Monday, March 30, 2015
Besides the steady discussion of bracketology during March Madness, we are inundated with the perennial argument concerning paying student athletes. As obscene levels of money change hands before, during and after the three-week event, people ask why the real generators of these sums shouldn’t get a share. It’s a difficult situation and the sides are clearly drawn. The NCAA absolutely refuses to even consider the possibility, while players both current and graduated argue the fundamental unfairness of the situation. In 2014, Ed O’Bannon, a starter on the 1995 National Champion UCLA men’s basketball team, realized that his likeness was being used in an NCAA video game entirely without his permission. He argued that he was no longer an amateur student-athlete and as such deserved to be compensated. Several other former basketball and football players joined the suit. On August 9, 2014 the court ruled in their favor. The precedent may lead to other financial doors opening for college athletes.
The problems in considering compensation for college athletes are three-fold. First, payment would result in athletes becoming employees, a standard that requires all kinds of legal obligations including workman’s compensation, payroll taxes, termination standards and benefit packages. Second, they would need to decide exactly how much pay would be appropriate. Third, there’s the issue of fairness across the broad spectrum of college sports since most sports outside of Division I football and men’s basketball don’t bring in any money to the schools in the form of lucrative TV deals and fan support.
Since scholarships rarely cover the full financial needs of players, they are forced to add heavy debt to continue playing and studying. Therefore, even players who get a good scholarship can find themselves without enough money to get groceries for the entire month or to purchase all the books they need. NCAA rules are very stringent concerning financial assistance. Students can’t accept money or anything of monetary value from boosters, coaches, or university staff for even the most rudimentary of costs. The story is told of a young basketball player whose father died. His coach drove him to the airport so he could attend the funeral and sat with him before the plane took off. He bought the player a sandwich for the flight, which was against the rules. The coach didn’t buy a plane ticket, he bought a sandwich under $10 as an act of kindness during a stressful time. The university, player and coach were cited by the NCAA for the incident. In the meantime, March Madness generates billions for the universities, the coaches in endorsements and analyst jobs, and commercial sponsors. But nary a penny for the players. Since less than 2 percent of college athletes go pro, there is no pot of gold at the end of the college years that the vast majority can hold out for.
The argument that at least these players get a college education, which translates into higher pay would be wonderful if the graduation rates were strong. The NCAA uses its own algorithm which differs from how the Federal Government measures graduation rates. The NCAA argues that transfer students who leave a school in good academic standing should be included in the graduation rates since the original school has no control over that student leaving. However, the government doesn’t take that factor into account at all unless a student eventually graduates. This naturally skews the NCAA rates to higher than the national rates, which they then use in the press to tout the academic strength of athletes. Additionally, the graduation rates are for all athletes, which average out the notoriously low rates for football and basketball. Soccer graduation rates for both men and women are quite high, as are those of lacrosse and golf. However, these sports represent only a small percentage of all college athletes. Additionally, female athletes do graduate at a higher rate than their male counterparts. Therefore, many athletes, as many as 44 percent never graduate and don’t enjoy the bump in pay benefit.
College athletes, no matter the size of their scholarship, or even the absence of a scholarship, have a grueling schedule. Because their eligibility is dependent upon maintaining a minimum grade point average and successfully completing a proscribe number of credits each year, they can’t cut back on studies to give them more time for practices, games, travel to games, weight training, study hall, appearances, and team meetings. They must arrange their classes around their athletic obligations, which means they often can’t take prerequisite classes in a timely manner, have to do online courses, and may find themselves taking evening classes after practices. Coaches, fearful of losing players to academic ineligibility, will prohibit the athletes from taking courses with strenuous academic standards. For example, when Robbie was a freshman he wanted to take a chemistry course that was a prerequisite for his pre-med studies, but his coach told him he couldn’t, which meant Robbie would have to wait an entire year before he could begin the reason he was attending college. Instead, he was steered to take earth sciences, pre-algebra (he had completed calculus II in high school), and U.S. history. Some colleges even offer what is called “paper courses,” where a student logs into an online course two or three times in a semester and completes a paper for his or her grade. The courses are never difficult and there seems to be no bell curve of grades. Additionally, there’s no monitoring to check that the student and not a proxy has written the paper. These come in handy for coaches when an athlete has a grade point too low to be eligible. A couple “A’s” in paper courses can lift that up immediately. Therefore, the label of student-athlete is a bit disingenuous for many.
