Tuesday, March 29, 2016
Sports reporter Joe Nocera, along with Ben Strauss, published early this year his book “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” which puts forth the argument that refusing to pay college athletes is a policy that must be rescinded. Presently, the NCAA takes in $13 billion dollars per year, of which $2.7 million go to student athletic scholarships. The NCAA asserts that 90 percent of the $13 billion is returned to athletic programs. However, that money, even if true, is used to construct state of the art venues not for the students but for the alumni, who pay big bucks for season tickets. It is also used to attract TV revenue to these extraordinary locations, which can sponsor regional and national events such as March Madness. Additionally, coaches of Division I football and men’s basketball teams regularly pull down multi-million dollar contracts, as do their athletic directors. Everyone is getting rich except the athletes, many of whom don’t even graduate from college, the ostensible reason they receive their scholarships.
As we commiserate about our tattered brackets, we still celebrate the amazing athletic prowess of the young men (and women) who are battling for the national basketball titles. Overall, less than 5 percent of college athletes will move on to professional contracts. For most of these competitors, college will be the end of their playing careers. Yet, we see how dedicated they are – the heart they invest in playing and the heartache they feel when they lose. As scholar-athletes, they must contribute 40-to-50 hours of work to the sport during every week. Even in the off-season they are expected to hit the weight room, run and do captain’s practices. At the same time, they are also required to maintain an established academic level including a minimum of credits in their major and a minimum grade point average. These minimums don’t insure graduation in four years, but are often all a student-athlete can handle effectively. Additionally, athletes are expected to take part in public relations in the community, including visiting schools, giving clinics, helping run summer camps, and signing autographs after games. They do all this without any guarantee of adequate funding for their education. In fact, most student-athletes must arrange for a substantial sum of money beyond their scholarships in order to stay at school. Therefore, some athletes work at jobs in addition to school and sports. It can be a crushing burden that they struggle to handle. Worse, at the end of their college career, they may not even graduate.
Nocera argues that other college students are paid for their academic skills. A chemistry major earns money running the lab storeroom, a library science major works in the library, an accounting major works in the school budget office, and so on. He sees no problem for athletes being paid for their skills other than the NCAA’s strict rule on amateurism, which arose to protect the sports programs from recruiting professional athletes to play. Yet that policy has its own problems. Take the case of a Nigerian basketball player who wanted to play in the United States. He got the advice that he should go to Russia first, which would be where he could be seen by American college scouts. When he got to Russia he was told by Russian authorities that he had to sign a contract (all in Russian) in order to play in Russia. He was promised money, but never received any. Eventually he was scouted and signed by Louisville, a dream seemingly coming true. However, the NCAA declared him ineligible because he played “professionally” in Russia. At the opposite end, athletes who get professional contracts in one sport can still play a different college sport. They just can’t be professional in the sport they choose for college. It’s these types of inconsistencies that don’t weed out dyed in the wool professionals from a sport but deny dozens of athletes every year from even playing for a college. To then also deny remaining athletes the opportunity make any money from the sport while in college further frustrates Nocera.
The $13 billion the NCAA earns is primarily from football and men’s basketball, which means that paying an athlete might be limited to that gender and those two sports. That would be unfortunate. Even though baseball, softball, soccer, golf and other significant college sports don’t bring in large sums of money, those athletes work just as hard and face as many financial roadblocks, in fact even more, than their football and basketball counterparts. There are fewer full scholarships available per capita in the “lesser” sports, meaning even top athletes often are lucky to receive a 50 percent ride. The difference must be made up somehow, often by going into debt or working or, worse, doing without. Many athletes live on minimal food because they don’t have the money and live in high crime areas to afford the rent or put five or six players in a two bedroom apartment. The shimmer of a college athletic scholarship is quickly tarnished for most players. Even if the NCAA allowed athletes to be paid, the concern is that there will be no trickle down to women’s sports and to the less lucrative men’s sports. Creating a formula for who would get paid and how becomes problematic.
