ORONO — Karlton Creech faced a dilemma this summer involving, naturally, money.

Creech, in his second year as athletic director at the University of Maine, had the opportunity for the first time to hand out stipends on top of the scholarships being awarded to roughly 200 athletes on campus. The so-called “cost of attendance” checks are meant to cover everyday expenses that fall outside of what scholarships typically offer, and are available for the first time this year to the 350 universities that comprise Division I of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, including Maine.

The money isn’t substantial at major universities, but at a maximum of $2,200 per scholarship athlete for Maine would cost the school $440,000 if fully implemented. The funds would come from the university, not the NCAA, although that organization did dole out an additional $55,000 per Division I school with no strings attached.

That’s not nearly enough to cover stipends for all Black Bear scholarship athletes, so Creech opted not to spend the money, citing a desire to see how it plays out elsewhere, particularly at Maine’s peer institutions like New Hampshire and Vermont.

The larger question is whether Black Bear athletic officials will increasingly be watching from the sideline as the nature of college sports transforms in front of them.

Cost of attendance is the issue of the day, but it certainly isn’t the end of the discussion about how to apportion the billions of dollars generated annually by college sports. It has simply reignited the debate as athletes push for a share of that money.

The big football schools, known as the Power 65, are seeking to separate themselves competitively from their small-pocketed brethren. They are the ones that pushed the cost-of-attendance legislation through, and then quickly made sure to announce to prospective athletes that they were willing to hand over the extra money.

Schools like Maine are left to try to keep pace. Or not.

“The new legislative system that we’ve got set up at the NCAA, where the big five conferences plus Notre Dame can seek to make their own rules related to finances, and then the system is set up that that becomes ‘permissive’ for everybody else. It’s an interesting way to go about it,” Creech said. “Because permissive sounds great, but for schools that don’t have the resources to do it, it creates a widening competitive gap between the very top and everybody else.”

SEEING ATHLETES AS WORKERS

That may be the crux of the issue at Maine, but the universities with the resources aren’t going to slow down to ponder the implications. In the win-at-any-cost world of big-time college sports, it’s becoming almost impossible to talk about “amateur” athletes with a straight face.

Ellen Staurowsky knows the terrain well. She was a four-sport athlete at Ursinus College in Pennsylvania during the 1970s, in the infancy of women’s sports programs. She became a college physical education teacher, field hockey coach and athletic director before age 30. Now a professor of sport management at Drexel University in Philadelphia, Staurowsky writes extensively about the rights of college athletes and the need for reform.

She wants to see an honest dialogue about why athletes are brought to universities.

“The notion that we give athletic scholarships for any reason other than the fact that there’s athletic performance is disingenuous,” Staurowsky said. “If you’ve got these athletes who are on your campus and the primary reason that they’re there is to participate in a multibillion-dollar industry that benefits your campus, then simply call that what it is. And maybe what that then acknowledges is that the athletes who are under pressure to work 40-60 hours per week in demanding conditions, don’t just get this theoretical education that you insist is there. Give them a paycheck.… They’re an uncompensated labor force.”

Staurowsky believes that, at least for major-college football and men’s basketball programs, where the real money is being made, we’re getting closer to having athletes being seen as university employees instead of students.

Litigation is needed to force the issue, Staurowsky said. And that is starting to happen. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon led an effort to get the NCAA to pay athletes for using their names and likenesses in TV broadcasts and video games. An appeals court found in September that the NCAA was in violation of antitrust law, but that college athletes are not entitled to money above the full cost of attendance, a ruling that left both sides of the debate claiming victory.

Last year, Northwestern University football players petitioned to unionize, claiming they were university employees and should have the right to bargain collectively. That effort was halted this summer by the National Labor Relations Board.

But change is on the horizon.

Jay Bilas senses it, although he doesn’t foresee major reforms happening quickly. The ESPN college basketball analyst is a critic of the status quo in college sports, particularly decrying what he sees as the hypocrisy of NCAA President Mark Emmert, who draws a salary of $1.7 million to front the “nonprofit” organization. (Emmert is not related to this reporter.)

“It’ll only change when the NCAA loses more cases in court, or the players decide that they’re going to start exercising some leverage and walking out,” said Bilas, who has a law degree from Duke University, where he was once a star basketball player. “Because the players have a lot of leverage here. But they’re transient; they cycle in and out relatively quickly.”

‘SELLING US AT EVERY TURN’

Bilas was a four-year basketball starter at Duke from 1982-86. Even then, he said he recognized the inherent inequities in college sports, where coaches could make exorbitant salaries while players were subject to punishment for getting anything for free.

