historian trying to identify when Stanford athletics became important wouldn’t need to look long. It happened on March 10, 1892, six months after the university opened its doors. On
a patchy field on Haight Street in San Francisco, a ragtag group of students from the Farm, many of whom had never played football, shocked an experienced but overconfident team from Cal, 14–10. It was the first meeting of what would later become
Big Game.

From that moment until today, intercollegiate athletics has been an integral part of the student experience at Stanford. Roughly one of every eight undergraduates is a varsity athlete. And while participation has a value all its own, consistent success at the highest levels has strengthened the role athletics plays in lore and school spirit. Stanford has produced more than 150 All-Americans and scores of Olympians, earned 105 NCAA championships and won 20 consecutive Directors’ Cups, awarded to the nation’s leading sports program each year. Since at least the 1960s, excellence in Division I athletics combined with tier-one academics has been a distinguishing attribute of Stanford’s identity.

And now the future of that identity is looking a bit precarious.
Over the past five months, two challenges to the way the National Collegiate Athletic Association governs the treatment of student-athletes have called into question whether intercollegiate athletics can survive in its current form, and raised the specter that Stanford might be forced to choose between participating in big-time sports and preserving its educational values.

The first salvo came from the Chicago district of the National Labor Relations Board. Responding to a petition brought by a group of Northwestern University football players, the board’s regional director declared that the players could be classified as employees because their athletic scholarships constituted payment for a “job” that required up to 50 hours of work per week. That ruling, if upheld by the national NLRB — as many labor experts anticipate — could allow football players at any private university to collectively bargain. (The ruling does not apply to public schools, which are governed by state labor laws.) The Northwestern players voted in April on whether to unionize, but those results have not been revealed, subject to the national NLRB finding.

If it stands, the Northwestern ruling will throw the traditional model of college athletics into disarray. Universities might have to negotiate benefits and perhaps even salaries with their student-athletes, which would likely force some schools’ programs to the sidelines. For Stanford, the notion
that athletes might one day be workers for hire is anathema, a direct challenge to its historical treatment of athletics as an extension of its academic program.

The second challenge resulted in a landmark antitrust decision against the NCAA following a U.S. District Court trial in Oakland. Judge Claudia Wilken, ’71, ruling on a lawsuit originated by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon, opened the door to college athletes being paid for appearing in TV broadcasts and having their likenesses used in video games. But key details, involving deferred payment through trust funds, were not clear as STANFORD went to press immediately after the August decision. The verdict does not take effect until 2016, and the NCAA said it would appeal.

The Northwestern situation has thrown a spotlight on issues that have festered for years. Concerns about athletes’ head injuries and long-term medical needs are increasing. Critics charge that many coaches make greater demands on players’ time than their professors do. And the value of athletic scholarships falls well short of the financial yardstick known as full cost of attendance, which includes the myriad expenses — clothes, day-to-day needs, transportation to and from hometowns, to name a few — that student-athletes have to pay for on their own.

In the O’Bannon case, the key provocation was the enormous sums of money being generated in the so-called revenue sports, primarily football and men’s basketball. There, coaches routinely earn millions of dollars each year; TV contracts shower hundreds of millions on conferences, whose member schools share the bounty; and the sports and entertainment industries generate billions via broadcasts and merchandising. Meanwhile, critics cry, the players themselves share none of that money directly.

In that context, the question is: Does the system operate on behalf of the athletes or on their backs? And still in the pipeline is other, newer legal action, including a lawsuit that equates the NCAA with a cartel that suppresses a free market for athlete services.

While much remains to be resolved in policy circles and eventually in the courts, this much is certain: Stanford would reject some potential changes, even if it meant withdrawing from major college competition.

does not have a surfing team, unless perhaps you count the university president, provost and athletic director. It’s primarily their job to ride the waves of the most turbulent era in intercollegiate sports history, and to answer some crucial questions: What can be done to reform athletics? What role can Stanford play? And where are the lines that Stanford will not cross?

“Long before this, I was worried about an increasing divergence between academic objectives for student-athletes and athletic objectives,” Stanford President John Hennessy says. “We’ve managed to hold our course, but it’s not like we’re there with a whole lot of others.”

