Amateur Bluff: Stanford's Unlikely Ploy to Get Out of Paying Athletes

Stanford's president and athletic director claim they're ready to take an extreme measure if they're forced to pay players. Their bluff is about to be called.

Sep 15 2014, 12:35pm

Photo by Kirby Lee/USA TODAY Sports

Last week, at the Santa Clara University Institute for Sports Law and Ethics (ISLE), a panel of athletic director and conference commissioner types discussed the changing landscape of college sports. Stanford A.D. Bernard Muir repeated his doom-and-gloom prediction that if Stanford's football athletes are declared employees, Stanford will move to Division III.

Stanford faced a choice about six months ago. It could have stepped up to lead the way toward a more market-oriented, truthful version of college sports. Instead, Stanford has become a poster child for the "If we have to pay 'em, we'll just quit" meme. Muir testified to Congress in May and was careful with his words, but when he wasn't under oath, he made the same D-III threat to the press after his testimony.

"One of the five witnesses, Stanford athletics director Bernard Muir, told the committee that if his school's athletes were allowed to unionize, the school 'might opt not to compete at the level we are competing in.'" And in an interview with USA TODAY Sports after the hearing, he was unequivocal: "If (Stanford's athletes) are deemed employees, we will opt for a different model."

Muir was more circumspect when under oath in the O'Bannon trial, limiting his worries to if salaries reached $100,000 or more per player(indeed, the Court cited his testimony in support that schools won't actually quit D-I if they have to pay athletes less than six figures), but when he or Stanford President John Hennessy aren't under oath, the threats are much less veiled. For example, in the recent issue of Stanford Magazine Hennessey stated:

"…there's a philosophical objection, which is that this is incompatible with what we do … It goes against the notion of a student-athlete whose athletic endeavors are part of a larger overall education."

Hennessy says such a result would destroy much of what Stanford values about athletics. Rather than fielding teams of students who represent fellow students and the university, sports like football would essentially become mercenary enterprises — a professional minor league. In that event, he asks, "Why be involved in it?"

There is tons wrong, factually, with these claims, starting with the simple fact that paying a student doesn't make him any less of a student, nor that paying him is inherently mercenary (in the negative sense), unless Dr. Hennessy and Mr. Muir think of themselves as mercenaries, and Stanford itself as a mercenary educational enterprise. (This would not be surprising, considering Stanford's cozy relationship with the tech industry in Silicon Valley; the university already invests in what's essentially a venture capital fund to raise money for students, causing some alumni to question whether Stanford's primary focus is on the fund itself or on its role as a university.)

Moreover, Pac-12 Deputy Commissioner and COO Jamie Zaninovich told the same symposium that when the new Pac-12 TV deals were signed, Stanford's TV revenue went from 15 to 30 percent of total revenue. That means, ballpark, Stanford gets something like $27 million in TV money (Stanford's publicly reported athletic revenue was $90 million in 2012-13). So to believe Muir or Hennessy, we have to buy into the idea that Stanford will, purely on principle, walk away from at least that much money, leaving aside the reductions in donations, ticket sales, sponsorships, etc., associated with being in FBS football.

But because I'm a naïve and trusting soul (and a proud and fiercely loyal Stanford alum), I am going to assume/pretend that Stanford's President and Athletic Director aren't fear-mongering, but instead are simply explaining Stanford's contingency plan: Stanford is going to drop out of the Pac-12 and FBS football as soon as their scholarship football players are recognized as employees.

In other words, no Big Game this year, no shot at beating Cal for the fifth time in a row. Yes, this year, 2014.

Why so soon? Well, at the same ISLE symposium, Professor William Gould (former Chairman of the National Labor Relations Board) explained that it's likely the NLRB will rule in favor of the Northwestern athletes who sued for the right to unionize before the year is over (my best guess: right after the November elections). And many reporters who followed the Northwestern union vote have predicted the majority of players will actually be against forming a union at Northwestern. Which means, Stanford fans, that all private school full-scholarship FBS football players will be recognized as employees under federal law. There won't be any "well, we want to let the appeals process play out" because there won't be any appeals. Northwestern will not have legal standing to appeal the decision because their athletes won't be asking for a union.

And voila, Bernard Muir gets to make good on his threat to self-relegate Stanford to D-III. Sometime in November or December, when Stanford should be thinking about the Big Game against Cal or a bowl game, it will instead have to start looking for a Division III conference to call home. Cardinal fans, are you ready for some (much lower quality) football? Is everyone ready to fear the D-III Trees? Because bluff-calling time is approaching. Fast.