NCAA Pay for Play (P)

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?

*   *   *

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.

 *   *   *

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.

*   *   *

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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While you’re here, I’d appreciate a quick vote in my poll to see which Incomplete post I should finish next:  Vote here.

(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.)


Thank you for a post on paying athletes that goes way beyond the short sighted writing on most of the major sports blogs. You are the first writer to discussion the issue of partial scholarships for non-revenue sports.

Also, you should have probably addressed Title IX issues. Image the bargaining position of the women’s basketball team due to that teams existence require for offset the football player scholarships.

If the players are going to be given five year scholarships, then should the unviersity apply the same admission criteria is does to all other students. Nebraska is a 1150 SAT school. What would happen if the football team was required to have an 1150 SAT average?

    Thank you for the kind words!

    You’re right – Title IX brings another 17 layers of complexity to the issue. Over the past few years, we’ve started following the Women’s Gymnastics team at Nebraska. That program will likely never bring in a penny of profit, but I can assure you that what they do is every bit as physically and mentally challenging as the football team – although I would argue their existence cancels out some of the non-revenue men’s sports like wrestling, baseball, etc.

I second the move for mandatory budgeting classes. It’d be nice if they were opened up to all students as well.

I think that a huge amount of money being made off college sports has led some to question whether student-athletes can be considered amateurs any longer, and whether they should, instead, be paid for their efforts.

    Most schools lose money on sports. USA Today had an article that showed that the 230 Division I basketball schools that are public subsidized their athletic programs with $800 billion is fees and tuition taken from non-students.

    If the football players are going to get five year scholarships and free travel home as Christmas, shouldn’t the school stop the subsidies?

    “amateurism” is such a tough concept. If I’m going to Stanford or Northwestern where tuition can run in excess of $40,000 a year, am I still an amateur even if I don’t get a penny for my on-field efforts?

Reblogged this on calikidthegemini and commented:
Great to read different view points on this as a previous ncaa athlete.

While I do give you credit for being more thorough than most are on this topic in the blogosphere, your argument sees the exploitation of these student-athletes as okay, since, in your view, they know full well what they are getting themselves into. Even student-athletes who are on full scholarships struggle to pay for food, toothpaste, deodorant and other basic necessities. The NCAA needs to work to create a more equitable system of revenue-sharing for these student-athletes. With a rule and policy book as thick as the NCAA has developed, the agency can devote just as much time to developing a system where all student-athletes are given stipends, much in the same way that Teaching Assistants/Graduate Assistants are given stipends.

    If schools have to give all athletes full scholarships, expense money, and travel home at Christmas, the number of schools that have an athletic department would probably be less than 60.

    Is paying the football players are Ohio State and Alabama so important that people want to do away with March Madness, the Frozen Four, and the College World Series.

    How much interest and money will there be in college sports if only 60 schools participate?

    I have a hard time using “exploited” to describe anybody who willingly (and hopefully, knowingly) signs up to play college sports. Yes, I think you could easily say that most student athletes live at or below the poverty line, but nobody is saying you *must* do this (which would be how I would define “exploited”).

      Well, the limitations you place on the use of “exploitation/exploited” are certainly problematic. I do want to say congrats on making into Freshly Pressed, however. It’s an honor to be Freshly Pressed. I was so happy when I was Freshly Pressed.

Reblogged this on Circling the answer and commented:
Well, I agreed with the author all the way up until the opinion sections came in. I did research on this exact topic for a paper i wrote last year. And yeah, I’m no scholar haha. Not by a long shot. But at the same time, I still believe the basic facts to be true: There is money being made from these athletes and none of it happens to be trickling down to the actual players. Whenever I think about this topic (which happens more often than you would think), the main problem I can’t seem to solve is how the other sports could be balanced out. I ALWAYS get stuck on that.

Anyways, i really like the facts being presented in this article. It’s something I’m actually interested in.

    Not only what happens to the non-revenue sports but what happens to the football teams in the non-BCS confereces? What happens to the basketball teams in the mid-majors and lower tier conferences.

