... there should probably be a stipend to offset some of their expenses, and I'm not just talking about football," Chuck Gabbert said, adding, "People say, ‘Oh, they need to budget better.' No, that isn't it. Their monthly expenses do exceed their stipends."
That line seems clear to Gabbert, who noted he's not talking about athletes deriving money beyond what he believes the scholarship should entail. For that matter, nearly any collegiate administrator would favor finding ways to further support student-athletes. Yet that's about all anyone agrees on when it comes to full cost of attendance.
"Whether it's possible, prudent, permissible, who knows?" Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione said.
Southern Illinois University Edwardsville AD Brad Hewitt's school is amid a years-long movement into Division I. To him, a move to go above full scholarship money not only would be a harsh blow to the effort but also would threaten the dynamics of a collegiate sporting culture that exists "nowhere else in the world."
"That's the ‘pay for play' mentality," he said. "I think once you cross (that threshold), it is a fine line. To me, it's not blurry."
It's blurry at best to many others for many reasons, including the fact most prominent athletes enjoy immeasurable benefits of celebrity and that in almost any given college town there are places they get meals or goods free or greatly reduced because of who they are.
Without posturing for one side or the other, Castiglione noted that "maybe we undersell or under-appreciate" that the value of a scholarship "is much greater" than the price-tag, which comes with numerous support programs for athletes. By the same token, he asked, "Why is it inappropriate for a student-athlete to receive some benefit for (the use of) their names and likeness? All of that has to be put into the discussion to vet this out entirely," he said.
Mizzou chancellor Brady Deaton, chairman of the Big 12 board of directors, has reservations as he considers the wider student body.
"Most of our students ... don't have that advantage of getting scholarships of the magnitude that are given in intercollegiate athletics, certainly not the full scholarships," said Deaton, adding that the national average of student debt coming out of college is "significantly higher" than it is for student-athletes. "So that tells you something right there."
Connie Dillon, the University of Oklahoma faculty athletics representative serving as chair of conference faculty reps, expressed similar sentiments.
"You know, a lot of them just want pizza money ... but all students are that way," she said, adding, "Most of our kids who have full scholarships, they still have to work or take out loans."
Stressing as Alden and others did that "we want to do what's right and fair and just," Dillon was worried that some might feel only athletes in revenue-producing sports should get the extra money. Never mind that almost any feasible model would have to include uniform benefits for all athletes at a given school.
"Every student-athlete has value," Texas A&M AD Bill Byrne said.
Despite potential Title IX implications, too, Dillon still frets.
"A lot of the public may make the argument that this football team brings in so much money, we ought to give them cost of attendance (and) not thinking about rowing or volleyball ...," Dillon said. "How are you saying that's not pay for play?"
Dillon also foresees trouble with the varying scale of cost of attendance, calling it "the bogeyman" in the mix. Or as SIUE's Hewitt put it: "There's no apples to apples."
Like Hewitt, Dillon wondered if schools could use a recalibrated cost of attendance as a recruiting advantage, with some effectively being able to say we can pay you more to come here because of the difference.
Despite whopping sums coming in by TV contracts and other revenue streams, sums Byrne said are virtually offset by rising expenses and deferred maintenance in A&M's case, Dillon also identified another likely point of resistance.
"I go back to my campus, and I go to my department meetings, and faculty haven't received raises, we're getting our travel money cut, our enrollments are increasing, our (graduate assistant) budgets' coming (down)," she said. "Our institutions are cutting into the bone. We're not fat. It's cutting into the bone. ...
"We've got to feed this monster. But we've got to be looking at our core mission, which is education."
THE BOTTOM LINE
Feeding the beast the extra amount would mean between $800,000 to $1 million at Texas, Dodds estimated, and about $1.3 million at Texas A&M, Byrne said.
"I suspect we could afford that, but I'm not sure other Division I-A schools could afford that," Byrne said. "And if you look at the way things vote in the NCAA right now, the BCS conferences are outnumbered."
Byrne recalled a failed attempt to increase per diems $3 a day; Dodds remembered an effort to add $100 a month to scholarship money that went nowhere.
So each is probably right when he says he can't see the votes being there for something more sweeping and financially burdensome.
Considering only a few dozen athletics departments are in the black, most either couldn't keep pace or would have to attempt unpalatable measures such as seeking more money from the university.
In elaborating on how he would see voting go, Byrne said: "I don't think the schools that want to be in Division I would let that get in the way of them remaining in Division I. There's such an interest and prestige of being a Division I program. Those who are in it have worked like the devil to get there, first of all, and made incredible commitments in some cases. ...
"They want to be part of the club. It's an exclusive club."
The club would become all the more exclusive if the richest were to make it such a collective priority to "have like schools vote together on common issues," as Dodds put it, that they ultimately could seek to pull away from the NCAA.
But if such a divide ever did occur, particularly over this, Hewitt believes it's not just those left behind who would be devastated.
"If the Big Ten (and others) went out and just formed their own independent association, paying athletes, I guarantee you that the attitude of the fans and alums would change," he said. "They wouldn't drop $250 for a ticket, they wouldn't go to every event. Because then you're watching a professional sport. ...
"They couldn't afford to run championships in rowing and diving and tennis and golf without the NCAA, so they would have to narrow their focus in what they do. And then again you lose the general public perception of what is intercollegiate athletics?"