Jim Delany's $20 million exit prize from Big Ten is absurd. Here's why

Shawn Windsor
Detroit Free Press

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany announced Monday he was stepping down in 2020. Because important people think the world needs that much time to prepare for their absence. 

Hey, that’s unnecessary. A cheap shot. Delany’s contract expires next summer. He’s 70. And he’s only reminding us that his 30-year tenure is coming to close. 


Speaking of reminders, though, how about this one: Delany is set to earn some $20 million in bonus payments. 

That’s eight figures, if you’re counting. Not that I am.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany speaks to the media during the Big Ten media days Friday in Chicago.

Here’s another reminder: Delany earned that money overseeing a non-profit institution (the Big Ten) that relies on free labor. And that should make you uncomfortable at best, sick to your stomach at worst. 

Twenty million?  


Whatever else you think of the actual job Delaney did at the helm of the richest conference in college sports — hi there, Rutgers — his compensation speaks to a system that is broken.  

It’s not his fault he will earn that much, of course. College sports are a business. He made his money fair and square. 

The question is: why? 

As in: Why must we continue this charade? Why must we attach an exploitative model to institutions that exist to educate? Why do news conference panel moderators at the Final Four insist on referring to basketball players as student-athletes even as they sit in the bowels of billion-dollar stadiums with million-dollar sponsors? 

Yeah, the athletes are students. And most of them take their studies seriously.  

But by rolling out the phrase “student-athlete” when the cameras are rolling, the NCAA is doing nothing more than manipulating. It’s an attempt to obfuscate, to divert your eyes from the ruse, to tap into some sentimental notion of amateurism. 

And, you know, uncorrupted competition. 

The same impulse, I imagine, that drove Delany to expand eastward, way outside the footprint of the Big Ten, to Rutgers and Maryland. 

Lovely campuses, by the way — yes, Rutgers is a leafy oasis not long from New York’s concrete shadow. But that’s beside the point.  

Delany wanted more viewers for his Big Ten Network. He wanted another door for his basketball and football coaches step in to.   

Michigan basketball coach John Beilein accepts the trophy from Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany, right, after defeating Wisconsin for the conference tournament title Sunday, March 12, 2017, in Washington.

Nothing wrong with either in a vacuum. But they were business moves. Moves Delany felt he had to make to stave off the other Power Five conferences also trying to realign and gobble up territory. 

It was a turf war. Still is, truthfully. And Delany has been a mastermind.  

Toward that end — full-share Big Ten schools hauled in $50 million each last year. The result of his innovative Big Ten Network, conference expansion, and overall brand management. 

Yet it’s fair to ask: for what end? And for whose benefit? 

The list of those who’ve made serious bank is long. It includes almost everyone involved in big-time football and basketball. 

Except the players.  

It should be noted that Delany is against paying players. As recently as Big Ten basketball media day in October, he again expressed his belief that the NCAA is “in a business that is student-based, education-based.”

Oh, sure, some of them eventually get paid. But they should’ve been earning all along. Maybe not an actual paycheck from the universities, but at least from sponsors who might be interested. 

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany.

Just last week the NFL held its annual festival to show off its latest potential employees, where coaches and scouts timed 40-yard-dashes, vertical jumps, shuttle drills. The ability of the athletes on display is breathtaking.  

Many of those athletes arrived in Indianapolis as stars, made famous playing in “amateur” contests on the biggest stages in the country. Yes, many of them are about to get their chance to earn.  

Yet in watching them, don’t forget how many already have earned on their backs, including one very wealthy conference commissioner. 

Sure, Delany did the job he was asked to do and helped shepherd the Big Ten into a wildly lucrative state. He showed foresight into a changing market. He was rewarded handsomely. 

He shouldn’t be the only one. Twenty million is a reminder of that. 

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.