Thursday, July 14th, 2011...10:31 pm

Should We Pay College Athletes? (But only the good ones, of course)

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By Sam Mann

With all the talk about compliance with NCAA regulations and all the big programs getting sanctioned (add Georgia Tech to the ever-growing list). Apparently ESPN is thinking the same way because this week they ran several articles about the NCAA amateurism dilemma. Today is the oft-referenced topic of whether we should pay college athletes beyond their scholarships. I have always been strongly in the “no” camp, but it was worth checking out. (see Pat Forde on our issue and Mark Schlabach, which is only rationally related as it talks about how the NCAA). The most thoughtful comment was Bruce Feldman’s introduction to the debate:

“One of my frustrations whenever this subject comes up is that a lot of people approach it in one of two ways. Some say that yes, players deserve to be paid because it isn’t right that they aren’t, but those people don’t have any sense of the logistics behind what they’re green-lighting. Then there’s the other side that comes out and says, “No, we can’t have this, and here’s why …” and they bring up some very valid points with Title IX and other issues, but it’s basically dismissed immediately as “discussion over.”

It is a polarizing topic, so let’s break it down. First, let’s start with the obvious. This debate is only about football and men’s basketball. No other sport comes even factors into this debate, though a lot of commentators attempt to carefully dodge saying it that bluntly. Not baseball, not hockey, not women’s basketball. If we were to decide to pay student-athletes, it would only be in the two main revenue sports, football and men’s basketball. None of the other sports make any money, with only a few exceptions. (The big-time women’s basketball programs turn a profit I’m sure, but most don’t. Baseball doesn’t outside of the SEC and maybe 10 other top programs. You get the point). So any discussion about this can only be about football and basketball, and even then, only at the highest level.

Second, athletes on full scholarships do get paid. They get full tuition, for any semester or class they want. They get room and board, they get money for books, they get access to better food, they get free medical and training services and they get a STIPEND. Every so often (either two weeks or a month, I’m not sure), athletes on full rides get a check for living expenses. With that they pay for their cell phones, jewelry, humongous headphones for pre-game warmups and tattoos (unless they play at Ohio State in which case the tattoos are paid for a little differently). So yes, the kids who come from low-income households have it tough, but they don’t have it that tough. They are given enough to get by, but you never hear the pro-pay crowd mention those stipends.

Now, my biggest issue with any potential scheme is to what end are we paying them? Do we want to compensate everyone equally? If we do that, doesn’t that defeat the argument that players need to be paid because the schools are making millions off them? Schools make money off some players, not all. And not all schools make money. I’m a huge Syracuse fan, and they’ve been pretty awful for the last couple of years. The 2010 season was the first time the school turned a profit on the football team. So do the 2009 players get shut out then? And the big money programs, do we pay Terrelle Pryor and the walk-on long snapper the same amount?

There are also significant legal ramifications to paying athletes (a good discussion of which is in the Feldman article). If they’re paid, they are effectively employees. So do they get workman’s compensation for injuries? Health insurance? What about breach of contract claims? Will they be able to organize? (As an aside, can you imagine the issues a player’s union made up of 18 & 19 year old kids? I can’t decide whether it would be wildly entertaining or or incredibly disastrous. I can promise you one thing though, Tim Tebow would have been a player rep.)

Then finally, the elephant in the room, Title IX. Honestly, this issue requires a whole post of its own, so we are just going to postpone it for now. Just know it’s a huge part of this discussion whether the media downplays it or not.

On the other hand, we have the pro-paying argument which is based mainly on the idea that the school, coaches, TV networks and NCAA make millions of dollars as a result of the players labor, but they are the only parties not being handsomely compensated. When framed that way, it makes sense. In some ways, I am very sympathetic. AJ Green from Georgia got a four game suspension for selling his jersey for $1,000. Meanwhile, the UGA bookstore undoubtedly sold hundreds of thousands of AJ Green jerseys over the past three years.

The best idea I have heard can be attributed to Jay Bilas (a lawyer at Moore and Van Allen by the way). He basically says that we should open up the market to NCAA players just like we do for pro players, without the contracts. So while players don’t get paid by the school, they can seek outside compensation for endorsements, receive revenue from their likeness and all the other things currently banned by the NCAA.It seems like a decent idea, but I really don’t think it would every get approved the boys in Indianapolis.

In some ways doing this would almost protect the NCAA, as some commentators believe that the courts will soon get involved. Count Rod Gilmore, featured in the Feldman article, as one of those people. See also the lawsuit filed by Sam Keller suing the NCAA, EA Sports and everyone else involved in the NCAA Football video game series.

(Three quick notes on that last point: One, Sam Keller was my bartender at a bar in Phoenix last December. We talked to him for a minute, seemed like a decent guy. Two, love the video game and have heard this year’s version is unbelievable. Three, we discussed the case a little bit in Property class last spring. I’m sure it comes up a lot in IP courses as well)

UPDATE: ESPN’s Ivan Maisel weighed in today (7/15) with an article about the legal pitfalls that come with paying college athletes. Another good read.

But I keep coming back to the question, “How would we possibly create a workable system that wouldn’t create more problems that it solved?” And I can’t answer that question. Plus there’s that whole Title IX thing, so without really going to the statute, I think it would be illegal to pay some without paying everyone. And we can’t pay everyone – that’s certainly not feasible.

Ed’s note: On a completely unrelated note, Bruce Feldman was suspended indefinitely this morning by ESPN for his role in an upcoming book by former Texas Tech football coach Mike Leach. We won’t delve into the details here, but a quick Google search will explain the whole situation.

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