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VICE Sports Q&A: Northwestern President Emeritus Henry Bienen on Amateurism and the NCAA

Former Northwestern University president Henry Bienen discusses his objection to college athlete pay-for-play, football player unionization efforts, and the NCAA's future.
November 5, 2015, 7:14pm
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VICE Sports recently sat down with Henry Bienen, president emeritus at Northwestern University and a member of the Knight Commission, for a Q&A on his objection to paying NCAA athletes, the merits of the current college sports system, his speculation that schools like Northwestern might drop out of big-time sports if amateurism is scrapped, and what else may lie ahead. Below is a transcript of the discussion, edited for clarity and length.

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Broadly speaking, why are you against pay for play?

My concern is a distortion of what the university is all about. I don't care so much, frankly, on the student athlete's side of paying them as I care about what the university is all about. That's what's really motivating me.

Read More: NLRB To Northwestern Football Union: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

I'm on the Knight Commission, and when stipends for the full cost of attendance came up, I would call it a step down the slippery slope of pay for play. Because, as obviously athletic scholarships themselves are, so there are gradations of these things. Now you have athletic scholarships. My preference would have been cost of attendance hooked to means testing, so if an athlete came from a poor family they could receive more money.

[Referring to the current antitrust case against the NCAA led by prominent sports attorney Jeffrey Kessler] If the case would open it up to competitive wages, why would the universities want to get into that? Why would we want semipro teams? It's a long way from our mission. And I don't believe the universities depend on this for their status or their alumni support.

When I was a kid, the Ivies had some of the best football teams in the country. They gave up athletic scholarships, they don't have competitive football teams except in their own leagues. It hasn't exactly hurt the status of Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Penn, Columbia. I don't think that Stanford's prestige and Northwestern's prestige depends on athletics. I like excellence. I want to have good teams, but I don't think that's what defines us. It's nice, it's great, it's good for community spirit.

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I'm not in favor of having a model where student-athletes go to the market and shop their wares, and if Ohio State wants to give a linebacker more money beyond room and board, tuition, and cost of attendance than Northwestern, that's where the linebacker goes. In fact, we already see cost of attendance figures don't look the same. They don't look precisely the same in Ann Arbor as they do in Columbus. Is it more expensive than Columbus?

TFW someone says Harvard's prestige doesn't depend on sports success. Photo by John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Well, Ohio State beats Northwestern for recruits almost every time already.

On the grounds of program. Not in all sports, obviously.

Would that change, though, if Ohio State paid players and Northwestern only paid a little bit to players?

That's not a sustainable model. I just think it can't be. You're already at a place like Northwestern where you have high academic standards, so you have a limited number of athletes who want to come here to work hard. Even though they might be able to do the work, some of them don't want to. So now you're going to take your academic standards, high graduation rates, being serious about academics, and add to that a disadvantage in size of scholarship, it's just not a workable model. And I don't think universities would go for it.

Well, for one, Northwestern's highest-paid employee is its football coach.

Not under me.

Is it bothersome to you that the highest-paid employee is the football coach? Does that contradict the whole "We're not going to let sports own us" kind of thing?

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My trouble is more generic than Northwestern or any one place. I believe in markets, and I don't believe there's anything wrong with [Northwestern football coach] Pat Fitzgerald, who I like a lot and respect, getting the best deal he can get for himself and his family. I don't have any problem with that whatsoever. I don't even care what Nick Saban gets. That's his business.

The question is, what are the universities about? And when you look at the highest-paid public employees in the 50 states, it's usually a football or basketball coach. To me, something's the matter with that. It's a misplaced set of priorities. So it's not against the individual or what the individual does. But I also know, if you want to keep a particular coach—when Gary Barnett was here, I had to keep him against a UCLA offer, a Texas offer, a Georgia offer—you meet those offers if you want to keep the person, or they'll go. And that may be true of faculty, too. At some point, the bidding war stops. As much as I love athletics, I don't think it's that critical that great research universities, as a group, should be paying that much money on the athletics side.

You know who else doesn't have a problem with a lucrative free market for Nick Saban's coaching services? Photo Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

How much does athletics mean to the university?

My major point is, on Northwestern's budget, which is a couple billion dollars, athletics doesn't drive that. And again, I'm not against athletics. I'm in favor of athletics. I go to tennis matches. I go to occasional soccer matches. I go to every football and basketball game I can get to. So I'm a fan, and I think athletics has a lot of good things at a university. I just think, there's a point. And so far, we're just talking about money.

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There are a lot of negatives that come in, whether it's sexual assault—not peculiar to athletes by any means, it just becomes more public. We've had our issues, too, going back before my time. There was the points shaving, gambling—it was the worst thing for me, as president.

People always talk about SMU, Miami, USC, but nobody talks about the Northwestern points-shaving scandal.

Well, I'm glad. I don't think it characterizes the place. But you're always vulnerable at a big place to somebody doing something stupid. And I'm not talking about athletics. I'm talking about a faculty member, an administrator, a student who's not an athlete. When it's athletics, it blows up big and it's on the athletics pages.

Is it financial issues that drive you?

That's not what drives me. This is just a guess, because you don't know the answer and I don't know the answer: if tomorrow we started paying student-athletes, I think it would change the way people look at sports on campus. Even though people know now that it's one-and-done at Kentucky in basketball, and even though they know some universities will let in anybody if they're good athletes, there's still some sense these are "student-athletes." As distorted as it is at some places. But I think for alumni, for students, certainly for faculty, there would be a different view of what this game is about if we start paying.

