The CHill Zone of T&F: Conway's View From the Finish Line

Should Collegiate Athletes Be Paid?

Mar 31st, 2011
9:18 am PST

That’s the question that has been placed on the table this week, and one that has been bantered around now for decades. After all, while “student athletes” are expected to live a completely “amateur” lifestyle – i.e. accept nothing from anyone – several of the sports they participate in are huge money making endeavors for their schools.

Witness the current NCAA basketball tournament which is reaching it’s culmination this weekend. This extravaganza will make the NCAA and member schools $771 Million dollars just from television rights! And schools that participate in the BCS bowl system in football earn millions of dollars for participating. The coaches that lead these programs and are charged with ensuring that their teams are a part of the BCS and NCAA tournament also make millions of dollars – to make sure that the school’s coffers continue to fill via the performances of its athletics teams.

However, while the schools and coaches reap huge benefits, athletes – those actually performing the work that brings the invitations, bids, and ultimately the dollars to the schools – are not allowed as much as an extra meal outside of the their standard meal tickets in the cafeteria. Ineligibility can be handed down if a coach or booster were to provide a kid with a plane ticket to go see an ailing family member. And an entire program can be brought to its knees if clothing or transportation is provided to a student.

In short a vow of abject poverty is expected of students who are providing a means of wealth to their school and many of its employees!

With the cards on the table so to speak, I think that any sane person would say that most student athletes deserve more than they are currently allowed to receive  – which is basically nothing outside of their scholarships. The real question, in my opinion, is how should that additional “compensation” be administered.

Salaries I believe are off the table. Too many grey areas there. How do you determine a wage scale? You begin to seriously blur the line between “amateur” and “professional. And you would set up a major divide between the “star” students and the “normal” students. Not to mention how do you deal with the athletes outside of the “money making” sports? Because in theory you would have an elite class of football and basketball players “getting paid” while everyone else – even those on championship teams that pulled their weight and did their share to earn that bottom line – would continue to live in poverty. In short you only answer the question for a handful of athletes.

I believe the answer to the question lies within the problem that begs the question. That problem being that while the NCAA, schools and coaches make a fortune, the athletes responsible for the play that generates the revenue live in poverty. So, the real questions is: is there a way to give the kids that assistance that is so easily forthcoming from boosters and others. I think there is. Here’s my solution.

The federal poverty guidelines for 2010 start at $10,800 for an individual. Meaning that an individual would have to make more than that to be considered living above the poverty line. So my solution is to provide assistance while keeping kids below the poverty line. The way I would do that would be via use of debit cards. I would allow schools to issue debit cards to student athletes at the following levels – $5,000, $7,500, and $10,000. These cards would be considered “stipends” and made a part of the NCAA’s scholarship / assistance package. I would classify them as stipends as to avoid the idea of “salary”. As stipends are a form of compensation that precludes the monitoring of “work being done” and is not necessarily based on a specific task. In short it is on the same level as a “scholarship”.

As part of the “package” schools could then use them either in conjunction with a scholarship, or possibly even in lieu of a scholarship in cases where they have run out of their allotted scholarships. By using debit cards (they could even bear the logo of the issuing school) all use of the money could be monitored by both the NCAA and the issuing school, and with the money being filtered through banks would become a part of the public record. I would even restrict the use of “cash withdrawals” so as to create a true “paper trail” of the cards activity.

I would also delineate those activities that are allowed with respect to card usage. Such things as clothing purchases, travel arrangements (tickets, housing, auto rental), entertainment and dining – the kinds of activities that most kids find difficult if they are devoting their time to studies and their sport, because holding a job is nearly impossible.

Of course some things would have to be spelled out. For example strip clubs can not qualify as entertainment, nor can taking a bunch of buddies to Cabo for the weekend count as travel. But taking a girlfriend (or boyfriend) out to dinner would classify as dining, and going home for Christmas as travel. So guidelines would have to be set.

And for the sake of parity some sort of limit on the number of stipends that could be issued by a school I’m sure would be set by the NCAA – though I would think that the use of stipends should be liberal enough that most student athletes could be covered, and therefore not as restricted as scholarship limits.

But the point here is that while student athletes would still be living under the poverty line, they would be able to afford a few of the luxuries of life that are denied them based on the NCAA’s currently antiquated rules. And it would be easy to provide oversight for the program  – which would aid the NCAA in monitoring the involvement of boosters and “others” who currently provide athletes with access to money and other things. It also would put all student athletes on fairly equal terms and prevent some sort of division or creation of a hierarchy. Potentially a win for the kids, a win for the schools, and a win for the NCAA.

I don’t know if it’s perfect, but I think it would be a start in the right direction.

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