If you follow college sports – especially football or men’s basketball – there is one topic that continues to come up: The notion of somehow compensating the athletes for the revenue they are bringing into their schools, their conferences, the NCAA, and all of the other entities who make a profit off of amateur athletics.
This compensation, be it in the form of stipends, income from the sale of their name/likeness, an actual “salary” from the schools, or anything else, would be in addition to the items student-athletes already receive (namely, a free education, room, board, and a healthy collection of athletic apparel).
I’ll be the first to admit there is a lot of hypocrisy in the current system. I recently bought my daughter a replica Nebraska jersey with the number 80 on it. Why number 80? Let’s be honest: it’s not because of Billy Haafke, Jamie Williams, Santino Panico, or any of the dozens of Huskers to have worn #80 over the past 125 years. It’s because of the current #80, wide receiver Kenny Bell. I like Bell as an athlete, and respect him as a person. Plus, my daughter’s hair can do a spot-on impersonation of Bell’s glorious Afro.
That jersey cost me $24.99 at a store owned and operated by the University of Nebraska, located right across the street from Memorial Stadium. That store had racks of #80 jerseys in home red, road white, and the black alternates from 2013 in every size from 12 months to 3XL.
This fall, I suspect there will be hundreds of fans in #80 jerseys at every home game. I’m guessing very few of them will be wearing #80 to honor Husker greats Todd Frain, Jeff Jamrog, or Jermaine Bell. They will wear those #80 jerseys because of Kenny Bell.
And as you probably already know: Kenny Bell will not see a single penny from the sale of #80 jerseys. That is just one example of a broken system.
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Recently, one day before his University of Connecticut Huskies won the NCAA Basketball Tournament, guard Shabazz Napier told reports that “some nights I go to bed starving” because they don’t have enough money to buy food (and NCAA rules and the demands of in-season competition mean they cannot work) and they are unable to get extra meals from their school’s cafeteria/training table.
Yes, just last week the NCAA announced that all student-athletes, even walk-ons, will have access to unlimited meals and snacks, but Napier’s comments give credence to the notion that a “full-ride” scholarship may not cover things you and I consider basic. For some, this is incredibly galling considering the NCAA Tournament brings in close to a billion (with a “B”) dollars in revenue, not including the billion (with another “B”) dollar TV contract with CBS. Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA, makes over a million dollars a year defending a system that – depending on your perspective – is either flawed or blatantly takes advantage of athletes under the guise of “amateurism”.
So should we give scholarship players a bigger slice of the pie, right?
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Sure, it would be great if we could get some money for athletes, especially if we knew players were having to decide between paying the rent or eating dinner tonight.
But here’s the thing – and there really is no way of getting around it – for the majority of people, college is a time of poverty. Tolerating a bunch of loud, obnoxious, dirty roommates so you can afford a place to sleep. Subsisting on peanut butter sandwiches and ramen noodles. Taking out hefty loans with horrible interest rates. Busting your ass at a low paying, dead-end job. And on and on. Financially, the college years are brutal for most kids – especially those whose parents are unable to help out.
So why can’t we get some more money in the hands of the players – especially the ones who are creating the excitement and interest that helps the college sports machine print money for schools and coaches? Forget the antiquated notion of “amateurism” or the Utopian ideal of the “student-athlete”. The main reason schools cannot pay players is there is absolutely no way to do it fairly, evenly, and without opening up a Pandora’s Box of corruption. Heck, the reason the NCAA rules are so bizarrely strict – where eating too much pasta is a potential violation – is largely to avoid improper benefits to players. When you open the door to paying players, schools – and more appropriately, their boosters – will likely exploit whatever system gets put in place as they seek to pay the best players to come to College Town, USA.
