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Are We Ready to Pay for Play?

SEC Commissioner Mike Slive is reportedly "losing patience" with the NCAA around several issues, one of which is compensation for athletes.


I was minding my own business, scrolling through Facebook the other morning, and I ran across this link in a friend's timeline:

Slive losing patience with NCAA's inaction on host of issues

When I read the headline, my first thought was, "Great, they're finally going to start investigating some of the school's in this guy's conference." Sadly, this wasn't the case.

Like some of his conference coaches, it turns out the man running the SEC moneymaking machine believes it is time to start paying players and reset ancient recruiting compliance rules. CBS's self-professed "Mr. CFB" writes:

"His message to the NCAA? It's time for you to lead and bring about the change that is needed in college athletics. If not, it's probably time for the conferences to step in and make the changes on their own."

It turns out Commissioner Slive believes that student athletes should be compensated the "full cost of attendance" at their university. When it comes to this idea, Barnhart leaves no doubt where he stands:

"The issue, in a nutshell, is that some schools can afford to pay the stipend and some can't. Those that can't are able to keep the idea bottled up. Those that can, like schools in the SEC, are getting tired of it."

This struck me as a very simplistic view of a very complicated issue. When it comes to the idea of compensating NCAA athletes, it is never a simple discussion. An honest assessment of the situation must cross a metric-crap-ton of athletic, academic, political and socioeconomic issues. Slive and Barnhart are certainly allowed to take a position, but to promote that this is an obvious oversight by arcane and ineffective NCAA leadership isn't something I'm buying.

Let's start with some of the logistical issues:

What do we call this? Are we paying athletes directly or are we simply going to offer them campus jobs? How is the rate determined? Does every D1 athlete in every sport get the same amount?

OK, we're already in murky waters. If you're under the impression that since football players bring in SO much revenue for these conferences and schools, and justly deserved to be compensated, then you'd likely favor paying them. However, Title IX assures equality of funding and opportunity in athletic departments, so the idea of just paying athletes in "revenue sports" is already out the window. I also presume no one wants to open the Pandora's box of differentiating compensation based on performance, so let's not even go there.

But what about other issues, like cost of living? I can see where Slive looks across his member schools and sees a pretty consistent cost of living between Tuscaloosa, Lexington, College Station, etc... What about athletes at St. John's, Boston College, USC, or Stanford? Does this payment need to be indexed to cost-of-living? I'm guessing a Chipotle burrito costs a bit more in NYC or Boston than it does in Athens, GA. While we're at it, who answers to what standard of living should be supported? My '85 VW Golf may have gotten me around OK, but is that sufficient for a 300+ lb NT?

Let's suspend reality for a moment and assume Commissioner Slive has all this figured out and is ready to dictate it all to the NCAA, then let's get down to the emotion of this issue:

Are these men and women being "exploited?" Here they are some of the most talented athletes in our country and from around the world. They practice their trade while working to maintain academic standing and have very little time or opportunity to earn a living outside school and their sport. The fruits of their labor bear multi-billion dollar rewards for their conferences and the member schools. They help sell merchandise and video games bearing their likenesses and numbers. Shouldn't these athletes get a piece of this pie?

On the surface, it is easy to say "yes," but if you do, you need to be prepared to take the next step. The truth is, a scholarship athlete is already compensated for their hard work. They are provided all the tuition, room/board, and book expenses necessary to get an education and graduate with a degree from their chosen institution. In the case of a Notre Dame student athlete, that comes to nearly $60k/year or nearly a quarter million dollars over a four year period. Does that value pale in comparison to the $15 million per year ND gets from NBC for the rights to air football games? Maybe. With 85 scholarship football athletes, ND "pays out" the equivalent of $5.1 million per year in the market value of those scholarships.

Here's where the exploitation argument falls apart for me. The modern student athlete essentially agrees to trade his or her athletic talents and effort for the cost of a degree. For many, this is a good deal, and well worth it. Virtually every ND football player who accepts this deal ends up leaving ND with a degree, and perhaps that's why I have such a different view than Commissioner Slive. Let's look at his member institutions GSR figures in football:

  • Arkansas: 54
  • S. Carolina: 55
  • Tennessee: 58
  • UMiss: 59
  • MSU: 60
  • Auburn: 64
  • Kentucky: 65
  • Georgia: 69
  • Bama: 75
  • Florida: 75
  • LSU: 77
  • Vandy: 85
(Source: NCAA Education and Research Website)

Looking at this, it is much easier to see why SEC member schools and their commissioner are pushing for additional athlete compensation. What they're offering in return for the athlete's participation is bunk, yet they're raking in billions on the back of these athletes. If you're not going to emerge from your four years with a degree, then the value of the scholarship is essentially the value of your housing and whatever food you ate while you were there. When you consider that over half Commissioner Slive's member institutions graduate only two thirds of their football athletes, he's got a problem. He's trading something that's viewed as worthless by a good portion of SEC athletes for $2.25 billion dollar deal with ESPN. That doesn't look very good on the exploitation front. Better to start paying some pocket money out than get caught with what's really going on here.

That's where this "next step" I'm talking about comes in. The NFL and NFLPA have ensured that the only viable route to the NFL is via college football. Rules are in place to prevent athletes from trading on their athletic talents on a free market in the NFL until they reach a particular age. Without a viable non-college path, the only way for an athlete to pursue their NFL (or NBA) dream is via an NCAA member school. Unfortunately for them, the only compensation the NCAA member schools are allowed to offer is the minimum expense of obtaining an education at that school. I'm not about to stand in judgement of people as to whether or not they value a college education, but I'll be the first to acknowledge there are a lot of people out there who don't. As evidenced by poor GSR numbers, a good number of them are playing in the SEC. (before you start shouting anti-ESSEEESEEE bias, the Big12 has just as many, if not more, but it was the SEC's commissioner's whining that got me started here).

The NFL and NBA labor rules set up the NCAA as a farm system that they don't have to pay for. The NCAA member institutions have benefited with some of the finest athletes in the land performing on their fields and courts. A lot of people are making a ton of money off the whole thing, so of course, the athlete who doesn't care about a degree is going to scream "exploitation," but is the solution to simply start paying guys? Do we take away the "sham of amateurism" that exists in the modern NCAA or do we look for another solution.

My opinion is this: We need to find a way to open up alternate means for athletes to pursue their careers. If they don't value education, then let's allow for developmental or semi-professional teams that can compensate at the rates they feel are appropriate. The athletes in these leagues can collectively bargain to ensure an equitable revenue split with ownership, just like in other professional leagues.

If we insist on keeping college the exclusive route to professionalism in these sports, perhaps it is time to do away with the NCAA. The SEC has already shown the effectiveness of running a pseudo professional league even (somewhat) within the NCAA's current bylaws. Maybe we should give Commissioner Slive his wish and call it what it is. We should let players collectively bargain for an equitable revenue split with their schools and be compensated accordingly. We should do away with academic standards and requirements at these schools, because the education was never really part of the equation anyway.

As for me, I say no way. Maybe it is my old age, and I'm suffering from some "get off my lawn" reaction to all this, but the idea of the college scholarship as a reward for your athletic ability and a gateway to a great education still holds true for me. I'm sure "Mr. CFB" and his cohorts will shout me down as old fashioned and naive. Honestly, there's too much money in the system for something NOT to happen. The O'Bannon case will continue to push this issue, along with stakeholders like Commissioner Slive and Tom Barnhart who will hope stipends can help from rocking the boat too radically.

What do you think OFD Community? Does the concept of a stipend open a can of worms, or is it long overdue?