That label was instituted for the sole purpose of insuring that no scholarship player would ever be considered an employee. And for decades the label worked. But recently several athletes have begun to question their lack of share in the deep-dish financial pie that universities and the NCAA enjoy. College athletes see the daily hypocrisy of the title “student-athlete” as they watch teammates who never attend a single class and yet magically manage to keep their academic eligibility or as they watch their coaches earning in the six to eight figures cutting endorsement deals, being hired as consultants and announcers, scheduling paid speaking engagements, and receiving gifts from boosters, or as they witness schools spending funds liberally on lavish building improvements rather than funding more scholarships. Northwestern University football players voted to unionize, several on-going lawsuits on behalf of injured athletes to receive compensation for their injuries, and groups of athletes who have completed their college careers who have filed an anti-trust lawsuit against the NCAA are the recent indicators that the tides are shifting. For their part, the organization has adamantly refused to even discuss the issue, stating simply that “if you’re going to come to us, you’re going to come as a student.”
Both of my sons were Division I student-athletes in soccer, and I can attest to the difficulty of that job. Yes, it is a job for which they get paid in minimal scholarships, which are constantly at risk should they become injured or fall below the eligibility levels or get caught breaking any one of the thousands of NCAA rules. Bryce never graduated – the combination of athletics and studies proved to be more than he could responsibly handle. Robbie graduated, but it took five years and several occasions of scrambling for credits when he changed his major mid-stream. The scholarships they received covered around 25 percent of their expenses. Bryce was recruited by a private school where the tuition was over $30,000 and Robbie was recruited by an out-of-state pubic university, so he had to pay additional tuition that wasn’t covered by his scholarship. Both boys transferred to a public in-state university, which made their education more affordable but didn’t reduce any of the myriad of demands.
How does this impact youth players? Once a child begins to exhibit some interest and talent in a sport, everyone begins talking scholarship. There’s a special pride and honor attached to earning a slot on a college roster. It’s certainly a vindication of years of dedication and hard work and offers some respite from the heavy expenses of higher education. Nevertheless, parents should be wary because the time commitment of being on a team can actually end up destroying the reason kids go to school, which is an education. It’s not unusual for players to burn out with all the demands and just quit. As difficult as it was to juggle studies with athletics up to college, those pressure ramp up at the university level. If our kids are recruited to a private school, they may not receive much financial assistance (very few players, especially freshman, get a “full-ride”) and parents are left to either pay or borrow the balance. Therefore, parents need to have a serious discussion with their potential student-athletes about the reality of the title. We need to be honest on how far we will go financially to support our children in their athletic pursuits just as we have a discussion on choosing a college for the education. Let them know, for instance, if you will support them being recruited by a private vs. an in-state public school. Because of our savings and a small inheritance, we were able to afford most of the expenses not covered by our sons’ scholarships, but not every family has that luxury. No family should go deeply into debt for the chance to say their child is a student-athlete.
The promise of paying those students for their efforts can naturally be enticing to families who would want the best of both worlds – a free college education and the honor of having a college athlete. I’m hoping, should the decision be made to pay athletes, that A) the “lesser” sports won’t be neglected and B) the schedule will require that sports and education are pursued separately allowing the latter to have a student’s full attention during a true off-season. However, no matter how this controversy plays out, families need to decide how realistic it is to encourage their children to become student-athletes, whether at one of the three NCAA divisions or the NAIA, keeping in mind that Ivy League and Division II schools don’t offer athletic scholarships. Parents need to rise above the hype that surrounds college athletics and look realistically if our children can handle the strains and ultimately graduate, which is the point of going to college.