At about the same time word started spreading that the NCAA’s board of directors had voted 16-2 in favor of a new governance model that will seemingly put more distance between the haves and the have-nots in college football, the BYU Cougars were breaking huddle on their sixth practice session of preseason training camp.
Coach Bronco Mendenhall got the word from an aide as he was walking off the practice field, so he was prepared to answer the questions I had for him about his thoughts on the groundbreaking changes and where BYU — which is independent in football and a member of the non-power West Coast Conference in most other sports — finds itself in this new age of college athletics.
Basically, the passage of so-called Power 5 Autonomy Legislation gives the schools in the five wealthiest and most powerful conferences the power to make their own rules, and a lot of those rules are designed to make life better for student-athletes and their pocketbooks.
Mendenhall is skeptical.
"So I have mixed feelings," he said. "If the true intent is to benefit the student-athletes and their well-being, within reason, I am for parts of those ideas.
In the discussions that I have been part of, I wish I could say sincerely that that is the motive. It usually is: "Who has the most money? Who can provide more for the sake of themselves and their program, not really the student-athlete?
And it is moving much more toward professionalism than amateurism. I wish I could say this is all for the student-athlete, but that’s not how I feel. So I have mixed feelings.
And it will be an interesting time period in college football, and it will be an interesting time period for the student-athletes."
Later Thursday, BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe delivered the following statement:
"We have been following the proposed changes to the NCAA governance structure for months and anticipated it would pass the board of directors. At this point it’s hard to speculate about the ramifications to college athletics, but we’ll continue to monitor the issues and prepare to make changes as necessary to remain competitive. In fact, we have plans to move ahead this fall with enhanced nutrition opportunities for our student-athletes, who have been and will continue to be our No. 1 priority within BYU Athletics."
So, it sounds as if BYU is prepared to run with the big boys, and pay student-athletes cost-of-attendance stipends and the like. Actually, Holmoe has been saying that since February, when the commissioners of the power conferences started talking about the need for NCAA reform.
Certainly, Mendenhall seemed to be on the same page as Holmoe when I asked him if BYU will "follow the rules" that the big conferences put in place.
"That’s a great question," Mendenhall said. "With early discussions with Tom [Holmoe], our intention will be to provide what [rules], number one, what myself and he believe are worth following, and will pursue all those things that have true and real value to our student-athletes and to BYU. So his intent, as he has passed it to me, if you look at the world of chasing the Big 5 [conferences], I think we will chase what is appropriate and I think we will provide everything possible that will benefit our student athletes, not only on the field, but off. But also, within reason.
When you consider now the 120-plus Division I football schools, and the number that are in the black, which based on which surveys you look at, is only anywhere from 15 to under 25. They now say they are going to provide more? Interesting to see where that money is going to come from, and if quite possibly [it is] student fees. Student will step up and say, yeah, I am going to give more money so student-athletes can get more money?
It will be interesting to watch — how that is justified."
Finally, I asked Mendenhall whether any recruits have brought up the topic, and sought assurances that BYU will join the others in providing more for its student-athletes. Certainly, the top recruits are going to be drawn to the schools which are handing out the cash, aren’t they?
"No [recruits] have asked yet," Mendenhall said. "I think it will come up, but I think as this goes on and our policy becomes clearer and clearer, I think it will end up being a non-issue. Most of the kids that come to BYU, they are coming for really specific reasons anyway. Then if they know that our intention is to do everything possible for them, plus that, in relation to the Power 5 — by the way, I would like to play more of them, just so I can be on record that way — budget alone, as we know, doesn’t determine outcome of games. But I think it will come up some. I am not sure it will have a giant effect on BYU. It might on others, but I am not sure on BYU."
Any way you look at it, BYU is in a very intriguing position. Sure, it is independent in football. But in the other sports, it has a conference to answer to — the WCC. If the Cougars pay all of their student-athletes, will other schools in the WCC be capable of doing the same? Will they want to?
I can’t imagine it going over well at Saint Mary’s, for instance. There’s not another school in the WCC that has the football cash cow like BYU.
It could clearly put the other schools in the WCC at a distinct disadvantage, and one has to wonder if they will want BYU to stick around.
So what if BYU just pays football players? That has Title IX violation written all over it, no?
Oh to be a fly on the wall at LDS Church headquarters as well when the topic comes up. Does the church which owns and operates BYU really want to be in the business of paying some students who just happen to be gifted athletically, while others struggle to make ends meet financially just as much?
The questions go on and on.
Like Mendenhall said, this one is going to be interesting to watch.
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