The athletic director with the largest budget in the nation said Thursday he doesn't support paying athletes nor a system in which they can market themselves, and doesn't understand the recent quest by some Northwestern football players to unionize.
Steve Patterson, who took over as AD at the University of Texas this past November, told ESPN.com that he listened to the case made by former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter, which was backed by the College Athletes Players Association, and it wasn't clear what he was seeking.
"It's interesting when you look at the objections of the plaintiffs in the case; we address all of them," Patterson said. "If our athletes get hurt, we pay all their medical bills. If they want to come back and graduate, we pay for them to come back and graduate. We do everything that they say they wanted."
Northwestern players, who were found by the National Labor Relations Board last month to be university employees, are set to vote on whether to unionize late next week.
Patterson, who oversees an annual athletic budget of roughly $170 million, said the "whole thing smells of guys in the legal profession looking for a fee."
Patterson directed that comment towards sports labor lawyer Jeff Kessler, who last month filed an antitrust claim against the NCAA and the five largest conferences in New Jersey federal court, hoping to represent all scholarship players in college basketball and football players.
Kessler is arguing for a more free market in which schools can offer more than a scholarship to win over a player's services.
"Guys like Jeff Kessler are trying to destroy the college system to get a percentage or a fee," Patterson said. "If they do that, they'll be destroying the greatest thing to happen to the college system aside from the G.I. Bill."
Patterson did admit Thursday that he felt the NCAA and the schools were losing the public relations battle.
"The universities, the conferences and the NCAA have done a very poor job of telling our story and we've allowed this story to be created by the sports press to focus on the one-half of 1 percent of the student-athletes that go on to play pro sports. But 99.5 percent of student-athletes would not be in the position they're in without getting a scholarship."
Patterson said that, thanks to scholarships, many are the first in their generation to attend college and that athletic programs contribute greatly in the graduation process.
Patterson said first-generation college students normally graduate at a rate of around 15 percent compared to those in the athlete population who have graduation rates of at least 75 percent due in part to tutors and mentors.
Patterson said he can't envision any system where players can benefit from their value on the free market, including be able to market themselves, sign autographs for compensation and get a percentage of their jersey sales.
"The difficulty in opening up free-market marketing to the half of the 1 percent is that it would create a competitive balance issue," Patterson said. "It would be easy for Booster X to figure out how'd he'd essentially pay a recruit to come to a school."