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Jim Delany And The Art of Face Control

Don't begrudge Jim Delany doing his job advocating for his league and the traditional powers of college football, but there's an end game here well beyond getting some more pizza money into the pockets of student athletes.

When last we heard from Big 10 Commissioner Jim Delany, he'd had his Big 10 Rose Bowl picnic spoiled by an infestation of Horned Toads; botched the Big 10 divisional child naming as spectacularly as Frank Zappa; and still embodied - fairly or not - what so many college football fans distrust about the BCS and its cartel of teflon power brokers who preserve the natural order at all costs, light cigars with thirteen thousand dollar bills, and can be imagined menacing football's dangling Have-Nots over a pool of moray eels secreted deep in their lairs. 

The Big 10 commissioner's latest foray into the public conversation is an interesting one. This time it's about helping the scholar-athletes. By now, if there's anything that should ping your rhetorical sonar, it's repetitive use of the words scholar-athlete or young people as some pretext for action. Or, more alarming, when they become "the kids." The imaging signature registers like a killer whale pod of insincerity.

So Jim Delany has been feeling magnanimous. He is intensely interested in the plight of the student-athlete, that famously under-appreciated maquiladora laborer of the college landscape. Tell me: When will the major college scholarship athlete finally get a fair shake in a society that worships accounting majors, race-walkers, and ballooning enthusiasts? How long will their anonymity and oppression continue? When George Orwell wrote about the horrific conditions of English coal miners in Road to Wigan Pier, I can only assume it's because the Clemson SID wouldn't get him a press pass.

Call me a tad suspicious about Delany's newfound enthusiasm for this issue. I don't begrudge Delany doing his job advocating for his league and the traditional powers of college football, but there's an end game here well beyond getting some more pizza money into the pockets of student athletes.

ESPN's Gene Wojciechowski thinks that makes me reactionary and paranoid. Or possibly stupid.

The logic behind some of the criticism makes Homer Simpson look like a Fulbright Scholar. Delany ran a proposal up the flagpole, nothing more. It wasn't an edict, a demand or an ultimatum. It was an idea, a starting point for serious conversation to a serious problem.

I won't argue against the man that invented the Duke "now we gonna play D" double-hand floor slap. His scrappy leadership was instrumental in ... different guy? Oh. Whatever.  

So this is a serious problem. A serious problem that calls for serious conversations. By serious people. 

When a writer has to intone that something is serious, the more I know it's probably not. 

Wojchiechowski contends that Jim Delany is just talking. You know, ideating. In front of microphones and stuff. Delany has always been whimsical like that. That's, like, Jim's process. He's an aimless visionary. He just says things. Challenges authority. Tweaks the establishment. This is the traditional role of the public intellectual, the agitating artist, the powerful corporate conference bureaucrat...

The notion of Delany challenging the status quo via trial balloon is like the President wondering if he can get a seat on Air Force One. It's a Skull and Bones member pretending to fret about the approval of his golf membership. He is the establishment. And when SEC commish Mike Slive chimes in with his accordance, the wheels are in motion.

Delany doesn't say anything without thinking about how it will move the pieces on the chess board. And in the case of the credulous, he'll take his pawns however he can find them. 

As for the particulars: Delany wants to offer additional grant-in-aid money to scholarship athletes to "reflect the full cost of attendance." All of the athletes -- not just the revenue producing ones. That means men and women; from college football to women's equestrian. Broadly speaking, there are two revenue producing sports in college athletics (please spare me the exceptions to the rule and your UConn women's basketball enthusiasm) and, writing cruelly and plainly, everything else is a drain. A parasite on the revenue organism. Depending on the size of the host, that non-revenue drain can be a inconsequential tick (BCS elite) or a voracious vampire bat (non-BCS).

Delany's modest proposal calls for $3000 a year per athlete. It turns out that someone with a calculator in the Big 10 offices did the maths and came to the startling conclusion that this was only $8.22 a day. 

For only dollars a day, you can make sure that Andrew Luck gets a new power clean rack and another state-of-the-art hydrotherapy pool. You can make the difference in this young man's tragic existence. Call now. The well-being of his hip flexors hinges on you. Don't look away. Even if these images of him driving a 2008 Nissan Maxima disturb you...

By the way, next time you owe the bank $100,000, just think of it is as $3.65 a day for a lifetime. That feels better, doesn't it?

One could offer that a sensible system would reward revenue producing sports via revenue share (and offer sums far more generous than $8.22 a day) while non-revenue beneficiaries should be thankful for the free room, tuition, and grub, but that runs into this:

No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance…"

—20 United States Code Section 1681/p>

That’s from Title IX. And no one has any interest in taking on the Feds. Or media savvy public advocacy groups. Title IX is more concerned with dumb equality than smart justice, and though no amount of scholarships will ever create a consistent revenue-generating women's sport, this social engineering is now written deep into the source code of college athletics.

Why, then, would a canny administrator like Delany propose to tack on yet another cost to doing business and increase the cash drain on his two revenue sports? Why now? 

Because he want to take Title iX and use it as a tariff on small revenue programs with big aspirations of challenging college football's elite on the field, in the courts, politically. A university with 300 varsity scholarship athletes at $3,000 per athlete works out to $900,000 a year - a significant sum to smaller programs, but for big schools the approximate tally of the mini-bar charges for the athletic department at a bowl game.

This proposal is a cover charge. A poll tax. If it happens to enrich athletes a little, too, and it draws in their naive "advocates" to rally around the cause, then so much the better. Now the power brokers can be cast as the good guys instead of acting as fan and media piñatas.

A clever cover charge must be reasonable enough to be borne comfortably by the rich while being just financially debilitating enough to make the riff-raff go elsewhere. Can the riff-raff still get in the club? Sure. Some are only one zealous rich alum with misplaced priorities away. But they'll never be there in force. Once smaller programs have paid their cover charge to enter, they can either be co-opted into the elite (see Utah in the Pac-12) or be thrown out into the street if they protest when that charge begins it inevitable creep upwards.

Many programs will decide that this club and its barriers isn't for them, after all. New leagues -- new divisions altogether -- may be formed. And the bifurcation between major college football programs and aspirant challengers will be made complete.

Whatever happens, Jim Delany will be standing with a clipboard by the front door, doing face control.

Dress sharp.