“I did not think it was fair that we were told what we could and could not accept, and they were selling us at every turn,” Bilas said. “I had a problem with them telling us if we took a sandwich somehow we were criminals. We brought it up, and nobody listened. And why would they?”

Bilas doesn’t see the cost-of-attendance stipends as a significant concession. He contended that the small outlays of cash are just the universities finally giving something directly to the athletes, as opposed to the tuition, books, room and board that typically constitute a scholarship, but are really just “the school paying the school.”

If the stipends are a belated admission that college athletes aren’t truly amateur, Bilas said that’s been obvious for decades.

“Amateur means you do it when you feel like it,” he said. “There’s no decision made by a college athlete of whether to practice. And your scholarship is dependent on you practicing.

“It’s a professional organization, the NCAA. I can think of no other endeavor where the primary revenue drivers, and that’s the players, have a ceiling.”

The athletes at Maine aren’t paying much attention to the cost-of-attendance issue. Of course, they’re not going to benefit from it this year anyway.

Blaine Byron, a junior forward on the Black Bear hockey team who has a likely professional career waiting – he was drafted by the NHL’s Pittsburgh Penguins in 2013 – said he read an article about the stipends but didn’t spend much time deciphering how they work in practical terms.

“The extra money isn’t going to be that big of a difference,” Byron said. “You want to go to a place where you think you’re going to develop in four years and kind of get into good habits, and also get a chance to win.”

Football player Trevor Bates, a senior from Westbrook, sees the dollar figures that are out there, but feels like he’s far removed from that world. He came to Maine on a partial scholarship – “Here’s a $20 bill, you’re good. Split it up how you want; $5 for food, the rest for pencils and notebooks,” he joked – but played so well that he is now on a full scholarship, and grateful for it.

“Me not having to pay for school is obviously one of the biggest blessings I’ve had in my life. My family doesn’t have a lot of money to just dish out and send to college,” said Bates, who is hoping to make it to the NFL after his college career ends this fall.

“It’s ridiculous how much money they pull in (in college football). What I have to say isn’t going to change it, but it’s a lot of money.”

Does he consider himself an amateur athlete? Bates contemplated the question. “I’m just a college football player, that’s it,” he concluded.

STUDENTS’ SPORTS ‘CO-OPTED’

The debate about whether college athletes are school employees or students participating in an extracurricular activity is strictly an American one. No other country mixes higher education and competitive sport the way we do.

It began benignly enough in 1852, when a rowing team from Harvard competed against its counterparts from Yale on Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. There is no record of who won, but in a delicious bit of foreshadowing, the event was reportedly funded in part by a real estate impresario looking to show off some land for sale. The game was afoot.

“Sport was the expression for student control, which I think is really interesting in hindsight,” Staurowsky said of the beginnings of college athletics. “It was a student invention, the student contribution to the university that became co-opted by the official hierarchical, paternalistic powers, and then ultimately entrepreneurial powers.”

College sports quickly became part of the American fabric, with schools fielding baseball and track teams in the 1870s. By the turn of the last century, college football had taken hold and has never let up.

College sports is a multibillion-dollar industry. ESPN is spending $7.3 billion over 12 years to broadcast the seven biggest college football games of the calendar – four major bowl games, and the three playoff games.

Maine will see none of that money. The Black Bears don’t compete at the highest level in football, and have a legitimate chance to win a national championship only in hockey, which they have done twice, in 1993 and 1999.

So it is hockey that may force the university’s hand when it comes to athlete stipends. Is it the new cost of doing business?

In Hockey East, the 12-team league that includes the Black Bears, schools like Boston College, Connecticut and Notre Dame can more easily absorb spending the extra money on athletes.

But even smaller schools like North Dakota have signaled they will make the payments. The university originally agreed to give the stipends only to its men’s and women’s hockey players, but said this summer it was extending them to all athletes next school year. Miami of Ohio, Michigan Tech and Minnesota Duluth have said they will pay. Denver and Elon have joined Maine in saying they will not.

For schools that do pay, it can be an extra enticement for luring athletes. And Creech knows it.

“The minute that a recruit identifies a reason for choosing School A over School B was the cost-of-attendance calculation, then it will become a very real issue for a lot of schools, not just us,” he said.

Meanwhile, Maine waits for the next shoe to drop. If recent history is a guide, it won’t be long.

The athletes are restless, the big schools are flexing their power, the NCAA is slowly starting to lose control, the need for its very existence being openly questioned.

Bilas said it’s about time.

“All the NCAA has to do is stay in its lane and run tournaments and run sports. Don’t try to run academics and eligibility; let the schools do that,” he said. “The world will not spin off its axis if NCAA players are offered more than a scholarship. People will adjust just fine and people will still watch.”