Let’s Start Paying College Athletes

Joe Nocera / The New York Times

Mark Emmert, the president of the National Collegiate Athletic Association, the almighty overseer of American college sports, likes to think of himself as a reformer. A few months ago, after he’d been on the job for a little more than a year, he pushed through a series of improvements, including slightly higher academic standards for college athletes, a full-scale review of the N.C.A.A.’s fat rule book and a new provision giving universities the option of offering four-year scholarships. The current one-year deals are, believe it or not, renewable at the discretion of coaches, who can effectively cut injured or underperforming “student athletes,” as the N.C.A.A. likes to call them.

And one other thing: With Emmert’s backing, the N.C.A.A.’s board of directors, composed of college and university presidents (Emmert himself is a former president of the University of Washington), agreed to make it permissible for Division I schools to pay their athletes a $2,000 stipend. When I saw Emmert in November, shortly after the new rule went into effect, I told him that the stipend struck me as a form of payment to the players. He visibly stiffened. “If we move toward a pay-for-play model — if we were to convert our student athletes to employees of the university — that would be the death of college athletics,” Emmert retorted. “Then they are subcontractors. Why would you even want them to be students? Why would you care about their graduation rates? Why would you care about their behavior?” No, he insisted, the extra $2,000 was an effort to increase the value of the scholarships, which some studies estimate falls on average about $3,500 short of the full cost of attending college annually.

At the time I spoke to Emmert, high-school athletes were signing binding letters of intent to attend a university — letters that said they would get the $2,000. But over the next month, college athletic directors and conference commissioners began protesting the new stipend, claiming they couldn’t afford it. Within a month, more than 125 of them had signed an “override request.” And so it was that just a few weeks ago, the N.C.A.A. decided to suspend the payment. For legal reasons, those athletes who were already promised the $2,000 will most likely still get it. But any athlete granted a scholarship after the stipend was canceled may not. (The N.C.A.A. plans to review the issue on Jan. 14.) In other words, some lucky handful of incoming freshmen will be handed $2,000 without jeopardizing their status as amateurs. Yet any other college athlete who manages to get his hands on an extra $2,000 — by taking money from an overenthusiastic booster, say, or selling some of their team paraphernalia, as a few Ohio State football players did — will be violating the N.C.A.A.’s rules regarding amateurism and will probably face a multigame suspension. Behold the logic of the N.C.A.A. at work.

The hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports takes your breath away. College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, more than the National Basketball Association. A top college coach can make as much or more than a professional coach; Ohio State just agreed to pay Urban Meyer $24 million over six years. Powerful conferences like the S.E.C. and the Pac 12 have signed lucrative TV deals, while the Big 10 and the University of Texas have created their own sports networks. Companies like Coors and Chick-fil-A eagerly toss millions in marketing dollars at college sports. Last year, Turner Broadcasting and CBS signed a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal for the television rights to the N.C.A.A.’s men’s basketball national championship tournament (a k a “March Madness”). And what does the labor force that makes it possible for coaches to earn millions, and causes marketers to spend billions, get? Nothing. The workers are supposed to be content with a scholarship that does not even cover the full cost of attending college. Any student athlete who accepts an unapproved, free hamburger from a coach, or even a fan, is in violation of N.C.A.A. rules.

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