    You could create a system that pays the basketball players are Duke but not one that pays the players at Mercer, Wichita St, Stephen F. Austin, North Dakota State.

    Paying athletes means there will be much fewer athletes.

    Exactly, in theory it is real easy to say “the players should get a cut”. But in practice it is damn tough to find a system that is fair to both school and athlete, works at BCS-level and mid-major schools, addresses the dozens of non-revenue sports, and wouldn’t be riddled with corruption.

That’s what it appears to be but we as a people have been selling out for a long time. We wanted the American dream so badly, but as a people were not ready to deal with it as capitalism is a nasty beast when you do not understand the game. My point is that we were being delivered from the mountain top, but got side tracked by the carrot of money before we were mature enough as a people to deal with all of the issues it brings. We left out HBCU’s and other institutions before we had enough of a foundation in our own history and a understanding of what we had become in America and setting our place here instead of it being dictated to us and told by others.

Reblogged this on Views by Vern and commented:
Great read about the NCAA and play for pay

Well said! I had the privilege of attending the NCAA final four this year… ONLY because we submitted our email into the “lottery” a year in advance and were able to purchase “reasonably” priced tickets. Being huge college basketball fans, It was a fantastic experience! However I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of people, the rich and famous who attended, and the COST of a single ticket purchased at the last minute for the championship game for truly awful seats!! (One man told me his were $1300/ea and he was holding up the roof in Jerry’s stadium!). With one child in college and 3 more rolling into college over the next 5 years I couldn’t help but wonder if the $$ ever goes to assist the general population of the university?! Some say a successful team, and the supporters it brings attracts more students, but the astronomical increases in tuition costs in the last 20 years sure seam to be covering the cost of fancy stadium suites and athlete villages… And apparently really well paid coaches and admin. Truly I love athletics and especially enjoy collegiate sports primarily because they haven’t lost the desire to play simply for the love of the game. And if college athletes have to struggle by a bit I do think that’s just part of growing up. “Delayed gratification” ,words I cringed at as I worked through 6 years of poverty driven college and completed a bachelors and masters degrees. “Delayed gratification” is what I tell my son and his friends as they try to figure out how to study, work, pay rent and buy food. In general the college athletes I’ve know get a lot of additional support and assistance (which they deserve for the time and energy committed to athletics). A little delayed gratification and some lean years hopefully builds a little character.

    No athletic department transfers money from their accounts to the university other than for tuition, room, board, and expenses for the athletes. At most universities, the university charges students an “athletic fees” (or some other named fee) that is given to the athletic department. Since most athletic departments operates as separate, not-for-profit corporations from the university, the money goes to prop up that organization. Rutgers and Maryland are too of the biggest money losers now since they are changing conferences. Even UCONN has to subsidize their athletic department with over $10 million dollars.

    There is little “Flutie” effect in help a university’s academics through sports. Vanderbilt is the highest rated academic university in the SEC but does not win national championships. Florida State has probably the worst academics out of the schools in the ACC.

    At $50K per year for private universities, there is no way a student can work part time, pay all the bills and even begin to compete academically against the top students. In addition, how does one get the top internships and how does one study abroad going to school part time and working a job?

      For what its worth, I know the athletic departments at a handful of schools (Nebraska, for example) do give money to the universities outside of normal student-athlete expenditures, but I will agree it is the exception.

      Athletic success may not necessarily translate into academic greatness for an institution, but I have heard of schools (such as George Washington) seeing a spike in enrollment after a successful run in the NCAA tournament.

        Nebraska actually gives a small subsidy to its athletic department. The number of public schools that do not take a subsidy is less than 10.

    I have read that some of money brought in at the Final Four goes to pay for NCAA championships in many of their other sports (i.e. the ones like D-II women’s swimming and diving, where ticket prices are closer to $13 than $1300).

    I think you hit the nail on the head with “delayed gratification”. Yeah, for Johnny Manziel, it may stink that A&M is making millions off of you, but I think when he gets drafted this week (and signs a big contract) those years of sacrifice will be worth it.

