After Jim Delany's silly 'slippery slope' remark, here are 9 potential effects of 'pay-for-play' changes

Dan WetzelColumnist

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany spent part of Wednesday morning railing against California Senate Bill 206, which will make it illegal for the NCAA to punish college athletes who profit off their name, image and likeness.

Such a law, which was signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom on Monday, pains the sensibilities of college administrators such as Delany, who view all money coming into college athletics as something he, and people like him, should control.

“I think the law of unintended consequences and the law of slippery slope apply here,” said Delany.

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He’s right that no one is certain how all of this might turn out, although slippery slope is an interesting phrase. Probably everything looks like a slippery slope when you’re standing on a house of cards built out of $100 bills. Delany, after all, recently had a bonus clause in his contract kick in that should exceed $20 million, which comes on top of his multimillion-dollar base salary.

If you are looking for a slippery slope it came whenever so-called amateur sports became such a big, unapologetic business that a guy like Jim Delany could reap $20 million bonuses. That was the real point of no return. That’s when SB 206, in some form, became reality.

College athletics is flat-footed and in a panic right now because guys such as Delany — not to mention fellow multimillionaires Mark Emmert from the NCAA or Bob Bowlsby from the Big 12 or Larry Scott from the Pac-12 — did nothing to prevent, let alone plan for, this day.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany speaks to media members during the Big Ten Football Media Days event on July 18, 2019 at the Hilton Chicago in Chicago, IL. (Getty)
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany speaks to media members during the Big Ten Football Media Days event on July 18, 2019 at the Hilton Chicago in Chicago, IL. (Getty)

As the drum beat for NIL rights has grown through the years via federal trials, public opinion and slow-moving legislatures, college sports’ leadership mostly just regurgitated whiny statements, obstructed progress and lawyered up. Well, that and negotiated new bonus deals for themselves (of course).

As the current gold rush of revenue has flooded into college athletics, they could have made moves toward the middle here. Better compensation for athletes. A limited NIL package. Some kind of revenue sharing. More scholarships for non-revenue sports.

Instead, they did almost nothing. They even had to get dragged, kicking and screaming, just to dole out a few hundred bucks in cost-of-living stipends. It wasn’t until 2015 that they’d even allowed that … and it came with similar predictions of doom.

So Delany et al failed miserably running the business they were paid handsomely to run, leaving Gavin Newsom, LeBron James and a lot of politicians to upend everything. What comes next is anyone’s guess, yet after two days of talking to administrators, coaches, agents and former players, here are a few perhaps unexpected possibilities.

Not all of them are bad. Many in college sports are optimistic that things will actually be better. Even coaches in Delany’s own league roll their eyes at his comments. A slippery slope … or progress?

1. Athletic departments are going to have to be organized (if it’s legal)

It makes sense to try to run this. Line up top boosters for endorsement and sponsorship opportunities to be handed down to the players. Scholarships could even come with guarantees of money for the players and add consistency to the recruiting process.

One athletic director noted that his school would need to set something up for non-glamour-position football players — “Everyone will want to sponsor the quarterback, but you need someone to block.”

Even mid-major basketball coaches figure that a decent recruit will be worth a $5,000-$10,000 promise. Since there is no business that would want to pay that much for an otherwise anonymous player, the school will have to facilitate by pooling money.

The rub? Title IX. Can a school round up boosters and businesses if 95-plus percent of the money goes to male athletes? No one is sure.

2. Certain mid-majors can benefit

The most valuable thing on the recruiting trail has been conference affiliation. Top players tend to sign with teams in the top leagues. Now? Perhaps not.

Are you better off being the starting quarterback at Boise State, where by definition you become the biggest star in a metro area that is approaching 1 million (let alone the entire state) or just another guy battling for a job at USC (where, in Los Angeles, no one will know your name)? How about Oregon State?

In the past, USC won all those recruiting battles. Even Oregon State won most of them. Now? Places such as Boise State, or even lower-level programs in major conferences such as Iowa State or Indiana or Wake Forest are not broke. Maybe they can’t win every bidding war against the Clemsons and Alabamas, but they might be able to win more now than in the past.

