Paying College Athletes: 5 Reforms to Spread the Wealth

kellyContributor IIApril 7, 2011

Men's basketball brings in 96 percent of the NCAA's revenue.
Men's basketball brings in 96 percent of the NCAA's revenue.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Now that March Madness is over, it’s time we turn our attention to another mad tournament: the college athletic sweepstakes.

In the last few months college football players at some of the nation’s top programs have been busted for taking money in violation of NCAA rules.

At Ohio State, five star players admitted to selling memorabilia to the owner of a tattoo parlor (who was under investigation by federal drug authorities).

At Auburn, four football players are alleged to have accepted varying amounts of cash, both as recruits and while on the team.

As it turns out, the adults were putting the kids to shame. I’m not sure if they’re all 40, but presumably they’re all old enough to be considered men.

Ohio State head coach Jim Tressel knew his players were in violation of the rules and not only failed to report it—he also tried to cover it up (that's spelled $ugar Bowl). He admitted wrongdoing only when an implicating email surfaced.

The father of Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton shopped him around as a recruit out of junior college, though it has not been proven that any money changed hands.

And who allegedly gave the Auburn players cash? Coaches and boosters. 

No disrespect to the Rose Bowl, but it also turns out that the Granddaddy of Them All is the Fiesta Bowl.

Former Fiesta Bowl President John Junker used bowl money to dole out more than $46,000 in reimbursements for employee campaign contributions since 2002, in possible violation of campaign finance laws; pay for his personal membership in four elite private golf clubs; throw himself a $33,000 birthday party; and foot the bill for a $1,200 strip club tab.

And who’s everyone's sugar daddy? Ultimately, the players on the field who aren’t even allowed to sell their game jerseys for lunch money.

All of which raises (once again) the question of whether or not college athletes should be paid—especially because the Fiesta Bowl story broke during March Madness.

According to Mark Emmert, the head of the NCAA, Division I men’s basketball provides 96 percent of the NCAA’s revenue. How much money are we talking about? $10.8 billion over 14 years.


In an interview with PBS’ Frontline, Emmert refused to discuss his salary. But based on his previous earnings as president of the University of Washington and his predecessor’s salary at the NCAA, it’s likely that he earns in excess of $1 million a year. (Read the transcript of the interview here.)

It seems everyone gets a fat piece of the pie except the folks playing the game.

To be fair, college athletes do get a scholarship, and that’s not nothing. My alma mater costs more than $50,000 a year. Less than two percent of college athletes turn pro, so having another skill to fall back on is critical.

Athletes also benefit from the coaching they receive in school. How much do you think it would cost to hire Nick Saban or Mack Brown as your private tutor?

So claims that college athletes aren’t paid are exaggerated. The real question is whether or not they’re compensated sufficiently.

It’s hard to answer in the affirmative when a recent study found that the average “full” athletic scholarship falls $3,000 short of need per year.

Paying athletes a salary based on their team’s revenue, as some have suggested, is more unlikely than a college football playoff.

That’s because there are only two revenue-generating sports in college: men’s football and basketball. If players are paid according to the money they earn for the school, then you’d be forced to eliminate all of the other sports.

Still, there are five steps the NCAA can take to spread the vast wealth of the collegiate athletic system while preserving the spirit of amateur sports.

1. Eliminate the scholarship gap by allowing schools to provide an extra $500-$1,000 per month for living expenses, adjusted for local costs.

2. Permit schools to pay for or subsidize the (economy class) travel of immediate family to a certain number of athletic events a year based on need.

3. Establish a trust funded by player memorabilia auctions, a percentage of proceeds from jersey sales and private donations to cover the cost of these additional outlays.

4. Ask the NFL and NBA to pony up some cash since they use the college games as farm systems.

5. Simplify the maze of money rules. Strictly prohibit accepting money, gifts or favors that originate with an agent, marketer or their representatives or are in exchange for affecting the outcome of a game. Allow players to accept gifts up to a certain (moderate) amount. As long as it doesn’t influence what happens on the field, who cares? Does it matter if someone wanted to waive the rent on Reggie Bush’s parents’ house? How did that affect the Bush Push? 

It’s time for the adults to play as fair off the field as they expect their student-athletes to play on the field.