Pay-for-play: Student-athletes and their worth

Josh Walfish

Pat Fitzgerald may have a Northwestern degree, but even the Wildcats’ coach is not bright enough to figure out how much compensation college athletes should receive.

“I’m not smart enough to come up with that idea,” Fitzgerald said at Big Ten Media Days in July. “We need to help and provide all of our athletes the opportunity, if they cannot go out and get a job to provide for themselves. All those things need to be hashed out and discussed, let smart people come up with a plan if that’s the direction we’re going to go.”

The issues with compensation arose following incidents at Georgia, Ohio State and Southern California within the last two years.

The Trojans are under NCAA sanctions after star tailback Reggie Bush and his family took money and other gifts from an agent. The Bulldogs lost star receiver A.J. Green for four games last season after he sold his Independence Bowl jersey last offseason.

The Buckeyes are under NCAA investigation after players, including quarterback Terrelle Pryor and wide receiver DeVier Posey, sold merchandise for tattoos at a Columbus, Ohio tattoo parlor.

Apparently, some college athletes think that the monthly stipend they get to cover books, housing and other expenses is not enough. Senior left tackle Al Netter, for one, feels as though he needs more money. The senior lives off campus and said that as an offensive lineman he spends almost double the amount of money on food than the average player. That puts a restriction on his budget for recreational activities, like going to the movies.

“A lot of times the stipend does not always meet the needs of a Division I athlete, as far as food and other expenses,” Netter said. “Especially for an offensive and defensive lineman, the amount of calories you have to consume in a given day is pretty ridiculous, so even if you’re bargain shopping at the grocery store it’s hard. You’re running low on money towards the end of the month.”

There are other athletes, like Michigan State quarterback Kirk Cousins, who don’t want to come down on either side of the debate. Cousins said that with so many variables to the debate, he wants to stay in the middle so as to not paint the wrong picture of Division I student-athletes.

“It’s a complicated issue and I feel if I go down the road of one side or the other too much, that’s what’s going to be captured,” Cousins said. “Overall, I don’t have one answer or one perspective, I’m just trying to take a look at all the different complications of the issue.”

The NCAA already makes more than $1 billion per year off TV contracts for its various championships. The most publicized example is the $10.8 billion contract CBS signed for the rights to March Madness through 2024.

The Big Ten Network gives Big Ten schools an additional $20-22 million in revenue. Add in payouts for bowl games and qualifying for certain NCAA championships, and that’s already close to $30 million. All of which the schools are making off the student athletes.

There is hope that if the NCAA can come together and reform its scholarship structure to better accommodate the current needs of student athletes, the scandals like those in Los Angeles, Columbus, Ohio and Athens, Ga. will vanish.

However Jay Paterno, the quarterbacks coach at Penn State, believes that the money involved with NCAA rules violations is a lot more than anything the schools could realistically pay athletes. Paterno told ESPN.com in July that any pay-for-play plan would not help as much as most people think.

“The truth of the matter is, it’s not going to cut down cheating,” Paterno said. “A kid trying to get paid isn’t asking for 300 bucks a game. The kid from Memphis that Alabama got in trouble for, that was over $200,000. That’s a little more than a stipend. So I don’t think it’s going to solve any of the major issues people think it’s going to solve.”

The Big Three (Plans)

There are three major compensation plans that have been debated in the media.

The Delany Plan

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany has long been an advocate for scholarships going beyond the traditional cost of attendance for athletes. His plan would give each player an additional 2 to 5 thousand dollars to spend on other costs of living expenses like entertainment. However, Delany said he would not support any compensation package that goes beyond the cost of an education.

“If you define (pay-for-play) as anything more than the cost of education, we would not be interested in discussing that,” Delany said. “To the extent it’s contained to the cost of education, we’d be interested in having that discussion.”

This plan has found support across the country, including with Delany’s SEC counterpart, Mike Slive. At SEC Media Days in July, Slive said the NCAA needs to put economics aside when discussing a new benefits package for student-athletes.

“The first step is to develop a plan to provide these additional benefits to student-athletes in an equitable manner through a redefined grant-and-aid program,” Slive said. “We recognize that this proposal may be a financial hardship on some, yet at the same time economics cannot always be the reason to avoid doing what is in the best interests of our student-athletes.”

Pay the stars

There is another proposal that is designed to bring the American capitalist principle into the NCAA.

One of the proponents of this philosophy is ESPN’s Viv Bernstein. In a July 23 column, Bernstein wrote about the need for the NCAA to get into the 21st century and abandon the idea that college athletics is a non-professional enterprise.