    On second thought…maybe Manziel isn’t the best example for “delayed gratification”…

I love your take on this issue. I went to a big football school (Florida State University) and struggled financially. It would be a corrupt mess should players start getting paid and it wouldn’t be fair also, part of the joy of college football is playing for pride versus money. School pride. I have much more respect for college football and basketball because you have a love for your team.

    Thanks! My cousin is a FSU alum too. Some of my favorite athletes (like Kenny Bell, who I mentioned above) are the ones who really seem to take pride in their school and don’t treat college like an NFL audition.

This was really interesting. Thanks for a thought-provoking post!

Thanks for your well articulated thoughts. But not all these NCAA athletes get the “privilege” of a free education in exchange for their athletic abilities. My son is being actively by Division II and III schools for his “services.” The DII school is offering him a partial scholarship, while the DIII only gave him a “grant” of a few thousand–in essence, we are in a “pay to play” situation. There are thousands of athletes that play in the lower tiers who would dream to have a chance to get even a place on a DI team–much less a scholarship. It’s a shame that the same system that doesn’t really compensate the DI athletes to start leaves the lower tiers to fend for themselves.

    Every Division II and Division III school loses money on their athletic programs. Where would the money come from to make the all of the scholarships full and to pay the athletes?

    Good point. I’m not very familiar with the workings of D-II and D-III athletics, but I’m not surprised that students and their families have to foot most of the bill.

    Congrats on your son’s scholarship offers, and I hope he can find a situation that works for him (and for you, if you’re paying for his school).

Reblogged this on Pilosopo Tasyo.

I’ve been a long time observer of college athletics, both as a college student and as someone who now lives in a college town where sports are a big thing.

I could see paying a stipend of maybe a thousand or so every semester.

From what I understand athletes are being given first class menu offerings not available to all of the students at least part of the time.

One other thing that doesn’t get mentioned is extra academic support in the form of tutors etc., that wouldn’t be available to the average student. Not every athlete needs this of course, but this isn’t factored in when I see discussions of this topic.

If there was some form of compensation I’d like to see greater behavioral expectations attached to athletic scholarships. This is something that interests me, how often the behavioral expectations for athletes are very low and the accompanying fallout(and cost)this has for the university.

    Good points. I have never seen the “training table” at Nebraska, but from what I have heard, it is very, very different from the dorm cafeteria I enjoyed my freshman year. The academic support definitely should not be taken for granted, as I’m sure many athletes would not complete their degrees without it.

    I’m intrigued by the idea of “behavioral expectations” for student athletes. On one hand, I can see how reducing the number of embarrassing incidents would help a school’s image, but on the other hand, I wonder if the rate of incident for athletes is higher or lower than the student body as a whole. My guess (and it is just that) is that the rate is lower, but it is more noteworthy because a DUI by the second string cornerback is going to be more newsworthy than a DUI by a 4.0 student.

      I wasn’t very clear when I made the comment about behavioral expectations. I meant behaviors that have an impact on the lives of other students and community members. That would include things like vandalism, property destruction, disorderly conduct, assault, etc.

      Especially during the time I was in school, there was an attitude that if the player did well on the field, anything was okay off the field. In my opinion, if players truly expect to get paid this should go along with greater expectations.

      As far as your example of the second string player and the DUI…I’d be less concerned about whether a player should remain on the team with that sort of incident. However, I’d wonder what he thinks he brings to the table that he should be paid for.

Your title tells it all–good story.

I Think That as an ex College athlete the compensation would have been much needed for me once I graduated. Maybe putting the money in a trust fund for athletes once they graduate can be utilized….especially for those who may not play professionally…

Great stuff man. I’m a college athlete! Follow back? I like your stuff.

it’s amazing when a kid from no where or somewhere gets a full ride scholarship to a class 1 college and still complains. i have no sympathy. give it back and deal with college like every other kid has to deal with it. plus, take real courses like everyone else as well. i love college football but it’s almost to the point of finding something else to do in the fall on saturdays.

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