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Delany hasn’t lost sight of the core values of college sports

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Bill Benner on sports

I have known Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany for years, and always have admired and respected him.

Though he’s an Atlantic Coast Conference (North Carolina) guy, Delany has taken the Midwestern foundation left by his predecessor, Wayne Duke, and built it into the skyscraper that stands tallest in intercollegiate athletics, those Southeastern Conference football championships notwithstanding.

From the pioneering Big Ten Network to broad-based and highly successful programs throughout the league to thoughtful expansion—well, before the addition of Rutgers and Maryland, anyway—Delany has served his member institutions exceedingly well.

He hasn’t done badly by Indianapolis, either. No matter our city’s glistening facilities and exceptional professional and volunteer event support, neither the Big Ten men’s basketball tournament nor the Big Ten football championship would have landed here without his blessing.

Now some might say that Delany has an ego larger than an Iowa cornfield, and there have been few rooms he’s entered where he didn’t believe everyone else was competing for second smartest person there.

But he’s also thoughtful, contemplative and reasoned when it comes to the core values of intercollegiate athletics, and therefore mindful that there ought to be something more to the enterprise than TV ratings, full stadiums and Brinks trucks dumping their cargo on campuses from Lincoln to State College.

Therefore, this past week, as the so-called “power conferences” staged their annual football media days and commissioner colleagues such as the SEC’s Mike Slive and the Big 12’s Bob Bowlsby offered “State of Dis-Union” speeches and questioned whether the haves could co-exist with the less-haves in the NCAA’s future, I was encouraged to hear Delany offer a less strident tone.

Without question, there is growing discomfort about a Division I tent that has gotten too large to serve the same purposes of, say, Albany and Alabama.

This comes against the additional backdrop of the almost daily assault on the NCAA and its president, Mark Emmert; a growing discontent among collegiate sport practitioners—e.g., commissioners and athletic directors—that presidents have taken on too large a role in athletics when they ought to be worried about matters such as academics and fundraising; and finally the potentially landscape altering lawsuit over college athletes and the use of their likenesses for commercial profit in which they are not allowed to share.

So change is a-coming. Possibly seismic, including the so-called “Division IV” of the NCAA, which would put the five football-playing power conferences off more or less on their own. Though football rules, consider the implications for March Madness? Would there be two tournaments, one for the big guys and one for everyone else? Don’t think that couldn’t happen.

That brings me back to Delany, who said that change without a connection to the core values of intercollegiate athletics—the bedrock of which should be meaningful education for young people—would be worthless.

“If we restructure the NCAA and don’t address some of the substantive concerns, I wonder why we have restructured,” Delany said.

Slive and Bowlsby expressed reservations about the majority of schools/conferences with far less resources determining the rules of engagement for all. A major point of disagreement has been the call for grants-in-aid that would cover all costs of attendance, and not just room, board, books and tuition. The resource-strapped non-big-time football schools simply couldn’t afford that.

Who knows how it will unfold but remember this: the “haves” have football, which means they have money, which means they have the power. The rest can eat cake, and hope that it’s more than crumbs.•

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Benner is senior associate commissioner for external affairs for the Horizon League college athletic conference and a former sports columnist for The Indianapolis Star. His column appears weekly. He can be reached at bbenner@ibj.com. He also has a blog, www.indyinsights.com.

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