Cameron Newton is the star quarterback for the No. 2 Auburn Tigers and is widely considered one of the top prospects for the 2011 NFL Draft and a leading candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
But Newton has been in the news recently for something he did off the field.
According to ESPN.com, a representative for Newton attempted to solicit payment from Mississippi State in return for his commitment to the Bulldogs. Newton had reportedly received offers from other schools for $200,000, but would have been willing to come to Mississippi State for a discount because that's where he preferred to play. Head coach Dan Mullen reportedly balked at the suggestion and Newton ended up at Auburn.
Under NCAA regulations, it is illegal for a recruit to receive any form of financial compensation, whether it's cash, expensive gifts or benefits. Newton's family has said that the representative, identified as former Ole Miss player Kenny Rogers, acted without Newton's knowledge or approval.
But whether or not the allegations are true, the Cam Newton saga raises interesting questions about the college recruitment process.
Should athletes, in fact, be compensated for their play?
By the Numbers
The NCAA is a cash cow and one of the highest-grossing athletic governing bodies in the world. In its most recent budget the NCAA claimed $710 million in revenue, almost entirely from lucrative television and marketing deals.
The schools themselves make even more money from athletics. According to a New York Times article, in 2005 the 121 Division I-A football teams generated an incredible $1.8 billion for their schools between ticket sales, merchandising and sponsorships. Big programs like Texas, Michigan and Georgia are responsible for up to $60 million each. Much of that money goes to support other unprofitable athletic programs, women's sports in particular.
Both the NCAA and every university are non-profit institutions, so it's not like the cash is going in somebody's pocket. But since the athletes are the ones responsible for generating all that revenue, don't they deserve a share of it?
The Student-Athlete Debate
The first response you will hear to that question is that athletes are getting paid—with college scholarships. They get to go to school for free and over four years save themselves either around $60,000 (for a public school) or $200,000 (for a private school). That's a decent paycheck for a student, but is it fair?
Remember that ticket sales would plummet if the on-field product wasn't entertaining to watch. In addition, schools make millions by putting a player's number on a T-shirt and selling those to the public.
Even the video-game industry profits from the athletes. The NCAA football and basketball franchises are among the best-selling titles for gaming giant EA Sports, which routinely takes advantage of a player's popularity to make money.
Top college athletes like Newton may by themselves account for up to $5 million of any particular school's revenue. Yet, these players don't get a single cent.
Some may argue that these athletes will get paid once they reach the pros. But they forget that less than one percent of all college athletes ever make it that far. In the meantime, they risk injury or a drop in performance.
Is There a Solution?
The main problem with compensating athletes is the question of how to distribute the money. Is every athlete paid equally or do star athletes get paid more? Should football players make more than baseball players? Do only the athletes in the profitable sports get paid?
None of these questions have an easy answer, and they are among the reasons a fair system has yet to be established. But incidents like the one with Newton should not be unexpected or necessarily condemned.
The Tigers are pocketing millions of dollars thanks to their star quarterback. How many students at Auburn do you think have bought something with Newton's number or likeness on it? Five thousand? Ten thousand? Twenty thousand? What about the city of Auburn, and the surrounding districts?
Yes, Newton may have broken the rules (or someone broke them for him). But it's the rules that are broken in the first place. If the NCAA wants to put a stop to college recruiters luring athletes with gifts and cold hard cash, then they should find a way to fairly compensate the players that are helping to line college football's wallet.