Apparently the NCAA is going to finally come around to paying “amateur” athletes in the future, though the initial proposal of providing an additional $2000 a year was shot down by NCAA Board of Directors on Saturday. There no longer appears to be much dispute about student athletes earning some extra money for their efforts, but it appears as though there are many details that still need to be worked out before gaining the needed consensus of the board to approve the change.
It’s 2012, and at this point it would be hard to find many fans out there today who would call today’s college football and basketball student athletes “amateur.” While the debate about paying student athletes still exists, it’s not nearly what it once was as the tens of millions of dollars pours in to schools annually as a result of their revenue-generating sports. I know in my travels I haven’t met too many people who don’t believe these student athletes deserve something beyond their education as a return for their efforts.
The money in college football, as an example, has skyrocketed in recent years as witnessed by recent unprecedented bowl payouts. Accordingly, the model of amateur sports we once previously knew has long become antiquated, as evidenced by the huge money big colleges today commonly pour into their athletic facilities and coaching staffs. The student athletes are, ironically, the reason why colleges are making these big dollars (in other words they are the product), yet as of today are still left with the short end of the stick. Their coaches are multi-millionaires based on student athlete efforts, yet in return the student athletes are awarded the ability to take classes toward a college degree (important, yes, but hardly anywhere close to a fair trade, or what business folks call “market value”).
The NCAA has watched all this unfold, and obviously feels somewhat uncomfortable about how disproportionate this model has become (heavily in favor of the colleges). While the colleges continue to earn money at astronomical rates, the student athletes on the front line actually earning the money for the colleges continue to receive a reduced (or free) course load of classes as trade. Evidently, even the NCAA can no longer hide behind this thin veil of what has become, well, almost comical when you think about it.
The New Proposal
In response to this glaring problem, the NCAA put forth its first proposal of paying student athletes an additional $2000 a year. At first glance, some would say this is a responsible move by the NCAA (even though it was initially rejected), but in this crazy college sports world where head coaches routinely make many times the amount of salaries as their bosses (college presidents) this proposal seems to fall terribly short upon closer inspection.
A growing number of NCAA football and basketball coaches are now earning millions (plural) of dollars per season — and in some cases even assistant coaches are making hundreds of thousands of dollars per year. Still, even if the $2000 stipend would have been approved, it would have resulted in the student athletes making a mere additional $5.47 a day. Apparently, the scholarship the student athlete receives is supposed to make up the difference.
I am a huge proponent of education and do acknowledge that receiving a full scholarship for playing sports certainly has great potential value. Still, it just doesn’t feel right when I see what’s really going on — the reality is many student athletes either take the minimum classes to stay eligible, pursue easy majors that may not have much applicable future career worth, or leave school early for the draft and well before ever completing their free college education. These young men are not “bad” or “irresponsible” for doing any of these things, but instead simply doing what they think is in their best interest to one day make a big payout by becoming a professional athlete. Unfortunately, this only happens for a select few.
So while a head coach might earn $4 million dollars a year (roughly $11,000 a day!), the guys pulling the sled might make $5.47 a day? Once you get past the “amateur athlete” argument (that even the strongest proponents of this view have a hard time holding a straight face saying), there is still an incredibly unequal divide, and a bizarre one at that. Factoring in that roughly only 1.5% of these athletes will ever go on to play professional sports, it really makes you wonder even more about how unbalanced this model has become. The answer, according to the NCAA, is to give the student athletes a few extra dollars a day.
The Real Problem
No matter what the NCAA finally approves for student athletes (they have already conceded they will do something), it seems as though it will be impossible to remedy a problem that really doesn’t have an answer so long as we continue to call college sports “amateur.” Amateur sports, in reality, are the games you watch at your local high school or youth league sandlot, not what you see being played in front of 100,000 fans each Saturday. Calling college football “amateur” is about as watered down as saying Einstein was a descent math student, or Steve Jobs an OK businessman.
College sports, primarily football and basketball, are professional in every sense of the word. The unique wrinkle, however, is the idea that a college education is a great deal for the students whose efforts are directly tied to helping their coaches and administrators make substantially more money in salary each year. Can you imagine what would happen if college football players ever went on strike?? The “amateur” model that is really pro sports would fall like a house of cards.
In theory, the college degree a student athlete can earn certainly would have value, but the question remains about how many of them — especially elite-level athletes — are truly concerned with selecting a good major, taking school seriously, and finishing the degree? While we would like to think nearly all college football players do this, the reality is most are hoping for the big professional sport payday of one day making it, and as a result devalue their education-in-trade. Sadly, most never get drafted, and only then come to realize how important their classes truly were.
The Only Answer
The only fair answer, albeit a controversial one, is to finally allow college sports to have free reign and pay student athletes as though they are employees of the university – exactly like how it’s done with professional sports. Rather than dangle the college degree with varying levels of value (depending on the student athlete’s level of interest), offer them a financial contract, and even throw in some hefty college discounts as good measure. This way, the student athletes can earn an equitable wage (more in line with how much money everyone else in the deal is getting) and can decide on whether they want to invest in their education or spend the money any other way they like.
I wonder how college coaches would respond if colleges offered them essentially what is being proposed for student athletes? For example, rather than paying a head coach 3 or 4 million dollars a year, how about offer him a modest salary (say $75,000) and the ability to take college classes at a deep discount (or give them to a family member)? How do you think that deal would be received? You already know the answer to that.
Why is it Taking So Long?
We are looking at an inevitable colossal paradigm shift once college athletes finally get paid, which is what is holding up all this fair progress. In other words, because its “always been done this way” the NCAA has been able to sit on the sidelines and watch everyone get rich — except, of course, the guys doing the work to earn everyone else the millions of dollars. This will change, as the $2000 stipend has already been loosely accepted (only the small details remain). But will this be enough? At what point will student athletes unite and realize that without their services this entire cash cow collapses? Coaches and administrators are making massive salaries based entirely on the quality of product on the field (the student athletes) — yet it’s this “product” that continues to earn the smallest piece of the pie.