Kustra to fight NCAA reforms, but says Boise State must 'pay up' to compete

Posted by Chadd Cripe on May 21, 2014 

Boise State University President Bob Kustra discusses proposed NCAA reforms and the school's agreement with Albertsons to rename Bronco Stadium.

BRIAN MURPHY — bmurphy@idahostatesman.com

Boise State President Bob Kustra on Wednesday vowed to fight NCAA reform efforts that would increase the value of an athletic scholarship — but also said he’ll have no choice but to match those scholarship enhancements if they pass.

The NCAA is in the middle of a major reform movement. The five most powerful conferences — the SEC, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences — want legislative autonomy so they can put in place rules that they can afford. In the past, those measures — like a $2,000 stipend — have been shot down by schools with lesser resources.

Here is a story I wrote last week on the subject. And here is a Pac-12 letter endorsing reforms.

Kustra, during an interview after he announced that the Broncos football team will play in Albertsons Stadium for the next 15 years, called the NCAA reforms “excessive.”

“This naming and the $12.5 million that comes with it is more critical at this time of our history than any time before given the NCAA reforms that are about to be implemented,” Kustra said. “Now we’re fighting those reforms, and the Mountain West is fighting those reforms, because we think they’re excessive. We think we treat our student-athletes well. But when you look at the cost of attendance jumping from its original $2,000 to $3,800 now — then there’s the food addition (unlimited meals) — if you add all that up, that’s millions of dollars for an athletic program. I have no doubt that the Big Ten and the SEC are designing these reforms to try to leave some people behind. This is about leaving the Boise States behind and making sure the Alabamas and the Tennessees and whoever they are can march right along.”

Kustra, in the op-ed article below, argues that student-athletes receive many benefits beyond their scholarship.

“I don’t know why any university needs to do any more than that,” he said. “Like my conference commissioner, like my fellow presidents in the Mountain West, I’m very suspicious of what’s going on here. And so is the American conference, our old Big East conference — we’re talking more and more with them. I have a feeling we’re going to have a great partnership with the American conference over the years. And they feel the same way we do. This is all about trying to separate out the so-called resource five and leave everybody else in the dust.”

But if the reforms pass, Kustra said he already has told the Mountain West presidents that they have to go along.

“We just simply relegate ourselves to a second-level team if we’re not willing to pay up,” he said. “… You have to compete. I’m ready to do that and I know (football coach Bryan Harsin and Athletic Director Mark Coyle) are committed to it, but it’s like, where are we going to get that kind of money? Well, today is part of that answer. It’s really perfect timing.

“When you’re Alabama, and you have a $124 million budget, (the cost of reforms) is chump change to what they’re going to do. But when you’re at $37 million, like we are, this is real money. That’s why I say this is just beautifully timed.”

The Mountain West presidents meet beginning June 1. NCAA reforms will be a hot topic, including whether the conference will allow its teams to match the reforms it can afford.

“I’ve already told them … ‘Sooner or later, there will be a debate on whether we pay up or whether we decide not to go along,’ ” Kustra said. “ ‘Boise State’s vote will be to move forward with the reforms.’ I still get to fight them all along the way. I don’t mean to suggest I have any great authority on this. I’m really focused to do it through op-ed pieces and other ways I can speak out against what I think is excessive athletic spending fueling the arms race that (former NCAA president) Myles Brand used to talk about when he was president of the NCAA. But with (President Mark) Emmert in there, he has absolutely no interest in taking on his friends from the big conferences and larger universities, so it’s probably going to happen.

“… The way it looks to me, the SEC and the Big Ten are ruling the roost. They’re controlling the presidents — that I will never understand.”

Kustra is in favor of some of the proposed reforms. Among the issues he supports: improved concussion programs, scholarships for athletes to return and finish their degrees after they’re done competing and improved coverage for long-term injuries.

•••

Here is an op-ed that Kustra has submitted to USA Today:

Last week, I left the confines of Division 1 athletics and delivered a commencement address at a Division 3 college where student-athletes compete without scholarship in true amateur fashion. If you travel far enough back in the last century, that’s the way it was in intercollegiate athletics, as evidenced by Daniel James Brown’s fine book on the University of Washington rowing team, “The Boys in the Boat.” It was the 1930s and the young men who won the gold medal in crew at Hitler’s Olympics were not on scholarship. They were just glad to get on the team so the university could line up a part-time job on campus to help pay their tuition.

The NCAA has ranged far afield from the amateur athletics model of days gone by and most of the reforms recently proposed by the NCAA move it closer to professional sports. Of course, Division 1 athletics is already big business, producing millions of dollars in revenue for universities willing and able to make the most expensive investments in their programs - programs that look less and less like they bear any relationship to the university’s mission and role.

