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Pay for Play? No Way, Jose

In recent weeks, the Big Ten has discussed implementing a shift in policy which, while legal in the NCAA bylaws, offers the potential to fundamentally change the game of college football as we know it. It, in effect, challenges the essential definition of student-athletes as amateurs, and, when carried to its logical conclusion, only further erodes the values that most programs — don’t let the high profile scandals fool you — stand on.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. As it stands now, the proposal is fairly modest, with each school offering scholarship athletes about a $3000 yearly stipend to fill the “gap” between what the scholarship covers and the full cost of attendance at a university — money that, ostensibly, would be used to buy clothes, transportation, laundry, and utilities. The NCAA is fairly flexible, in allowing universities to cover pretty much anything between the cost of tuition and the so-called “cost of attendance,” so this wouldn’t require a rewriting of the rules.

Now, I’m pretty sure that I’ve never needed to spend $3,000 outside of the typical costs of attending school (though admittedly, I don’t get Wings Over as often as Rob Bolden does), and I’ve certainly never been on a full scholarship, as these players are, so it, at least on the surface, seems to be overkill if we’re going to pretend that this is necessary. Remember, student-athletes don’t just have their tuition paid, it’s also room and board–even if they live off campus–books, medical treatments, pretty much everything, except for random incidentals that, if a player lived modestly enough, I’m sure they’d have enough money for.

And if you look at it the right way, student-athletes already are paid. If you’re from out of state, or at a private university, the benefits could be in excess of $50,000 a year. That’s more than the average American makes in a year in salary. I’d say that’s pretty good compensation.

John talked about the money that football makes for a school. Well, he’s right, in that television and other such revenues are astronomical — but he’s wrong in suggesting that anyone else profits from the work of the student-athletes. Penn State is one of just a handful of schools that actually have a self-sufficient athletic department; for the vast majority of even Division-1 institutions, athletics is a losing endeavor. That’s why every time you look, another school is cutting another sport — they just can’t afford it.

If you start paying the 85 scholarship athletes on the football team alone an extra $3000, that’s over $250,000 that has to come from somewhere, maybe from a number of scholarships cut from other teams. For schools already struggling to make ends meet in their athletics, it could mean cutting a sport. That’s potentially hundreds of student-athletes suddenly minus a scholarship for schools who can’t handle the additional payouts.

Or, if this becomes a procedure implemented at only certain schools, it becomes a valuable bargaining chip in recruiting. Tell a 5-star athlete that in addition to the cost of scholarship, room, board, and most other expenses, he’ll also be getting 5 G’s in spending money, and that sounds like a pretty nice chunk of cash to a 17-year old. I like being one of the “haves,” because Penn State certainly is, but I really don’t want to see the balance tilted even further in our direction.

Yes, the Big Ten TV deal is pretty rich, and it would seem that the member schools are rolling in the dough. But rising costs forced Penn State to implement the STEP program to maintain self-sufficiency, borrowing a practice already in place at fellow conference schools like Minnesota and Michigan.

Where does all that money go? It goes to paying for scholarships for student-athletes in virtually every other sport, those sports which lose money, rather than make it–pretty much every sport but football and men’s basketball, it goes to maintenance of facilities, it goes to paying coaches salaries. It doesn’t go into Tim Curley’s pocket, or Graham Spanier’s.

But through it all, the question that I’ve always asked is why? Why do players need to be compensated, beyond the full cost of education? The players who will use their college careers as a springboard to the NFL get publicity, they get training, and they get the opportunity to hone their skills for three to five years. The players who won’t make the NFL get four or five years of free education, which they can parlay to a long career in some other field. It’s an enviable situation, no matter which side of the equation a student-athlete is on.

And I haven’t heard of too many student-athletes who are broke.

No, the real reason this is being bandied about now is because of the rash of major scandals, in which players have received impermissable benefits — either thousand-dollar handshakes from a booster, free tattoos, maybe even free car payments. The concept, clearly, is that if the schools pay players, nobody else will.

But that’s idealistic and best, and compounding the problem at worse.

The fact of the matter is, the NCAA has either been remarkably negligent or willfully ignorant in their enforcement–or, more accurately, the lack thereof–of incidents like these. More often, it’s some local newspaper breaking a story, not the NCAA being vigilant in pursuing rule-breakers.

The players who break these rules surely know that they’re doing something that’s against the rules. They sit through lengthy “compliance” meetings governing what they can and can’t do, what sort of benefits they could receive, and which they can’t. And when a player consciously decides to trade in his gold pants for tattoos, or takes a bag of cash from a booster, they’re not motivated by a desire to pay the gas bill. It’s out of greed. And hey, if you’re not going to get in trouble, why not take a page from Gordon Gekko? Greed is good.

But let’s not pretend that this stipend would signal the end of this dirty era. Even if the NCAA starts institutionalizing payments to players, there’s no promise that they’ll start going after those who do so outside the rules. In fact, it could embolden players who already have some money in their pocket, and just want more.

I understand the idea behind this proposal. I really do. But I’m not sure that it addresses any real problem, I’m not sure that it’s particularly necessary, and I think that the negative side effects outweigh any benefits–unlike the typical NCAA violation.

I do think something should be done to help the players, but the best idea I’ve heard is that players should receive unlimited education, even after their graduation. If a player graduates from an institution, and doesn’t make the pros, he should be able to come back for his Masters, or Ph.D, or to get another degree if he so chooses. In that case, the education would assuredly be its own reward — just as it should be now.

About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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