The governance of college sports — educationally and financially — is handled by the NCAA through a labyrinthine set of rules developed over many decades by its member institutions. No element of that system is more fundamental than the athletic scholarships that schools offer to recruit student-athletes and field competitive teams. Whether full or partial, scholarships are permitted to cover tuition, fees, room, board and required course-related books — but nothing else.

The cash equivalent of athletic scholarships varies widely, depending on the school involved. And the benefit to the schools varies according to their ability to underwrite successful athletic programs. The NCAA’s current rules prohibit compensation beyond the value of
a scholarship, leaving many athletes in a scramble to cover other living expenses.

Historically, the granting of an athletic scholarship has implied benefits for both sides. Schools get the services of, say, a great quarterback who can help the team succeed, which confers many associated rewards to the school, ranging from donations to positive publicity. In return, the quarterback gets his education paid for — or at least most of it. That education presumably is a pathway to a better future and the opportunity for success beyond the playing field.

The calculus is somewhat different in sports that do not bring in significant sums of money, either in ticket sales or TV contracts. There is no inherent market value for athletes in those sports, so the benefits of a scholarship that pays for an elite academic experience are clearer. Nevertheless, if football players were deemed employees, it’s possible the same designation might apply to field hockey players, gymnasts and, indeed, athletes in all non-revenue sports. Some issues raised by the Northwestern case also affect athletes in non-revenue sports, such as the possibility of losing a scholarship if an injury occurs.

Hennessy is adamant that schools must, above all, honor their commitments to student-athletes’ academic progress. “Most athletes even in the big revenue sports are never going to be professionals. So we owe them the opportunity to get a degree, and that means balancing their academic and athletic lives.”

The monetary value of a four-year athletic scholarship from Stanford could easily exceed a quarter of a million dollars. And one can argue that the degree is worth much more than that because of the strong reputation of the school and the powerful network its alumni enjoy.
All the Stanford athletes interviewed for this story echoed the same basic theme: They got a good deal.

Photos from stanfordphoto.com: Norbert von der Groeben (left); Jim Shorin

Usua Amanam, ’13, a defensive back whose interception sealed Stanford’s Rose Bowl victory over Wisconsin in 2013, is continuing his studies in earth sciences. “[When] you come to Stanford as a student-athlete, I feel as if you’re not being exploited. You’re utilizing Stanford just as much as it’s utilizing you,” he says.

All-America swimmer Maya DiRado, ’14, agrees. “I think we’ve gotten a pretty sweet deal in terms of college athletics. My total scholarship is well beyond the market value of my skills, so I don’t feel like I’m being deprived of anything.”

Owen Marecic, ’11, the former fullback and linebacker famously referred to by then head coach Jim Harbaugh as “the perfect football player,” says his Stanford experience was defined by its inclusiveness. “There’s such a great community around you in terms of coaches, and teachers, other students,” says Marecic, who is getting ready to apply to medical schools. “This community definitely makes up for any lack of compensation.”

But if education isn’t part of the payoff, it’s a bad bargain for athletes. NCAA antagonists can point to numerous examples of schools that created sham courses aimed at keeping athletes eligible to play, a look-the-other-way attitude toward academic improprieties and weak graduation rates. The landscape is littered with former student-athletes whose college careers ended without a degree, exacerbated in some cases by physical problems related to injuries received on the playing field.

For Stanford and other schools that exalt the “student” in student-athlete, this context presents a bitter irony. Stanford has been widely praised for its success in combining academic, athletic and ethical values. And the university shines in any objective consideration of key metrics — graduation rates for all sports, winning teams, the number and diversity of sports in its program, and NCAA rules compliance.

But that exceptional record only underscores the extent to which Stanford and other schools that aspire to the same goals swim upstream in the debate about college athletics. At Stanford, which fields teams in 36 varsity sports, including 20 for women, the instinct is to preserve a model in which revenue sports help fund a broad-based program. But in some other places, that formula is suspect for enabling the exploitation of football and basketball players.

