Let’s talk about college athletes and money.
There’s been a lot going on in the last few weeks regarding athletes that have already done or might do things that compromise their eligibility with the NCAA. And the NCAA is not happy at all about that, if the sanctions against USC and the beginning crackdown against other programs is any indication. A lot of people will say it’s about time they started taking these things more seriously and levying penalties against players, teams, and schools who are found to be in non-compliance. But at the same time, it’s a much thornier issue that isn’t going to go away anytime soon.
As with all other sports, professional or amateur, using performance enhancing drugs is undoubtedly cheating. The on the field results are affected and gives the PED taker an advantage, however slight. But what about other non-drug things that might enhance performance in a less obvious or even in a peripheral way? Thinking about it this way, right off the bat we have a problem because the collegiate playing field isn’t level. Sure the NCAA divides up schools into different divisions based on number of students and other factors that are supposed to group schools according to relative power. But it’s been nearly 40 years since they divided schools into Divisions I, II, & III, and over 30 years since they split DI and DI-A for football. The landscape has changed dramatically in that time, and I’d argue that there are more differences today between the top and middle of Division I than there were between DI & DIII back in 1972.
In college football, the NCAA tries to even things out. There’s the Academic Progress Rate, which is supposed to track academic progress and discrepancies, and there’s the 85 scholarship limit, which is supposed to act as a sort of salary cap, if you will. But not all scholarships and academics are created equally, which is a big part of the problem. It’s not just the free education that attracts potential recruits – it’s the campus, the facilities, the experience, and the overall lifestyle. Schools that make a lot of money have a lot of money to spend on athletics and their student-athletes. They can have nicer training rooms, can provide better academic support systems, can travel better (when they have to travel), and in general are able to offer more to their athletes. The schools that don’t make as much revenue and don’t have as much to spend are at a disadvantage. Is it the bigger school’s fault that they can spend more money, or is it the smaller school’s fault they don’t have as much? No – that’s just the way it is. (Yes, we could take this cue to talk about BCS payouts and how they’re unfair to the non-BCS conferences, but we’re not gonna go there today, partly because I don’t want to bring it into this particular discussion and partly because I don’t believe it as I've stated before at length.)
Of course this all relates to the Reggie Bush case that USC got hammered over. Was he probably taking money? Sure. His parents had a nicer place to live, there might’ve been a nicer vehicle in the parking spot, etc. But did taking that money make him a better player on the field and contribute to USC’s winning? Maybe, maybe not. But the thing to realize is that this isn’t a black and white issue. Because of the discrepancies between schools, there are varying degrees of advantage of being at each school. Was the extra advantage Bush received any greater than the advantage a student-athlete at USC has compared to a student-athlete at Tulane? If a student-athlete at Hawaii took $20,000 from someone, would it give them a greater advantage (both on and off the field) than a clean student at Texas or Ohio State?
The big question here is whether or not college students should get paid, and a lot of people probably say no. That’s in part because they’re already receiving an advantage that most of the other millions of college students in the U.S. don’t get – a free education. In a time when sending a child to school is becoming astronomically expensive, a scholarship can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. But paying college athletes just feels... wrong, I know. We love the players on our college teams because they're like we were - they chose the school for many of the same reasons we did. Paying them makes them into mercenaries who only go where the money is.
(Another side issue that comes up here is whether it’s right that the NCAA and schools make millions of dollars from athletics while all the students get are scholarships. This one I’ll touch on briefly – yes, it’s more than all right. Not only because of the aforementioned scholarships, but because they money is going toward education. It’s not going to a greedy company that sells do-hickeys, or the government, or an owner who already has billions like in professional sports. It’s going to schools and research and making the college students of the nation more educated. So yes, it’s more than all right that the schools make millions. They should get even more, as far as I’m concerned.)
It’s a real slippery slope, one that scholarships doesn’t help any. Is there a perfect solution? Not really. Athletes are already receiving an advantage just by being athletes, and that benefit is greater at bigger schools with more money. People lament that college athletes are already the minor leagues for the pros and that the first part of the term “scholar-athlete” is an utter joke. But maybe the solution is to just open the floodgates and allow them to be paid. Keep the academic standards in place, just so they have an official affiliation with the college. Maybe it would work, maybe not. I'm not saying it's the answer or even a good one, but here’s what we do know – there are already a lot of student-athletes getting paid, the NCAA is way too small to police every single collegiate athlete, and there are a whole host of people willing to give them money, from agents to boosters to community members. That’s a big tidal wave of influence, and it’s only going to get bigger as the money keeps rolling in.
|Athletic Dept. Revenues in Millions, 2003-2008|
|MtnWest||San Diego St||37.4||25.6||31.1||31.1||31.7||34.5||191.4|
|WAC||New Mexico St||8.8||12.9||12.8||19.4||25.1||25.6||104.6|
|WAC||San Jose St||11.9||13.3||17.2||17||18.3||17.9||95.5|
|SunBelt||Middle TN St||12.5||13.6||15.3||17.3||17.3||17.2||93.2|