Somebody on the panel [at an AAU convention] was a university president and said, "Why don't we have a wholly owned subsidiary? Why don't we just have a team that we pay as if it were unrelated business income? Because we have enterprises all the time." I think that's a poor idea, too. One, I don't think it would be successful. I was chairman of the board of the United Football League. The idea was there were so many good football players who didn't get picked up by the NFL, and that when you looked at who played in the Super Bowl, or you looked at who played in the Pro Bowl, there were lots of low draft choices. So the idea was to put together a league where the quality was very good, wasn't that watered down. The thing lost a pile of money. It was hard to get TV contracts, they didn't pay anything when you got them, and the UFL folded up after years of struggle. And these were the best players who didn't get picked up by the NFL.

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So the notion that, when people start seeing you as a pro team, and you lose your identity as a university or a college–and this is just speculation, because I don't know—I think it would change the receptivity. Would Michigan still put 100,000 people in the stands? Maybe, maybe not.

What we know is what presidents have said. Would they actually leave big-time sports? I don't know. Maybe their boards would overrule them. I think Stanford would be the key school. Because of all the private schools in athletics, it and Notre Dame have the best teams and very high status. What Stanford would do would be very critical, but until it's put to the test, you don't know.

I grew up in Iowa, a huge Iowa fan, and I never tied it to the university. I don't think many of the people I sat next to at games went to Iowa.

People come from all across the state. My wife went to graduate school at Writer's Workshop [at Iowa]. I was at University of Chicago. University of Chicago didn't have big-time sports, so when I wanted to see big-time sports, I drove the seven hours to Iowa. They had good basketball at the time. People would pile in.

Penn State is the third largest city in Pennsylvania on game day. People drive from all over Nebraska to come to the game at the University of Nebraska. So I'm more skeptical that the public schools would get out of this game, because the public schools have a set of constituencies that are very different from the private schools. But I believe what I said, that the private schools would bail. I don't think it's going to come to this, mind you.

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Will fans still feel warm and fuzzy if college athletes are allowed to earn market compensation? —Photo by Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

You don't think Kessler's going to win?

I don't think Kessler's going to win, unequivocally. He's the biggest threat. You can live with O'Bannon [referring to the recent antitrust case brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon against the NCAA]. The penalty the judge set against the NCAA was $45 million.

That's nothing.

It is really nothing. It's not a big deal, but already Northwestern doesn't put anybody's number on a shirt that they sell. Except Fitzgerald's.

They changed that a year ago.

Because of O'Bannon, probably. Kessler is the key case, because Kessler breaks the whole thing open. Even the unionization rule that got overruled by the labor relations board, they overruled it very narrowly. It doesn't, to my mind, put an end to unionization.

[Editor's note: the National Labor Relations Board did not overrule a regional board finding that Northwestern University football players qualify as employees of the school under the National Labor Relations Act; instead, the NLRB simply decided to not exercise jurisdiction over Northwestern's appeal of the case, effectively leaving it in limbo].

The whole game has changed. Even if Kessler loses, it's not the last of these sorts of challenges. It's also true that the big TV contracts, the high salaries of coaches, the moving of schools from conference to conference to get more money, all of this led to, in effect, these cases and the unionization. The feeling that hey, if everybody's out for big bucks, why should student-athletes get the short end of the stick?

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Why should they?

Well, I gave you my answer that that's not what the universities are about. The tradeoff with student-athletes was we'll give you room and board, big investment. If you're interested in studying hard, come to a place like Northwestern. If not, you can come to Alabama and study hard.

There are things in these cases I'm not completely unsympathetic to. For example, the medical issues I think are very important issues. In some places, if a student gets hurt, they'll run you off the team. If you were a less good player, we didn't force you out. Both those things, or running students out and not paying for medical care, were bad.

Northwestern football players en route to their 2014 unionization vote. —Photo by David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

If a booster, not the school, pays a kid to come to Northwestern, do you care?

I do care, because that gets into issues with the standards, and I think it infringes on the ability of the university to run a clean program, and it certainly violates all the NCAA rules. You can say let's get rid of the NCAA, and that may happen. Do you really want a free-for-all, school by school, conference by conference? To me, that's the justification of the NCAA. For all its warts—and it's done things I don't like—it's provided some kind of framework for rules and adjudication, so you don't just have dog eat dog.

We had a woman here who was a very good tennis player. She was British. She had taken an extra year in high school in Britain—and that was because she was a good student, not because she was a weak student. So the NCAA wanted to say she had used up her eligibility in some way and had been in violation, and she wasn't going to be able to play in the NCAA tournament.

Myles Brand, who was head of the NCAA at the time—he's passed away now—he was a friend of mine. He had been president of Indiana before he was president of the NCAA. And I remember when they had prohibited her from playing on the team, I called Myles, and I said, "Myles, I'm gonna sue your pants off, because this is the most idiotic rule, and you've applied it—it's ass-backwards." Clearly, to my mind, she hadn't violated anything. I told the coach, play her and we'll live with the consequences afterward. And she said, I'm not gonna do that because they could put me on suspension, we won't be able to recruit, they'll take scholarships away. And I said, we'll sue them, because I really thought they were just out to lunch. And at the end of the day, she didn't play in the team tournament, but they changed the ruling and let her play in the individual tournament.

So there were plenty of things that were wrong with the NCAA, I have no doubt about it. But I think if it didn't exist, you would have to invent it in collegiate athletics.