Culturally and philosophically, Stanford has never accepted the premise that athletes should be segmented from what might be described as a standard student experience — living in a dorm, attending class and doing the work expected of a full-fledged student. In keeping with that view, Stanford also has insisted that athletes conform to the same admissions procedure that other students go through. They fill out an application, submit essays and are subject to the reviews of admissions officials, who decide whether to admit them. When they arrive, they do so with the understanding that while their sport will require huge demands of time and effort, it won’t come at the expense of their education.

At the same time, the university acknowledges that student-athletes face unusual challenges. The NCAA permits 20 hours a week of mandatory practices and meetings during a sport’s season, but voluntary conditioning and game preparation can easily double that. Athletes also maintain their training year-round and have special nutritional and medical needs. Because of the time demands of their sport, some athletes would struggle to succeed academically without support in managing their studies. One key source of help, provided by the university’s Athletic Academic Resource Center, is advisers who guide student-athletes through extremely specific NCAA rules for degree progress. Another example: The center coordinates group tutoring sessions for student-athletes who request help; the sessions are scheduled around their other time commitments and are funded by the athletic department.

“I think Stanford . . . makes sure to counsel young athletes and students and help them take that next step into adulthood, or into the workforce. And really prepares them,” Amanam says.

Hennessy says Stanford sympathizes with several of the grievances contained in the Northwestern petition. He was influential in getting the Pac-12 university presidents to take the lead in proposing numerous reforms for all the major conferences (see below).

“In some cases, where we’re allowed to, we do the right thing, such as honoring a scholarship if an athlete is injured,” Hennessy notes. “Some things we’re not allowed to do because they’re controlled by the NCAA.” He points out that Stanford supported a measure allowing stipends to fill in the full cost of attendance for all athletes, not just those in the revenue sports, when the matter went before the NCAA. The NCAA board supported it, too, but member institutions resisted. The problem is money — in this case, the lack of it.

“Most athletic departments lose money already,” Hennessy says. Paying full cost of attendance would add an estimated $2,000 to $4,000 per student-athlete. At large university programs, with 600 to 800 athletes, that could add more than a million dollars to their budgets. “For a lot of schools, that’s the difference between breaking even or not.”

In a letter emailed to media in May, Boise State President Bob Kustra said such reforms are particularly burdensome for smaller programs like his that don’t have the resources of the 65 schools in the so-called Power 5 conferences — Pac-12, Big Ten, Big 12, Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference. He called such proposals a “grab for money and power.”
Athletics Director Bernard Muir acknowledges that the major conference schools have larger revenue bases, enabled chiefly by TV contracts. (In 2013–14, Stanford received $17.5 million as its share from the Pac-12.) If anything, he says, those advantages increase their responsibility to care for their student-athletes, irrespective of the ability of smaller schools to do so. “We want to make sure those dollars flow back into the student-athlete experience,” Muir says. “Paying full cost of attendance, making sure the health-care benefits are even stronger, those are essential. That needs
to occur.”

But while these reforms “make good sense,” Hennessy says, if the courts decide that scholarship athletes are employees, several bad outcomes result. “If they’re employees, they have the right to collectively bargain.
Follow where this road goes. I think it leads to the professionalization
of college sports.

“If you think about adding lots more compensation to athletes in the revenue sports, the repercussions of that are gigantic. It means you’re either going to find yourself in violation of Title IX [prohibiting sex discrimination in education activities] or you’re going to have to shut down an enormous number of men’s sports in order to maintain compliance. If you start paying men’s football and basketball players, how are you ever going to maintain revenue equality between men’s and women’s sports?”

In early May, Muir testified before a congressional committee that player unionization could threaten the ability to sustain Stanford’s breadth of non-revenue sports. Money to pay players would have to come from somewhere, and in many cases it likely would come at the expense of so-called Olympic sports.

Even without those practical difficulties, “there’s a philosophical objection, which is that this is incompatible with what we do,” Hennessy says. “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?”

Stanford football fan than Peter Jackson, he or she will have to go to great lengths to prove it. For the past 20 years, Jackson, ’63, has driven from his home in Ketchum, Idaho — an 11-hour trip — to attend every Cardinal home game. And for 9 years before that, when he lived in Manhattan Beach, Calif., he would leave his house at 4 a.m. to make the seven-hour drive to Stanford Stadium, and return home the same night. He’s logged hundreds of thousands of miles, and at age 72 has no plans to stop.