Don’t believe me? Let’s look at the popular suggestions for how we can supposedly better compensate players:
A flat stipend. Every player at Big Football Tech gets X dollars per year in addition to their scholarship to cover the “full cost of attendance”. The biggest question here is “How much?”, which spawns a list of follow-up questions:
- Does everybody get the same amount? Clearly, a star player like Johnny Manziel can have a pronounced financial impact on his school (even if the exact number is debatable). So does Manziel get more than his fellow starting QBs in the SEC? What about his teammates who helped Manziel earn those awards – the receivers who caught his passes, the linemen who blocked for him, the scout team defenders who helped prepare him for games? Should they get the same amount? And if not, how do you distinguish the levels/tiers?
- Is there a cost of living adjustment? Being a college student costs more in Los Angeles (UCLA, USC), Chicago (Northwestern), or the Bay Area (Stanford, Cal) than it does in Lincoln, Nebraska; Tuscaloosa, Alabama; or Waco, Texas. Every wanna-be Trojan knows that $3,000 goes a lot farther in Troy, Alabama than it does in LA.
- Does this essentially create a free agent system for incoming freshmen, where traditional recruiting is replaced by bidding wars?
- What about athletes in other sports? At schools like Duke and Kansas, the basketball team is more successful and can bring in more money than the football program. Should those players get a cut? What about the athletes competing in non-revenue Olympic sports, or teams like baseball where the equivalency of 11.7 scholarships are divided among a 27 man roster? Surely those athletes face the same financial shortcomings as the football players.
- How is it administered? Does the NCAA dole out the cash? Do the schools hand it out? Or do we cut to the chase and let the stereotypical shady booster hand out envelopes full of unmarked bills?
- Would this system make it harder or easier for additional under the table payments by “bag men“?
Own and sell yourself. Next up, we give players the ability to market their name/image on jerseys, participate in paid autograph sessions, and promote products and local businesses while still a student-athlete.
In theory this makes sense – if somebody wants to pay $20 for Johnny Manziel’s autograph, buy their kid a #80 Husker jersey because they like Kenny Bell, or trade a tattoo for a Terrelle Pryor jersey, those players should get a cut, right? But the potential for corruption abounds.
- The defensive starters attend booster dinners where they sign autographs – at $100 a pop.
- During recruiting, a coach promises Johnny Five-Star that if he comes to Football University, he’ll make $50,000 from jersey sales in his first two years. If Johnny Five-Star is a bust, the citizens of some third world country will be wearing his jersey for the next decade.
- Every car dealer in College Town USA has an endorsement deal with a star player who drives around campus in a new SUV for appearing in a couple of TV spots.
Make athletes paid “employees”. Northwestern University players are attempting to organize a union that would make players “employees” of their schools, and make them eligible for medical coverage, four-year scholarships, and possibly compensation in addition to their scholarships.
Aside from the uncertainty over how this would impact public schools, the possibility for strikes/lock out, if the scholarship and other benefits would need to be taxed as income, and just what happens if a football player doesn’t want to be in a union, there is the minor hurdle of a prolonged legal battle before any college football union would ever truly start up. Let’s circle back on this one in five to ten years.
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Where do I stand on all of this?
I don’t have a ton of sympathy for the Shabazz Napiers and others who bemoan how athletes are being taken advantage of and can barely afford to eat.
For tens of thousands of college students, college is a time of poverty, of working full-time while attending classes, of going to bed hungry, and waking up knowing that the things you do that day put more money in somebody else’s pocket than in your own.
But can we please stop with the notion that these guys are being taken advantage of?
First off, there are the things that scholarship athletes get that the general student population does not: free education, books, housing, food, and clothing. You can discount those things all you want, but they all have a very real financial benefit.
Secondly, there is the notion that guys are going hungry. What is the real reason guys are going hungry? Is it because they are being limited in the amount of food they can consume at the dining hall / training table? Or that the cafeteria is closed when they’re done with practice, meetings, and study sessions? Or is it because they’re not spending their money wisely*? Regardless of the reason, all of those are things that can (and should) be corrected without the need to issue scholarship athletes a stipend.
*Yes, I am suggesting that some guys may be going to bed hungry because they are managing their money poorly. Since I have no tangible proof, I won’t imply that players are blowing their food money on stereotypical extravagances (cars, tattoos, jewelry, designer clothes, etc.), but I will suggest that if players were better at managing and budgeting their money, they might have a full tummy at bedtime – even while recognizing that a 300 pound defensive tackle has greater caloric needs than the average college student struggling to make ends meet.
