SBJ/June 23-29, 2014/Colleges

Longhorns’ AD Patterson goes on the offensive

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From his suite at the College World Series, Texas Athletic Director Steve Patterson wondered aloud last week how many college baseball programs would survive if antitrust lawsuits ultimately reinvent the college model and create an open market for schools to pay athletes and treat them as employees.

Texas, which generates more than $160 million a year in athletic revenue, more than any other school, would be fine in such a new world. Most others probably would not, he said.

“The bottom line is that, as successful as the University of Texas has been, as good as this baseball team is, we average less than one [new] Major League Baseball player a year,” Patterson said. “I’m talking about guys that just have a cup of coffee [in the major leagues]. We average less than four professional football players a year making their way into the NFL. So out of all those student athletes, we’re talking about five to 10 kids a year that would truly benefit the most [from an open-market system]. And we’re talking about professional careers that span four years or less [on average]. Then they’ve got a half-century of their life, at least, where they’ve got to figure out how to work in the world.

Texas’ Steve Patterson (right) takes in the College World Series with Roger Clemens.
Photo: COURTESY OF TEXAS ATHLETICS
“So we spend all of this time worrying about a guy or two who thinks he’s losing all of this money over his likeness? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The climate for change in college athletics dominated a 30-minute conversation between Patterson and SportsBusiness Journal last week at the CWS in Omaha, Neb. Standing next to Roger Clemens and a handful of baseball parents in his suite, an animated Patterson said the current litigation is about agents and trial lawyers who are trying to benefit while “ruining” the collegiate model.

What’s clear is that Patterson, who was named AD at his alma mater in November and has spent more than two decades as an executive in pro sports, is tired of college athletics losing the public relations battle, and he isn’t afraid to go on the offensive. Among his views: More autonomy for the five power conferences within the NCAA is mandatory, or else they should leave.

Here are Patterson’s views on:

Pending NCAA changes that would grant the five power leagues more autonomy: “It’s a part of the everyday business right now. There’s five conferences that want to do the best they can for their student athletes and provide them with the best outcomes. There’s a bunch of other schools that are fairly atavistic in their viewpoints and want to take the rules back to 1950. That’s not going to happen. They need to let the more well-resourced conferences operate, or these five conferences need to leave. It’s that simple. We’ve waited far too long and we’ve been far too accommodating. … I think there’s a harder and harder resolve as each day goes by for the institutions in higher-profile conferences to take the necessary moves.”

The potential competitive imbalance that could result for conferences not in the power five: “There’s nothing wrong with having different kinds of programs at different schools. The Ivy League does a great job. They have different kinds of athletic programs than we do and they haven’t dried up and blown away. They’re wonderful institutions and well-supported. We’re in a different position. We ought to be able to respect our differences.”

Providing additional student services, such as a cost-of-attendance stipend, longer scholarships and post-graduate health insurance: “We’re self-supported at UT. I recognize that many others are not. But it’s incumbent on us to provide the kind of student services that we do. When you look at the issues raised at Northwestern, we do all of the things they’re talking about, except for one — allowing them to monetize their likeness. If you’re a baseball player and you decide after your junior year that you want to go pro, and you follow the rules, we’ll help you come back and finish. If you get hurt and you can’t play, we don’t take your scholarship away. A lot of these claims, at least as they apply at Texas, are specious. What you’ve got are a bunch of trial lawyers and agents who can’t find any more clients in the NBA or NFL. That’s what this is about.”

Whether other schools can provide similar services for athletes: “A lot more schools would be there if we didn’t have to keep fiddling around with the schools that don’t want to be more progressive.”

College athletes marketing their own rights: “We’re spending all of this time talking about one-half of 1 percent of our student athletes [who have the power to market their likeness]. Not the 99.5 percent of student athletes who are supported by these programs. What we’re giving our student athletes, in terms of academic, athletic, financial aid, support for room and board, training, mentoring, student services, tutoring, is more than the average household income. And for some of our teams, it’s pushing into $70,000 a year per student athlete, and pushes into the top third of household incomes. Tell me one guy whose likeness is worth more than the average household income. … There was one guy last year. [Patterson holds his hands up and rubs his fingers together like Johnny Manziel.]

“It’s absolutely agents and trial lawyers that are the whole reason we’re talking about this. You’ve got guys like Jay Bilas out there making the claim that scholarships aren’t worth anything, and nobody says anything to discredit that. … So who is saying with any rationality or any fact that student athletes on a full ride aren’t getting something? They’re just flat-out wrong and they’re liars. And they’re doing the bidding of agents and trial lawyers. The longer everybody waddles around acting like it’s not about agents and trial lawyers, the more silliness we’re going to have out there.”

The concept that an open market would kill Olympic sports: “The reality is that if we’re going to fall prey to the agents and the trial lawyers, we’re going to kill the second-largest scholarship program in the history of the country, after the GI bill. You’re going to take this money and it’s going to gravitate to a handful of guys on the football team and maybe a handful on the basketball teams. And so what’s going to happen to the budgets? It’s going to wipe out men’s sports and it’s going to wipe out women’s sports.”

Always finding a way to pay the football coach: “But the football coach generates the vast majority of the revenue. You’re compensating the coach based on the marketplace. Only football and men’s basketball, and just a few schools in baseball and ice hockey, can make money. Everything else operates at a deficit. So what is the model that’s going to replace that? If you take all of the money football generates and put it back into football, what’s going to pay for everything else?

“The point of paying a football coach based on the market is the hope that he generates enough revenue to support the rest of the athletic department. Now, people make mistakes on hires. But if you have a successful coach and a successful football program, you can support scores of teams. If you can’t, what happens? The same thing that happened at Arizona State before I got there. You start whacking sports. Same thing happened at Maryland. Same thing happened at Berkeley. Sports are getting whacked and that’s bad. The other way you balance the budget — you cut the number of football scholarships. You want to go down that road?”

On the academic piece of the scholarship being removed from the debate: “If athletes are employees, what’s the point of going to class? We spend millions and millions of dollars each year tutoring, mentoring, providing student services. We make that commitment because we should, and if we don’t, you wind up like UConn and you don’t get to play in the NCAA tournament. And at the end of four or five years, you hope that a student has graduated and something really good has happened. Generally, it does.

“Now, you can go find some jerk who was a former basketball player, who was a jerk in college and was a jerk in the pros, who decides he wants to disparage one of the best college basketball programs out there. Yeah, you can find that guy. But for every one of him, I’ll find you 500 kids who say, ‘Thank God I had a basketball scholarship or a baseball scholarship or a track scholarship. It changed my life and it changed my family’s life.’”

Jeffrey Kessler’s antitrust suit: “I’ve been on the other side of the table from Jeffrey Kessler for 30 years. I don’t think administrators understand what they’re getting into.”

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