Jackson’s support of athletics is an essential part of his relationship with his alma mater. “I do feel that one connection that I have left with the school — because I know I couldn’t be admitted these days — is the athletes,” he says. “There’s got to be balance in life; there’s more to it than being a 4.0 student.”

Maybe Jackson represents the rabid fringe, but the passion and love that inspire his devotion for Stanford sports teams are shared by many faithful followers. No one interviewed for this story — faculty, administrators, alumni or athletes — disagrees about the importance of athletics. It is one of the defining attributes of the university, an agent for community bonding, and a crucial lever for goodwill and financial support.

“When I think about the opportunity for this community to come together and celebrate, I think about two New Year’s Days, for example,” says Muir. He is referring, of course, to Rose Bowl appearances by the Cardinal in each of the past two seasons, both of which spurred massive turnouts by alumni who traveled from around the world to attend. The spirit those games engendered would be difficult to replicate in any other college-sponsored activity, he notes.

A self-described ardent fan, President Hennessy has been a strong supporter of athletics throughout his 14-year tenure. He recognizes the connective epoxy that athletics provides for the Stanford family.

“Athletics has a direct value in terms of developing leadership skills, and resilience and teamwork among the students who participate. But it also creates unity, esprit de corps, loyalty to the institution, within both the current student body and the alumni. That’s a very valuable thing. It would be terrible to see that destroyed,” he says.

Undeniably, part of the appeal for Stanford fans is the pride that comes with winning. All those championships and bowl games and Olympic gold medal winners create a kind of reflected glory that alumni bask in.

However, winning alone does not make a typical Stanford fan’s chest swell. Hennessy believes, and many alumni agree, that support for Stanford athletics is contingent on keeping sports in perspective, always subservient to the primacy of the school’s academic mission. Winning at the expense of academic and cultural standards would quickly erode that support, Hennessy asserts. Moreover, it would likely rupture the currently warm relationship between students who are athletes and those who are not. “Here we are, Nerd Nation,” Hennessy says. “But not if we’re paying players.”

Adds Muir: “If our athletes are deemed to be employees, we will opt for a different model.”

stands and college players are classified as employees, or paid to play, Stanford may face an agonizing dilemma. Options will include abandoning big-time revenue sports altogether, continuing to participate but without offering scholarships, or perhaps joining a congregation of schools using a different set of rules.

If Stanford were to discontinue providing athletic scholarships, it could still help athletes offset their costs via standard financial aid offers. But it’s hard to gauge whether that would make up for the loss of the scholarships. It might mean leaving the Pac-12 and throwing in with like-minded schools, probably other highly selective privates. (Imagine a conference made up of, say, Stanford, Rice, Vanderbilt, Duke, Notre Dame and Northwestern.) Or the Cardinal could simply play at the Division III level, where athletic scholarships aren’t allowed. Admittedly, football games against Division III opponents in vast Stanford Stadium seem an unlikely prospect.

Stanford has already made compromises. When the Pac-12 wanted to add a 12th game to the football schedule, Stanford voted “no” but acceded when the decision went against it. Similarly, the advent of weeknight games to honor TV contracts drew the ire of some faculty. When the university notified employees that they could leave work at 4 p.m. to avoid traffic expected because of a Thursday-night football game against Oregon last fall, linguistics professor Tom Wasow fired off an email to senior administrators to protest. “I thought that was an outrageous example of athletics encroaching” on the work of the university, says Wasow, who for several years served as Stanford’s representative to the Coalition of Intercollegiate Athletics and was on that organization’s steering committee. Hennessy agreed and promised to bring the matter up with the Pac-12 presidents.

Coaching salaries have ballooned in recent years, adding fuel to critics’ arguments that the system is out of whack. Nick Saban, the head coach at the University of Alabama, stands to earn more than $7 million this year, making him one of the highest-paid public sector employees in Alabama. According to figures compiled by the sports website Deadspin, the highest-earning public employee in 40 of 50 states is either a football coach or a basketball coach. In 2014, more than 60 head football coaches will make at least $2 million.

