ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
This coming Saturday and Monday, the last four teams play for the NCAA men's basketball championship, aka the Final Four, aka March Madness, although it's in April, aka a hugely profitable event for college sports.
Arguments over money and big-time college sports are more feverish than usual these days. A group of Northwestern University athletes won the first round of an NLRB battle to be recognized as university employees and to be permitted to unionize. There's a lawsuit over rights to marketing and one that claims the NCAA violates the anti-trust laws by capping athletes' compensation at the value of an athletic scholarship.
Well, we're going to talk now with the university president about some of these questions. Donna Shalala was secretary of Health and Human Services in the Clinton administration before becoming president of the University of Miami in 2001. She had also been chancellor of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which plays big-time sports, and president of New York City's Hunter College, which doesn't play big-time sports. Donna Shalala, we figure you've seen these issues from a few different angles. Welcome at the program.
DONNA SHALALA: Thank you.
SIEGEL: I should add, by the way, that over the past couple of years, the University of Miami went through a booster scandal, which led to a widely criticized NCAA investigation and then both self-imposed and NCAA-imposed penalties. What's wrong with this premise? Football and basketball players in the big conferences are earning money for the universities. Their amateurism is as phony as the old Olympic amateurism was. So pay them, what's wrong with that?
SHALALA: Well, first of all, there's nothing phony about big-time college athletics. It is true that some of the programs make money. Most of the football programs in this country, Division I, don't make money, may make enough to pay for the football program, but we use those resources to pay for all of our sports programs which don't make money. My basketball program does not make money, for example. The football program does make money, though, not enough because we're an expensive private university, to cover all of the scholarships plus the additional money we need for our other sports programs.
So our athletic program at the University of Miami is subsidized by the university - millions of dollars, in fact. And I would argue that most of the programs in this country are in the same situation.
SIEGEL: But Miami belongs to one of the powerful conferences, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
SHALALA: We do. We do.
SIEGEL: And as I understand it, most of the schools in the ACC actually favored a proposal to give at least football players a $2,000 stipend.
SHALALA: We did not favor just giving football players an additional stipend. We did favor giving all of our athletes some additional money to cover the full cost of attendance.
SIEGEL: But that proposal for a $2,000 stipend for athletes was suspended because, I gather, a majority of NCAA schools didn't agree with it. Why...
SHALALA: They didn't agree with it. Well, for some, it would be...
SIEGEL: Why is the University of Miami answerable to the NCAA on a matter between (unintelligible) students.
SHALALA: Oh, because we are the NCAA. It's not some independent regulatory agency that we're not part of. The board is made up of NCAA schools and all of the governance is under the jurisdiction of the universities that are members of the NCAA. Some schools objected to it for good reason. They couldn't financially afford it. And to impose that kind of money and that kind of requirement on those schools - and as long as it's one person, one vote on these stipends - it's never going to pass.
SIEGEL: But why must it be a universal policy? Why couldn't a university that wants to make life a little bit more comfortable for their athletes do so without having to be answerable to a vote of the NCAA?
SHALALA: Because it would violate the basic principles of the NCAA. And that is one school, because it has more resources, should not have an advantage over another school that doesn't have the resources. And that's what's exciting about NCAA sports. Schools that aren't rich get to compete at the highest level.
SIEGEL: In college football, though, we're seeing a narrowing of the field of schools that seem to compete for the top division championship. You say - the argument you're raising...
SHALALA: Oh, tell that to Boise State and some other institutions that have...
SIEGEL: Tell it to Alabama and Auburn and schools of the Southeastern Conference seem to enjoy a great dominance there. The question I would raise is this. I understand the argument of the arms race, you're making the argument of the arms race, that some kind of national policy, the unfair competition, but there is unfair competition: coaches' pay and spending in huge facilities, on building stadiums. It's just when it comes to what the athletes get that there's not competition.
SHALALA: Well, yes. There's no question that there's an arms race going on there in terms of coaches' salaries and facilities. But most of us have decent facilities but stop talking just about football. Or - all we're talking about is men. NCAA sports are also about women. And we have spent a career trying to make sure that women athletes had the same opportunities as male athletes.
SIEGEL: But the Atlantic Coast Conference, for example - and this could be any of the other big conferences, I suppose - it has a television deal. I was looking at the website of the company Racom that has that. And the CEO said last year, in the span of 30 years, the television rights to the ACC have increased from $1 million to approaching $250 million per year. And he pointed out that that's because it's hugely successful. Not only do people like to watch sports, they watch it live, so advertisers have a premium to advertise in a ball game because people aren't going to record it and fast forward through the commercials later on. There seems to be lots and lots more money in this except for the free labor that's not getting compensated for that.
SHALALA: Oh, that's not true. Our tuition keeps going up, and we add more services for our students. Over my lifetime, in Division I, I've seen us take care of emergencies for student athletes, flying their parents in in an emergency, taking care of all the health needs of athletes no matter what their sport. So that money is spent on lots of different things for athletes, including, at this institution, a very expensive tuition, room and board package which amounts to near $55,000 a year for each athlete.
SIEGEL: President Shalala, do you get a feeling that this just happens to be a rough spot of a lot of bad publicity for the NCAA and it'll all come out all right or that there - something's changing here, something is unsustainable about the status quo and there have to be big changes?
SHALALA: I think organizations like the NCAA and universities themselves have to recognize that the world has changed. But it may not be the discussion that you and I are talking about, paying student athletes. It may be the support systems that we provide, the decisions that we make. Fundamentally, though, we've got to start with the word student. And my responsibility is to make certain that these students who come here to play sports get quality degrees and have real futures. But at the same time, if we're going to have national sports, the playing field has to be even across the country.
SIEGEL: Donna Shalala, thank you very much for talking with us today.
SHALALA: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's Donna Shalala, who used to be Secretary of Health and Human Services back in the '90s and has been, since 2001, the president of the University of Miami.