“It’s time to give up on the outdated notion that college athletes are ‘amateurs’,” Bernstein wrote. “There is nothing amateurish about that multi-billion dollar industry, except the way it treats its most important commodity: the talent. Slive’s suggestion that colleges pay athletes an extra $3,000 or so a year to cover living expenses is laughably inadequate. Look at the Newton numbers and ask yourself if $3,000 will somehow stop the flow of money to these athletes. Not when there’s tens of thousands of dollars, and more, to be made.”

Superback Jack Konopka said he would not support a comparable plan, but he sees some merits in Bernstein’s proposal.

“I don’t know if I could say I was in favor of it, but I would understand it,” the freshman said. “If you’re selling No. 7 Dan Persa or No. 75 Al Netter jerseys, that’s their jersey, that’s what they do and I feel like they should be compensated for that.”

Paying the hand that feeds you

The NCAA makes a good chunk of its money from Division I football and basketball, so naturally there are plans that suggest only paying the revenue-sport athletes.

Back in January 2008, sportswriter Frank Deford wrote a column in Sports Illustrated advocating for this plan. He wrote, “It is perfectly unconscionable that big-time college football and basketball players go unpaid… Nobody cares if college kids who are actors or musicians or writers or dancers can make a buck using their talent. Why is an athlete any different? At the end of the day, it isn’t an economic issue so much as a moral one. It’s absolutely evil that only here in the United States do we allow this unscrupulous nineteenth-century arrangement to continue to exist.”

Obstacles to Change

Each of these plans has its flaws, but before any is implemented, there are several major obstacles that need to be addressed in overhauling the scholarship system.

Don’t forget about the girls

Some of the proposals run into issues with Title IX, the federal law mandating equal opportunities for females in high school and collegiate athletics. Almost none of the revenue sports or star players on college campuses are female sports or athletes.

Because of this, many people are saying no to plans that would only pay star athletes or revenue-sport athl
etes.

One of those people is President Morton Schapiro, who wrote in an email that “to (pay athletes in) some sports and not others strikes me as blatantly unfair.”

Even a potential beneficiary of a plan to pay revenue-sport athletes is not on board.

“Some sports bring in more money than others,” Konopka said. “But at the same time I feel every athlete that plays at the Division I level is still putting in a ton of time and a ton of work. I feel like everybody should be rewarded somewhat (for that).”

David vs. Goliath

One of the things these plans do not address is how a pay-for-play scheme would be implemented simultaneously in larger conferences like the Big Ten and smaller ones like the MAC. Michigan coach Brady Hoke took over the job at Michigan after coaching at San Diego State and Ball State. When asked about pay-for-play, he pointed to the discrepancy in atmosphere between a smaller school like Ball State and a larger one like Michigan.

“If you’re Ball State University, and we get into (pay-for-play), than their athletic department… how many sports are going to get cut?” Hoke said. “The Mid-American Conference, the schools in that conference and the coaches in that conference, they do a great job and they’ve got great kids. But right or wrong, there is a division. We’re fortunate because we are Michigan, we have 110,000 people that buy tickets and we have 29 sports.”

Nothing’s wrong with the status quo   

With all the talk about changing the current compensation package of student-athletes, one thing hasn’t been fully taken into account — what do the athletes think? Jacob Schmidt was a walk-on running back for the Cats and now that the senior is on scholarship he said it is a “great honor and a privilege” to be able to go to school for free.

While the athletes agree that more money would be nice, there are not a lot of players begging for more money.

Iowa receiver Marvin McNutt said that the cash does get tight at times, but there is enough money for the necessities.

Hawkeyes defensive tackle Mike Daniels took a humorous approach to the stipend debate.

“I wouldn’t have survived in Iowa for five years if I never went to the movies or bought anything to eat,” Daniels said. “Apparently I do have money for that.”

Yet, the standard answer from many athletes is the one Schmidt offered. Schmidt said the arrangement has been in place so long that the athletes have become accustomed to it.

“That’s just the system we’re used to,” Schmidt said. “We’ll make it work whether we’re on campus or off. That stipend has been in place forever. Student-athletes have gotten by on the money that we get.”

What’s the next step?

As heated as the debate has become, the ultimate power lies with the NCAA and the school presidents. NCAA President Mark Emmert is adamant that no pay-for-play system will ever exist under his watch. He explained his position at a meeting of Associated Press sports editors in February.

“I don’t like that idea, I loathe that idea,” Emmert said. “I can think of all kinds of compelling reasons why not to do it. I can’t think of a compelling reason why to do it. There’s a constant discussion that we ought to stop pretending that student-athletes are amateurs, that they’re really professionals, that they ought to be paid. I understand that perspective, but I just profoundly disagree with it.”

Fitzgerald said that he would love to get involved in this debate, but that as a coach he needs to trust the people who make the decision. He said that there was tremendous leadership at the president and athletic director level of the NCAA and that he is confident they will figure out the right solution, whatever that may be.

[email protected]