ROSEMONT, ILL. – The Big Ten is moving into posh new offices this week outside of Chicago. It's a sign of the new standing of college sports. The offices include a private second-floor fitness facility complete with treadmills, free weights and elliptical machines with TVs, not to mention locker rooms and showers. It's in a hot and suddenly booming part of town, near O'Hare Airport.
Commissioner Jim Delany, one of the most powerful men in college football, stood outside the building Wednesday night after a meeting with conference commissioners and spent half an hour talking with a couple reporters, laying out his vision, and why college athletes should not be paid.
By the time he was done, I was looking to see if he was wearing a wristband marked "APU," for All Powerful United to counter the APU (All Players United) movement that's growing among the helmet-wearing class. Last week, several players marked up their equipment with "APU" to make a statement about athletes coming together, partly to get their fair share of the billions of dollars funneling from TV into the sport.
"If athletes want to professionalize themselves, then professionalize themselves,'' Delany said. "But why is it our job to be the minor leagues for professional sports?
"Maybe in baseball and football it would work better if more kids had the chance to go directly into the professional ranks (from high school). If they're not comfortable on campus, and they want to monetize, then let the minor leagues flourish. ... Get agents to invest in your body, get agents to invest in your likeness and establish it on your own. But don't come here and say `We want to be paid $25,000 or $50,000.' ''
It was the line in the sand. This has been a national discussion for months now, with growing sentiment that college athletes should be paid. Amateurism is dead anyway, with college-football powers getting $5.6 billion over 12 years from ESPN just for the College Football Playoff. With all that money floating around and coaches making millions and palaces going up as football offices around the country, then why not just pay the lowly player who can't afford a pizza?
And the blowback has started. Last week from the faculty reps convention, which included athletics directors, the message was clear: No pay. NCAA chief Mark Emmert also spoke out recently against it.
But frankly, Delany is bigger than faculty reps, ADs and even the NCAA. His messages were clear:
* No athlete is the brand in college football. A history of traditions more than a century long is: "It's not about any 17- or 18-year old who's going to demand `I want to be paid for play.' ''
* The NCAA should work with the NFL and NBA to form minor leagues, so star high-school athletes who don't want to go to college and follow rules shouldn't have to. That's how it works, he said, in baseball, tennis and golf.
* The mission of college athletic departments needs to include the non-revenue sports and women's sports - and graduation. And revenues from football and basketball need to pay for those things.
* Most athletic departments are losing money and can't afford to start paying athletes. That's a big part of why the five biggest conferences, including the Big Ten, want to split away from the mid-sized conferences in football and form their own rules. They can afford to do things for players - not including paying them - that smaller conferences always vote down. Once the big five split away, if they don't do right by athletes, then it's time to hold them responsible.
There is something nice and wholesome about all that. At least, maybe there was in the 1950s. But it sounds wrong in the reality of 2013.
Look, it might well be that the model once involved a big bubble combining sports and academia. The problem is that sports live outside that bubble now, and the powers that be just want the athletes to stay in it.
So you can either burst that bubble and just start paying athletes, or you can expand the bubble and try to find a way to gain some control and jam both sides back into it somehow.
That second option seems unlikely. The truth is that the highest level of college sport is completely outside of any educational mission. More realistic than getting the toothpaste back in the tube, it would make sense if schools would just acknowledge that they are in a side business of sports, separate from education.
Stop taking tax breaks for education and just run professional football teams that stand on their own. Players can have agents and cut deals that allow them to go to classes if they want.
I told Delany that it looks like college football is a multi-billion dollar business that doesn't want to share its profits with labor.
"I don't view it as a labor force,'' he said. "I view it as athletes, as students.''
It is true that anyone with a kid going to college, or about to, knows how valuable a full scholarship is. A quarter of a million dollars? On top of that, athletes are getting top coaching and a weekly chance to showcase their skills for potential employers.
So Delany is talking about retaining some sort of amateur model with the big conferences fixing up the rulebook.
"We can do better in a lot of areas in terms of lifetime benefits educationally,'' he said. "We can do better on miscellaneous expenses on the cost of education. We can provide dead periods for them to be in internships and study-abroad programs. I think parents can sometimes be on trips.
"There are a whole plethora of things if we prioritize their experience.''
The problem with that is the "Trust me'' element. Does anyone feel comfortable giving more power, more control and more money to a small group in college sports on the idea that it will do right by the athletes? I think the main reason the big conferences want to split from the league conferences is so they won't have to share that $5.6 billion.
You have to wonder, too, about this idea of football players skipping college to turn pro. Delany knows the NFL isn't going to form a minor-league system, especially when it already has the NCAA for player development. But Delany says he's fine with minor leagues taking the best players.
"If there's so much value there, let them handle that value,'' he said. "Let them extract it. I think I can be very successful because I think what we offer, for most kids, is superior to what the minor-league experience would be.''
It sounds like a message to the athletes: If you don't like it here, then how would you like to go to the middle of nowhere where no one is watching you in the minors at less pay than the value of your current scholarship?
That probably wouldn't seem hypocritical if minor-league teams were bringing in billions of dollars like college football.
On Saturday, more players likely will mark their uniforms with APU. It might be the start of a college-football players union. The lines are drawn. And management isn't budging.