Fitzgerald debates ‘pay-for-play’ with Political Union

Joseph Diebold

Northwestern’s Political Union took a step away from its usual public affairs topics Monday to host NU head football coach Pat Fitzgerald for a discussion of the resolution that the NCAA should pay student-athletes.

Fitzgerald debated with about 25 students at Scott Hall, arguing in favor of the resolution. He said he has not embraced a particular proposal for paying student-athletes but generally supports the idea.

“I’m in favor of supporting athletes financially,” he said. “(Football) is as strong as it’s ever been and is watched as much as it’s ever been because of the student-athletes. To minimize the impact of the student-athlete would be very unfair.”

The discussion of “pay-for-play” is one that has heated up around college athletics in recent years, as new television contracts bring in billions of dollars for the NCAA and its associate universities. In 2010, the NCAA signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion contract with CBS and Turner for TV rights to the men’s basketball tournament.

Proponents of “pay-for-play” argue some of this new revenue should go to athletes.

“This wasn’t talked about in the mid-’90s when I was playing, when there was two football games on TV on a Saturday, ” Fitzgerald said.

Additionally, a number of violations for improper benefits given to student-athletes have cast a spotlight on the fact that some top-level athletes, especially in football and basketball, are receiving compensation already. Fitzgerald spoke out against athletes accepting improper benefits but says sometimes student-athletes will accept these benefits if they feel the need to help support their families.

“Any impropriety and lack of integrity for personal gain isn’t something that should be in sports,” he said. “If you’ve got those kinds of financial difficulties at home, there has to be a mechanism to help that student-athlete. When your back’s against the wall and you have to help your family, what are you going to do? You’re going to help.”

Proposals have varied on whether student-athletes should be compensated, and, if they are, what the plan should look like. The NCAA has considered a blanket $2,000 yearly stipend for all athletes. Fitzgerald argued against the stipend, saying it would simply be spending money for his financially sound players and would not be enough for those struggling to make ends meet.

Instead, Fitzgerald proposed a system in which money is distributed based on need, similar to the way many universities already handle financial aid, saying that could help curb instances in which an athlete feels pressured to accept improper benefits because of external factors.

Other students in attendance expressed different perspectives on the issue. Communication senior Kian Hudson spoke in favor of allowing athletes to pursue their own endorsements, which would keep the NCAA’s current revenue streams in place and create new ones for athletes.

“When it comes to the general public’s vision of NCAA athletes, they tend to focus on the stars, the guys who can play in the pros,” Hudson said. “I think a lot of the problems that people have dealing with the great stars getting exploited would be alleviated a little bit if those guys could go out and sell used cars. The schools are making money off of those kids’ names and faces, and I don’t see why these young men can’t make money off of their names and faces.”

Weinberg senior Nick Ruge, the co-president of the Political Union, said the group invited Fitzgerald to speak because it values the opportunity to go beyond just political issues.

“We try to get a holistic, diverse perspective on a lot of very important issues,” Ruge said. “Fitz is a huge part of this school, and he gives a lot back to the school. He’s an expert on leadership and integrity and he really defines those traits, so it was fun to be able to be in a position to hear from him and learn from him.”

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