To assure the largesse that intercollegiate athletics needs to feed itself and to perpetuate the dominance of a few, for years now the NCAA leadership has carefully controlled the decision-making structure at the Division 1 level. In the past, the BCS structure guaranteed monopoly control, but the so-called “high resource” five conferences seem to pull the strings these days, with two of the conferences taking the lead in calling the shots for the others. It seems they are never satisfied with their bloated athletic budgets, especially when threatened in recent years by upstart, so-called mid-major programs that steal recruits, oftentimes beat the big boys, “mess with” the national rankings and sometimes take postseason bowl games and revenue away from the anointed few. If they have the resources to outspend their Division 1 colleagues with fewer resources, then why not fix the NCAA rules to do so.

The latest round of NCAA reforms proposes a new governance structure that President Harris Pastides of the University of South Carolina described in a New York Times op-ed piece as allowing universities “to independently determine at what level they can provide resources to benefit students.” Now there’s a sure-fire way to kick off a race for larger athletics budgets. At the very least, they are to be commended for their honesty.

Of course, this grab for money and power is couched in the noblest of terms - it’s all about the student-athletes and paying them beyond the scholarship because they generate revenue for the programs.

Forget the fact that only two of Division 1 sports — men’s football and men’s basketball - produce the millions of dollars that fuel the NCAA sports empire and member universities, although too many athletic departments operate in the red anyway. All other student-athletes, while valuable members of the university community, play little if any role in revenue generation for the university. They are called non-revenue sports for a reason.

So what do full scholarship athletes receive now for competing in Division 1 athletics? They will receive a scholarship consisting of full tuition, room and board, books and fees and will leave the university primarily debt-free, unlike the average university student who will leave with $29,000 of debt. In some of the most expensive sports - football and basketball come to mind - special training tables give student-athletes access to a quantity and quality of food not provided to other students. Athletic programs provide academic support in the form of study halls, computer access, tutoring, advising and life skills programming, early registration of classes, usually not available to their non-athlete counterparts. Student-athletes receive special academic privileges such as signing up for class before the rush of other students, guaranteeing athletes get the classes of their choice. Student athletes receive free professional-level coaching, strength and fitness training, nutritional guidance and access to athletic trainers and physical therapists. In the case of football, athletes travel to games in chartered jets with first-class luxury.

It is sometimes hard to believe that our finest universities and their presidents are behind this effort to fuel what the former NCAA President Myles Brand termed the “arms race” in Division 1 athletic budgets. You would think that the primacy of the academic mission and the long-held principles of amateur athletics would trump the drive toward commercialism and professionalism in the athletic department. You would think that university presidents would be up in arms at the way the NFL and the NBA use the universities’ athletic departments as training camps and minor league clubs for professional sports.

It is beyond me why university presidents are so quick to fall in line with powerful conference commissioners who seem to be calling the shots with these NCAA reforms. But I have no doubt why the power conferences are working to separate themselves from some Division 1 universities who still see the value of equity and fairness in athletic funding. Lately, those pesky mid-major programs such as Boise State and many others have showed up the big boys for what they are - wasteful models of athletic spending that cannot be justified.

The year that Boise State beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl our entire football budget was less than the salary alone of the Oklahoma football coach. Today, as a USA Today database shows, the Boise State budget for the entire athletic program is $37 million and I’m sure there are some who think that excessive. But contrast that budget to the University of Alabama at $124 million, the University of Illinois at $77 million, the University of Nebraska at $83 million or the University of Missouri at $64 million.

What accounts for the difference, you ask? The absurd specialization in staffing and coaching accounts for some of this, with recruiting coaches’ assignments reaching as far down as the sophomore year in high school. How embarrassing to spend all that money and then have someone with half the budget or less beat you on Saturday afternoon or, more problematical, beat you in the academic progress department!

It’s time for the NCAA to take a stand for fiscal responsibility and the rightful place of intercollegiate athletics in American higher education and put a stop to the arms race by rejecting all reforms related to enhancing an already premier and first-class experience for student-athletes.

Three aspects of the NCAA reforms do make sense and should take precedence over all other issues. First, improved medical monitoring and changes in some rules on the field can avoid the serious aftereffects of concussion injuries. Second, student-athletes deserve the opportunity to come back after their playing days and finish their education at the university’s expense. Finally, there must be rules about how to protect a student from loss of an athletic scholarship because of a career-ending injury.

In the end, it’s about getting our priorities straight and focusing on the real student-athlete issues, not those fabricated by the elite few with ulterior motives.

The NCAA cannot fall prey to phony arguments about student welfare when the real goal of some of these so-called reformers is to create a plutocracy of athletic programs that serves no useful purpose in American higher education.

Email me at ccripe@idahostatesman.com.

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