Hartman: U of M president supports more aid for athletes

  • Article by: SID HARTMAN , Star Tribune
  • Updated: September 5, 2014 - 6:43 AM

However, Eric Kaler warns against a pay-for-play model and sees many issues to resolve.

University of Minnesota President Eric Kaler said that he, along with the other university presidents in the Big Ten, have been keeping a close eye on the lawsuits being brought against the NCAA by former and current athletes and are considering options when it comes to providing student-athletes with compensation.

“As every sports fan knows there is a lot of — let me call it conversation, not quite turmoil — in the NCAA and in the courts about what compensation student-athletes should get,” Kaler said. “Should they share in the TV revenues, for example? I remain a firm believer in the academic model. When you look at the benefit of an academic scholarship an athlete gets at the university, tuition, training, coaching, travel, national exposure as they move through their career, they get a pretty good deal. We need to make that deal better.

“I support compensation or scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance, that would give players some walking-around money they could use. I support the initiatives that the NCAA now has in terms of providing quiet time for athletes so they can participate more fully in study abroad. But I don’t think pay-for-play is in the best interests of college athletics or in the best interest of the college athlete.”

Kaler said that it’s a much larger question than it may appear because when it comes to paying players you’re talking about around 750 scholarship athletes at the university in 25 sports, and a number of laws and regulations come with that sort of agreement.

“Well, when you start to unpack the question of should we pay athletes you get to a whole bunch of really important questions: that’s taxable income, they become employees, at what level does this remain a college activity or a minor league sport?” he said. “I’m pretty convinced that the cost of attendance and some other benefits for athletes will go a long way towards treating them more fairly and avoid those questions.”

Kaler said the Big Ten is keeping a very close eye on the situation.

“[The presidents] talk about the NCAA stuff as part of the normal business of the Big Ten,” he said. “It’s obviously the elephant in the room, and we work hard to maintain a responsible and informed position about what’s going on. We have representation in the NCAA governing structure, as well. I can pretty much guarantee you the presidents and the chancellors of the Big Ten have their finger on the pulse of this.”

Pleased with Teague

On the topic of the growth of the Gophers athletic department, Kaler had nothing but praise for athletic director Norwood Teague.

“I’m a big fan of Norwood,” he said. “I feel like he has done an absolutely wonderful job in the two years that he has been here.

“I think we have two of the best young basketball coaches in the country right now with us. Jerry Kill continues to make enormous progress with our football program. Our other sports, hockey’s are terrific, hockey, volleyball, the list goes on where we’re doing really well.”

How important are athletics programs for the school?

“I think it’s really important for the school, a critically important part of our brand,” Kaler said. “It’s the window through which a lot of people throughout the country see the university, so it is important. But it’s a brand, the athletic brand is part of a really wonderful university. The depth and breadth of what we do academically and in medicine is just remarkable and our athletic program ought to be at that same level and represent the university well.”

Meanwhile, as the Gophers continue to try to raise the $190 million for their athletics facilities, Kaler was asked about the ultimate end game with regards to fundraising for these types of endeavors. Where does it end?

“That’s a great question, and I don’t know the answer,” he said. “It is an arms race right now for sure. If you’re in that situation you can do one of two things, and that’s give up or move forward. I’m not a big fan of giving up, so we’re in the process of bringing our facilities up to the level of our competition. That will benefit the student-athlete and help recruiting. We are raising that money privately, so it’s not a burden for the state of Minnesota or our students. But I don’t know when it’s going to end.”

Kaler wanted to clear up that the university isn’t getting any public subsidy to help build these facilities and the U’s contribution is actually a very small amount.

“Right now, our athletics budget is in as good of shape as, I won’t say ever been, but has been in the recent past,” he said. “Our partnership with the Big Ten and the Big Ten Network brings us a lot of media revenue, and we use that to support the 750 scholarship athletes we have. The amount of university backing of the athletic program is this year certainly less than $2 million out of a $3.6 billion budget. It’s a pretty small amount of help that we give athletics. As we look forward to a new media arrangement and various other things that we’ll see, hopefully we’ll get them to be net contributors to the university budget, which only a small handful of athletics departments do across the country.”

Kaler also said he was proud of the fact that the Gophers’ academic ratings have been so high recently.

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