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NCAA Paying Players is a Slippery Slope

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Jay Bilas' recent student-athlete activism exposes a complicated mess for the NCAA

The debate about college athletes being paid is raging again. My twitter feed has been bombarded by Jay Bilas arguing that the only people not being cut in on the profits of the NCAA are the athletes earning the money. Most notably, Bilas exposed a flaw in the NCAA’s online store, which paired athletes’ names to their school’s jersey with their number, an example of using a student’s image for profit that was long argued to occur in NCAA football games.  I agree with Bilas, but I’m going to take a different angle to the same problem.

I have as many problems with the NCAA as anybody else, but it seems like the compensation for a scholarship athlete is becoming increasingly reasonable when most students walk out of school with tens of thousands of dollars of student loans.  The simple fact is that a college scholarship to a high priced school can run $250,000 these days. Is it pro money? No. But they aren’t supposed to be pro athletes. It would be hard to tell the difference the way the NCAA has treated them (like commodities), but the money for postseason tournaments, international trips, travel, scholarships and the like don't grow on trees.

I have a great respect for college athletes. School is difficult to begin with, but adding in a rigorous practice schedule and a game schedule that fills the remaining time means student-athletes are asked to carry a large load. I learned a lot about travel when I went on about 10 road trips this year to cover those athletes.  I admire the students who can juggle all the demands. It’s difficult.

I also know that in revenue sports (football and basketball), more than half the team is given a significant, if not full ride, scholarship to the University. At Fordham University, total cost of attendance will run a student about $63,400 next year. You could also argue that the investment in a college education only appreciates in value over time. You could also argue that a college scholarship is often worth more than the median household income ($51,404) in the United States.  It's more than plenty of minor league baseball players, NBA D-League players and AHL players make, all of whom were the either the best player or a starter at their college. Include travel expenses, the exclusive tutoring during road trips and athletics-based opportunities offered to students and that college expense is much higher.

That said, life takes money, and even if the majority of expenses are paid for, there are still essentials that aren’t covered by a scholarship.  Also, for every scholarship athlete, there’s at least one that gets no financial assistance at all.  There should be a “whatever life throws at you” stipend for athletes, one that provides for a Saturday night in the city or a dinner out once in a while. Athletes aren’t robots, they are college age kids. They deserve the chance to live that life, too.

Of course they can’t take these things for free. God forbid they commit a major NCAA violation, or even worse, they might get a free dessert from the chef at a restaurant for their autograph. How could such atrocities occur in a civilized society such as this?  I digress.  I see the NCAA’s point with free big ticket items and cash for autographs. What is to say a booster doesn’t believe a top flight college athlete’s signature is worth $50,000 at his alma mater but only $2 at their biggest rival? And who is to stop that booster from promising to buy that autograph once a recruit reaches campus his freshman year? The rules are a little too vague to follow once you open that can of worms.  Then again, one could make the same argument about political contributions, but those are still ok, right?

What more, the rules regarding transfers at the Division I level are equally ludicrous. The miles of red tape for "hardship waivers" and redshirts are nearly as ridiculous as the idea of a coach refusing to allow a student to transfer to any schools on a list they can make up at a whim.

In defense of lower level college athletics (DIII, DII, FCS, and low level FBS schools), do you really think many of them would be in the athletics business if at least 200 people were added to their payroll next year?  While college endowments swell and college athletics pull more and more money, college presidents are going back to students and asking for 4, 5, 6% tuition increases. That already factors in sending over 200 students to school for free because they play a sport exceptionally well (or in the case of some colleges, because they can play a sport well enough to make their horrible team) and paying to travel these kids across the country at cost.  Try to tell a MAAC or Patriot League school that is already pushing students for more money that they need to ask for more because they’re already money-losing athletic department needs more money.

Further, where does it end? One athlete at a Big Ten school in a non-revenue sport said he thinks football and men’s basketball should be paid because they bring in ticket and television revenue. But Title IX didn’t take that into account when the court ruled that women’s sports must have an equal number of scholarships as men’s sports, did they? Where is the legal precedent of giving additional money to only men in basketball and football, but not women playing basketball or softball, which are also televised in several conferences?

The value of athletics in the competitive college landscape remains important.  Harvard will still pull applicants regardless of their basketball team’s record, but you probably don’t see Davidson’s applicant pool exploding without Stephan Curry’s three point barrage in the NCAA Tournament. The “Flutie Factor,” which describes the effect Doug Flutie’s Hail Mary completion for Boston College had on admissions the following year but could well be called the “Curry Rule” or even the “Brad Stevens Effect” now, is what drives these schools.  A school’s premier sports teams provide the most genuine national marketing exposure a university can get.

But as it stands, there is an obvious divide that needs to be fixed. And it won’t be as simple as signing a letter of intent.