Moving to Washington, D.C. and starting a PAC doesn’t make as many as waves as it used to. Luckily for college athletic directors, Donald Trump has his name on a hotel.
The Washington Post reported Monday that LEAD1 will now hold its annual September meeting in the Presidential Ballroom at the Trump International Hotel in Washington, D.C. Formerly known as the D1A Athletic Directors’ Association, LEAD1 is a group representing the 129 Division I athletic directors at FBS football schools. The ADs will be among members of Congress, as well as administration officials.
LEAD1—which uses LinkedIn as a home page of sorts—is run by president and CEO, and former Maryland basketball standout, Tom McMillen. McMillen is flanked by Michigan State’s Mark Hollis, who replaced Notre Dame AD Jack Swarbrick as chairman of the group, and Clemson’s Dan Radakovich, who was named vice chair in October.
The hot-button issue most commonly associated with the group’s head-first dive into Washington is that of athlete pay. As the athletic directors in charge of managing and profiting from college athletics’ most lucrative sport, the idea of having to carve out money from the annual budget—used to pay strength coaches six figures, build really big slides, and multi-million dollar complexes—to pay the players making the budget possible seems to be a real sticking point. In response to recent legislative threats, LEAD1 will now be cozying up to members of the House and Senate, attempting to win their ears and guide them on how to help shape their top-heavy vision of college athletics.
According to the Post, the group’s members and their guests will not be staying at the Trump-branded hotel; instead, they will stay at the Mandarin Oriental and use Trump’s larger ballroom for their event. McMillen cited the desire for a larger space and his personal relationship with Trump, who was a donor to his early campaigns, as reasons for the reservation. When asked about the potential conflict of interest, McMillen talked about George Washington owning land.
“I’m sure Washington had conflicts, too. He owned tons of land in the western frontier, so he had tons of conflicts,” he said. “It was an interesting time. Real estate is a tough thing because you can’t sell it, and I think back to presidents that had great wealth.”
As part of a rebranding effort started two years ago, LEAD1 has spent the past four months rolling out its new political approach to the public. If the group name sounds familiar, it’s because it made some minor waves in the news cycle when it announced it would be moving its annual meeting from Grapevine, Texas to Washington, D.C. and starting a PAC, also named LEAD1.
McMillen’s stance on paying players is clear as CEO of this group, but he’s flirted with the idea of sharing revenue with athletes more than once. In interviews over the past three years, he said he believes paying football and men’s basketball players would cripple the non-revenue sports programs, but has criticized college sports for allowing department-wide overspending and the ballooning of coaching salaries.
In a November interview possibly conducted by himself (again, posted on LinkedIn), McMillen posited that college athletes of today are treated much better than when he played basketball at Maryland, pointing out the “free food” and “millions of dollars for emergency expenses such a winter coat or flying home for a family emergency.” He counterbalances this with the hardships he faced as a heralded Terrapin player, saying he only received “$15 per month in laundry money.”
When asked by himself what the group’s largest challenges in 2017 will be, he answered it would be convincing the public of how good the college athlete really has it nowadays, as well as combatting legislation with aims of “paying these young men and women as if they were employees” He also pulled out the tired fallback response that the majority of the FBS athletic departments operate in the red:
A recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Ed pointed out that 104 of the 129 members of LEAD1 Association lose money in their athletic departments. If athletes were to be paid, that would be devastating for just about every college sports program across the country.
This lines up with a 2012 response letter he penned to the New York Times regarding columnist Joe Nocera’s writing on the subject of athlete pay, which he says “isn’t feasible, given Title IX regulations and politics.” As the Post showed with its 2015 series on the books of athletic departments, overspending—not a lack of funding—is the major issue plaguing programs large and small in the FBS.
McMillen’s a smart guy, and he’s espoused a number of interesting ideas over the years—he seems open to reeling in spending, financially punishing coaches, and tying their contracts to academic performance in a more efficient way than APR bonuses. All great stuff for someone who loves the idea of small-scale, academics-first amateurism. But college sports passed that point decades ago. Ultimately, he is here to serve as the gateway to Congress for athletic directors who are seeking the government’s help in maintaining their scam; so far, he’s delivering.