Stanford isn’t immune to those market forces. The decision to compete in Division I and vie for championships alongside football powerhouses like USC and Oregon compels Stanford to compete for coaching talent. Head football coach David Shaw’s total compensation topped $2 million in 2012, based on the university’s 990 tax filing for that year. (That form is the most recent available, and Stanford does not otherwise disclose salaries of employees.)

Photos from stanfordphoto.com: Don Feria (2)

Shaw, ’94, a former Cardinal wide receiver, has led Stanford to three straight BCS bowls. He has reportedly been courted for several high-profile coaching jobs, including at the University of Texas and a few in the NFL, but so far he has resisted those overtures. Muir notes that retaining Shaw was important because of his positive influence as a teacher and mentor in addition to his success on the field. “We believe in investing in our leadership,” Muir says. “That’s an essential part of the student-athlete experience. I can assure you that if you look at the landscape, we’re nowhere near the top tier in [salaries] in collegiate athletics.”

If Stanford left Division I football or lowered the competitive bar by no longer offering scholarships, market pressures would dissipate considerably. On the other hand, the fan base almost certainly would shrink, and revenues would plummet. That might affect Stanford’s ability to underwrite three dozen varsity sports. Donations, at least in the short term, might drop. Tradition would take a hit. Instead of playing USC for a potential Rose Bowl berth, Stanford might wind up playing Harvard, essentially for bragging rights. If Big Game survived, Stanford would be at a severe disadvantage, playing against bigger and better athletes.

Should that happen, Jackson might be less inclined to make his autumnal pilgrimages to the Farm. It would hurt, but he insists that he would stand firmly behind the university. “I would be greatly disappointed, but I would understand the position. Stanford is much bigger than football,” he says. “There would be short-term pain, but in the long run, I don’t think we would suffer that much.”

Rachel Williams, ’14, a standout volleyball player, replied quickly when asked whether she would choose Stanford’s values or big-time athletics: “I would say go for the values,” she said. But a moment later, she conceded that such a decision would be wrenching. “The idea of having a top-tier athletic program decrease in competition level would be hard to vote for as well. I would want to hear all possible options.”

Wasow says that certain compromises affecting academics would lead him to support getting out of football, but he’s highly cognizant of the ramifications: “There would be a big price to pay. It would really alienate a lot of alumni.”

dominated the summer for the NCAA: the reforms being attempted within the organization and the ferocity of the criticism it has received over the current state of college sports. Examples of the latter included an earful from a committee of U.S. senators, including New Jersey’s Cory Booker‚ ’91, MA ’92, a former Stanford football player.

Significant reforms are either being enacted or suggested. But not every school is on board with the effort, and there’s no guarantee that the reform movement will enable the NCAA and its member institutions to control their own fate. In April, the NCAA authorized schools to provide unlimited meals and snacks to all Division I athletes, instead of just three meals a day or a food stipend. In July, the association agreed to spend $70 million for testing and diagnosis of current and former athletes in a tentative settlement of a three-year-old class action over players’ head injuries.

Photos from stanfordphoto.com: Don Feria(left); Dani Vernon

However, the depth of the friction and a welter of viewpoints have muddied the notion of true reform from school to school. The Power 5 want the autonomy to implement some rule changes for themselves. On August 7, the NCAA granted them preliminary approval to act on their own for rules including the value of scholarships. Smaller schools, like Kustra’s Boise State, resist calls for revisions they think will worsen their competitive disadvantage.

Although some scenarios are grim, Hennessy sees an opportunity. “My view is, look, maybe we have one last shot at restoring the primacy of the academic role for student-athletes. Don’t you really want to put all your wood behind that arrow and try to save the system, rather than stand by and let it fail?”

For his part, Shaw has never flinched from advocating the primacy of academics. His on-the-field objective is a national championship, but he reiterated in a recent interview with Fox Sports that any additional emphasis on football “because there’s money to be made” is the “exact wrong approach.”

Hennessy is circumspect about how much Stanford can influence the outcome of the reform debate. “We’re trying to decide where is the
line we’d never cross, and then what are the implications of that. And
what is the strategy we use. Either we have a lot of influence because we’re seen in a sort of unique place, and perhaps by staking out a position we could give people courage to speak their values, or it might be nobody follows us.

“That doesn’t mean it’s not the right thing to do. There will
be courage needed.

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