I recently caught up with Jim Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten Conference. Sticking to his policy of not commenting on the league’s possible expansion, Mr. Delany, the Big Ten’s chief since 1989, instead touched on a variety of other topics, including the need for stricter enforcement of NCAA rules and the importance of allowing institutions that create commercially successful products to reap the benefits without sharing. Here are a few excerpts.
Q. How has the NCAA’s enforcement process changed since you worked there?
A. [When] I was there, from ’75 to ’80, a lot of people were on probation and there was a lot of pushback. I think we’ve [alternated] in every decade since then: Tougher, then back off; tougher, then back off. Because the membership is of two minds: When you’re too tough, they tell you to back off. When you’re not tough enough, they tell you to re-engage. It’s cyclical.
Q. What would you do to improve the process?
A. There is a perception that certain institutions, certain programs are crossing the line, and that breeds a cynicism. Most people are somewhere between saints and sinners. Most of them want it to be fair … but if you ignore, or you’re ineffective, in an environment of holding people accountable for taking big risks, it tends to drive the others in the wrong direction.
Q. So where are we right now in the cycle?
A. We have a thousand schools. But I think we should have 95 percent of our resources in enforcement directed at those top 100 schools in those two sports [football and men's basketball], and if they need more money for Division II and Division III and people outside the competitive mainstream, so be it. But I think we should make the likelihood of being held accountable far higher than it presently is.
Q. That’s certainly been a criticism in the past, that institutions with few resources or those without compliance staffs get caught in the crosshairs, while the sophisticated programs slip through.
A. I tend to agree with that. From time to time, I’ve challenged people in enforcement. I’ve said, no disrespect intended, but some of the fish that are caught are not the biggest fish in the pond. Maybe the mesh of the net needs to be a little bit bigger so the big fish get caught in the net and not just the small fish.
Q. What should be the role of the NCAA in regulating some of the commercial issues in college sports?
A. Essentially these descisions are local, and it makes it really, really hard. The schools are serving stakeholders—coaches, athletes, and fans, in some respects—not stockholders. And so there is always a stakeholder to make a claim on resources. Whether it’s to have the best law school or the best medical school, no one questions that kind of competition. No one questions that Harvard or Texas have a [big] endowment and don’t share it with Hofstra and South Alabama.
But intercollegiate athletics is sort of unique in that institutions that have certain advantages—based on demographics or history or tradition or fan base—somehow are seen as the source of resources for others that do not. I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon, but there’s certainly a lot of gnashing of teeth, like why doesn’t the Rose Bowl spread its revenue around to Boise State? Well, partially because we developed it. We built it, it’s our tradition, and to the extent that it’s successful, it’s successful for our institutions. So that’s essentially a home-rule approach. I think it’s an honest approach. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with money, but life’s a lot easier when you have it than when you don’t.