“I think a school such as Boise can do really well,” one athletic director said. “When everyone was offering the same package — a scholarship, room and board — then conference membership mattered. Now that they can, at times, offer more money, playing in the Mountain West rather than the Pac-12, it matters a lot less.”

3. Does Alabama really have all the money?

It has a lot. And no other professional teams in the state to divert attention. Ditto for Clemson and a lot of others. But these are still schools in small towns in comparatively poor Southern states. If the system shifts, making pure money matter more than things like stadium size and tradition, then what stops schools in wealthier areas such as the Northeast, Chicago or the Bay Area from making significant gains?

4. Here come the basketball schools

Some athletic programs are so big and have so many fans that they won’t lack for money to spread around. Ohio State. Texas. Michigan. Florida.

For a lot of others, though, a priority is going to be paid to football, not basketball or other sports. For a school that cares mostly, or exclusively, about basketball, especially in a major city with lots of businesses and corporations, this could be a boon.

Villanova (and Philadelphia) has money. Georgetown (and Washington D.C.) has money. Memphis, for example, is going to spend top dollar on hoops, while local SEC rivals (Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Arkansas and Tennessee) will be focused on football.

Gonzaga, Wichita State and others will continue to be all basketball and offer midsized communities where the point guard can be the biggest star in the region. That can suddenly matter a lot more than what league someone is playing in.

Mar 21, 2019; Hartford, CT, USA; Villanova Wildcats head coach Jay Wright talks with his players during the second half of a game against the St. Mary's Gaels in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at XL Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 21, 2019; Hartford, CT, USA; Villanova Wildcats head coach Jay Wright talks with his players during the second half of a game against the St. Mary's Gaels in the first round of the 2019 NCAA Tournament at XL Center. Mandatory Credit: Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

5. Ditto for other sports

Being the big man or woman on campus could now prove quite lucrative. If you are a hockey recruit, do you choose Ohio State (where they would be well down the priority list) or Minnesota Duluth (where you are the top dog)?

A school such as Louisiana Tech, with a women’s basketball tradition, might focus on that and return to prominence. Duke has a lot of players to pay before they get to lacrosse. Johns Hopkins doesn’t. Schools that focus on being a power in just one or a couple of sports might prosper.

6. Good for the good guys

As one of Delany’s Big Ten basketball coaches said on Wednesday, “At least now I’ll know what I am fighting against.” Through the years, too many top recruits had just coincidentally gone to Nike- and Adidas-favored schools in the ACC, Big 12 and SEC.

There are a lot of ex-coaches who either wouldn’t cheat, or couldn’t figure out how to do it right. This is especially true in basketball, where one or two players a year can change everything. Now they could. Legally. If all things are equal — i.e. your boosters can come up with $250,000 to match what used to be Nike’s or Adidas’ under-the-table bids — well, maybe the recruiting balance changes.

7. Transfer portal could be a mess

An under-recruited player has a big-time season, especially at a mid major, and suddenly it’s open bidding. It’s not just a change of scenery, playing time or a bigger stage that can be offered. It’s money. Maybe a lot of it. Each year NFL teams wildly overspend in free agency. Don’t expect better restraint at the college level.

8. Good players may stay in school longer

Finances should no longer be a reason for a borderline professional player to leave school early. The top picks will still go, of course. But that possible second-rounder in basketball would have a guaranteed way to make a decent chunk of change by staying on campus rather than hoping to make an NBA roster. Same with football. This is good for the kids and the game.

9. Venmo/GoFundMe

Not everyone is going to get a deal. But every player should set up an account in case they are thrust into unexpected stardom. The anonymous special teamer who blocks a critical punt or a backup point guard that hits a game-winning free throw? Drunk alumni might fill up his GoFundMe in celebration. Same for the wrestler who wins a national title or the cross-country runner who ends up an All-American.

As much as the new era is about big donors and big money, the biggest contribution might come from small donors.

That is what Jim Delany calls a slippery slope, because you never know, maybe one of them makes $20 million.

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