At the extreme risk of being hypocritical, I’ll concede that being financially responsible and fiscally conservative is a rare trait in most college aged kid – regardless of if they can dribble a basketball – but considering the laundry list of professional athletes who have blown through million dollar contracts and signing bonuses, maybe athletic departments should to do a better job of helping their athletes create and stick to a budget that allows them to eat and pay the rent.
The other thing that rubs me the wrong way about the paying players debate is the often alluded to notion that the athletes are indentured servants who are being taken advantage of by rich (white) men who sit in ivory towers unaware of the real struggles being faced.
While I am a (decidedly not rich) white man who may very well be out of touch, there is one that I’m pretty sure of:
Nobody is coercing these guys to go to college and deal with these harsh conditions. I may not be familiar with the recruiting pitches being done by college football and basketball coaches, but I’m pretty sure none of them are forcing players to go to college against their will, or to remain at Big Time State University, starving, while their coach makes $4 million a year and the school’s TV deal brings in another 20 million.
For a basketball star like Shabazz Napier, there are ways to get to the NBA without ever stepping foot on a college campus. Sure, it would be tough (if not impossible) for a guy to get to the NFL without spending a couple of years in college, but considering that most NCAA student-athletes go pro in something other than sports, the guys with NFL/NBA talent are the exception and not the rule. The players with the next-level ability have to decide: do they use college athletics as an unpaid stepping stone to becoming a high draft pick? Is the potential for a big day pay worth putting up with a year or three of poverty?
For those of us who were not student-athletes, we likely faced a similar decision. Do I work an unpaid internship over the summer, knowing that the experience and skills I gain should help land a better/higher paying job upon graduation? Or do I work a paying job outside of my career field where the only benefit is a paycheck that allows me to buy name brand peanut butter? The only differences between the athlete and the average student is the student’s internship likely will not lead to a six figure salary and it definitely didn’t come with your tuition paid for.
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So where does all of this leave us? What can the universities do to ensure their student-athletes aren’t going hungry or living in a cardboard box behind the stadium? And what can the players do to help ensure they have enough spending money to put some gas in the tank, go on a date, or not have to live in a run-down dump with five other guys? Here’s what I’d like to see:
- Mandatory budgeting classes for all student-athletes. You can argue that these are things high school graduates should know, but where is the harm in ensuring these kids know how to manage their money?
- Make all athletic scholarships good for five years. Many fans are familiar with the story: Johnny Five-Star signs with big time SEC school, but after disappointing freshman and sophomore seasons, the coach decides to free up a scholarship by forcing Johnny to quit, transfer, or declare a bogus injury. I propose that when a kid signs a letter of intent to play ball for your school, they are guaranteed five years of academic benefits, even if Coach decides that their athletic scholarship would best be used by another kid. This stays in place even if the guy goes pro early and wants to come back to school after he washes out of the pros.
- Provide full medical coverage for the full life of the scholarship. Similar to honoring the “student” part of a student-athlete scholarship, allow players to have access to team doctors and trainers while their five year academic calendar is ticking. This would not be applicable for guys who have medical care from a professional league’s union.
- Stop selling replica jerseys and shirts with the numbers of active players. There is no plausible excuse for why school (and the NCAA) should make money off the uniform number of a current star player when the player doesn’t see a dime. Instead, sell jerseys of guys who have exhausted their eligibility. If I paid $24.99 for a #80 jersey with no name on the back this year, the odds are good that I would probably pay $29.99 for a #80 jersey that says “BELL” on it next year (Bell is entering into his senior season), especially if that extra five bucks is going to a guy who represented my school with talent and class.
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(Author’s note: Wondering why there is a random letter in parentheses in the title of this post? Not sure how this post corresponds to the daily letter in the April A to Z Challenge? Like clicking on links? These questions are all answered here.)