The last five years have seen some major push back to the NCAA, which most athletes see as simply creating rules that the organization pays itself handsomely for enforcing. Nocera even says that his book was written in the middle of a revolution that will play out over the next decade. He admits he’ll need to write at least one more book on the topic. As athletes decide to use the power of their notoriety to affect change, we may see a huge upheaval. Just this November, the Missouri football team refused to play because they felt that university system President Tim Wolfe had grossly and insensitively handled several racially charged incidents on campus. They said they would boycott all football-related activities until Wolfe resigned, which he did two days after the boycott began. Nocera only half-jokingly challenges one of the two finalists in the National Championship game to refuse to take the floor to protest the way the NCAA denies them access to the billions they help rake in. That’s the difficulty with the situation. No one wants to be the sacrificial lamb. These kids hope to play professionally and even if they don’t they would love to be able to know all their lives that they were part of a championship team. It would probably take multiple teams boycotting at the start of the tournament to make a real dent in the policies, and the likelihood of that happening is small. Coaches who are paid millions of dollars need to show they are in control of their teams, players don’t want to jeopardize any chance of moving up the bracket, and no player wants to be labeled a troublemaker if he expects to be considered for a professional contract. That’s why Nocera says they are indentured – they have freedom to act, but can’t if they want to maintain a lousy but hopeful status quo.
There is also that special status that comes with being a college athlete. Not many achieve that standing, which is meaningful to both the athlete and to those who know him or her. Therefore, they accept the rules and restrictions that come with the position. Teams do have power, but possibly not enough to change the NCAA. Teams have organized to get rid of prejudiced coaches, bad athletic directors, and suffocating institutional policies. But it will probably require teams within and across conferences organizing to even get the NCAA talking about changes. Right now, the governing body refuses to give more than lip service to considering the possibilities of paying athletes. A big step would be to release more funds for scholarships and to change the formulas by which different sports can award the scholarships, even forming work-study programs open only to athletes allowing them to earn money for non-playing activities they already perform for free such as cleaning the locker rooms, setting up the sidelines, and making public appearances. Perhaps there could be paid internships in the athletic director’s office learning about sports scheduling, NCAA eligibility enforcement procedures, and public relations. Certainly at the very least athletes should be compensated for those public appearances. The main difficulty will be sorting out how to fairly distribute compensation. Very few softball players’ jerseys are in demand, especially as compared to football and men’s basketball. But should the relative popularity of a sport be the sole factor in deciding who gets the money? It’s difficult when Marcus Mariota’s number was the highest requested in t-shirts and jerseys for his last two years playing for Oregon. Should he benefit more from that fact than the others on his team or the other teams at his university? It’s a tough issue with good arguments on both sides.
The cautionary tale here is that if your player is aiming toward a college scholarship, you should keep in mind three important factors. First, the scholarship most likely will only cover a small percentage of the cost associated with the school. It may cover 50 percent of tuition but not touch room, board, books and travel. If you go to a state school outside of your home state, you are responsible for any additional out-of-state tuition charge, which can be substantial. Second, college athletics are a full-time job, so your player must be dedicated to getting an education in the limited hours available for study and be organized enough to do so. Athletes can quickly fall behind despite the presence of tutors, and many coaches restrict the number and type of courses an athlete can take to help ensure the athlete maintains eligibility slowing their progress towards a degree. Third, there are rules preventing a school from removing a scholarship under circumstances of injury, but schools do find a way to rescind scholarships if the coach feels an athlete is underperforming, so be prepared to have fluctuations in what your player receives.
Given all this negativity, I can speak as the mother of two Division I soccer players to say it was worth all the trouble, expense, and occasional heartache because both boys were passionate about playing. The camaraderie of the team, the discipline of balancing study, sport, and fun, and the joy of playing all outweighed the tough times, which provided a parallel set of benefits to their academic ones. Watching March Madness, we can all see that same joy and determination in the faces of the players as they battle for their school, their team and themselves. The game matters. There is something pure and wonderful in knowing that they aren’t doing it for a big bonus check or an endorsement deal, which is the argument the NCAA falls back on when the issue of payment comes up. But Nocera argues, and I agree, that giving the athletes a small stipend is a far cry from the mega-bucks of professional athleticism. It’s about giving them one less thing to worry about while they work diligently for the dual goals of being a high performing athlete and a successful student who graduates and gets the full benefit of that college education held as carrot to all NCAA student-athletes. I look forward to seeing what happens over the next few years. It might be a seismic shift, but I suspect it will be a series of tiny tremors.