My Turn | A small school could reshape the Big Ten (2024)

My Turn | A small school could reshape the Big Ten (1)

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Houston Christian University is just a kernel in the NCAA and power conferences’ giant carton of media-rights popcorn. But HCU’s recent court filing in the House antitrust case might painfully crack their teeth and send big athletic programs in search of costly root canals.

HCU describes itself as “a Christian college of the highest order” with “one of the most diverse student bodies in the country, with an ethnic composition similar to that of Houston itself. It has 2,300 undergraduate students, 95 percent of whom receive financial aid.”

A member of the Southland Conference — with 17 Division I sports, including football — HCU seeks to upset a tentative settlement agreement between the NCAA, Big Ten, Pac-12, ACC, SEC and Big 12, and college athletes who were shut out of earning broadcast name, image and likeness money while the conferences and the NCAA banked billions of dollars.

As chair of the NCAA Division I Council and a member of the NCAA Board of Governors, Illinois athletic director Josh Whitman may play a role in this lopsided deal.

Tiny HCU alleges that most of the schools that are on the hook to pay approximately $2.8 billion in damages were never consulted about the deal.

By this school’s telling of events, “none of the Defendants is adequately representing HCU’s interests, much less the interests of those whom HCU serves. To the contrary ... the (power conferences and NCAA) have presented the proposed settlement to HCU and other institutions as a fait accompli, without any regard to the adverse impact to these institutions.”

In other words, the power conferences have selfishly represented only their interests at the negotiating table, agreeing to pay about 24 percent of the damages while requiring all the other schools and conferences to pay 35 percent of the damages (leaving the NCAA to pay the remaining 41 percent).

HCU argues that these power brokers take advantage of the Southland Conference (and others) because athletes at small D-I schools rarely play in televised games. Thus, these small-school players won’t receive much money from the $2.8 billion settlement.

But their schools will pay far beyond their means.

The school informs Judge Claudia Wilken, who is presiding in the House lawsuit: “The proposed settlement institutionalizes the diversion of money that would otherwise inure to the member institutions for the core mission of education and research, by requiring them to pay damages for athletes’ name, image and likeness and establishing a continuing formula for doing so on a go-forward basis.

“Moreover, by formally institutionalizing the schools’ involvement in name, image and likeness fundraising, the proposed settlement mandates that institutions divert development efforts away from core academic missions and reallocate funds to athletics programs already deeply in debt.”

Consider what this last sentence means: The fundraising arms of colleges and universities across the nation will be pressed more deeply into the service of athletic departments at the expense of students and academic programs.

They already raise money to support posh facilities — for example, the Demirjian soccer and track and field complex at Illinois, funded by a $7 million lead gift; endowed athletic director positions, including $10 million for the University of Texas AD; and coaching positions, such as nine endowed football jobs at Notre Dame.

Fundraising in higher education will be further skewed to keep athletic departments afloat.

Northwestern dramatically illustrates HCU’s point that universities already divert money from core academics in favor of athletics.

The school recently started construction on a new $800 million football stadium, with a lead $480 million gift from the Patrick and Shirley Ryan family.

When the Northwestern faculty asked President Michael Schill how the other $320 million would be funded, they were told that the university might incur debt to complete this astronomically expensive stadium.

Deborah Cohen, a history professor, told the Daily Northwestern: “If the donor’s funds covered the entire cost of the project, that would be a totally different story. I think the issue is, what are the priorities in terms of balancing the academic mission and the teaching and the research mission with extracurricular commitments.”

Joseph Ferrie, an economics professor, worried that incurring debt “at a 7 percent rate — or even a 5 percent one — would become a ‘large recurring cost.’”

HCU’s court filing reflects similar concerns, even though the school is quite different from Northwestern: “This is especially egregious, coming as it does at a time when the cost of higher education has risen dramatically. Students, especially from underserved and marginalized populations, struggle to pay for educational expenses.”

To HCU’s point, the total cost of attending Northwestern for the 2023-24 school year was $91,290. For a four-year degree, the total cost is $365,160.

Now, fundraising will be focused on a resort-quality football stadium, with less financial aid for debt-saddled students.

The court filing concludes by stating: “At a school like HCU, with its exceptionally diverse student population, virtually all of whom receive financial aid, the blow will be crushing. Because of the diversion of funds from academics to athletics, many of the most vulnerable, most underserved students will be forced to forego their dream of obtaining a higher education.”

Will HCU’s filing cause the power conferences to take on more of the costs to pay for the House settlement?

On the one hand, Wilken has more than 10 years of experience with NCAA antitrust litigation, and frequently rules for athletes.

However, no one can reasonably predict how she will rule on a petition from a small school, even one that carries a dire warning for much of higher education.

But HCU has a compelling message about the proposed settlement: “It will divert funds from a university’s core academic mission in favor of big-time sports entertainment.”

In that sense, HCU’s message is like coach Lou Tepper’s David-vs.-Goliath exhortations in leading Illinois to a 24-21 win over Michigan in Ann Arbor in 1993.

But this time, Illinois is Goliath and Houston Christian University is David.

Michael LeRoy is the Labor and Employment Relations Alumni Professor in the School of Labor and Employment Relations and College of Law at the University of Illinois.

My Turn | A small school could reshape the Big Ten (2024)
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