Why the Biggest Problem with the NCAA Isn't Paying Players

Peter BukowskiSenior Analyst IJune 2, 2011

COLUMBUS, OH - OCTOBER 25: Ohio State Buckeyes head coach Jim Tressell instructs his quarterback Terrell Pryor #2 during the game against the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 25, 2008 at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio.  (Photo by Jamie Sabau/Getty Images)
Jamie Sabau/Getty Images

The NCAA system is broken, but not for the reasons commonly attributed to a system where players and coaches seem to be in a perpetual game of catch-me-if-you-can with NCAA investigators.

I despise the arguments for and against paying players, but they're necessary to prove my point.

Let's not bury the lead any further. The biggest obstacle to achieving ethical behavior in the NCAA system is a lack of accountability from coaches, athletic directors and universities. 

Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports does an excellent job articulating the problem. Coaches and administrators around every major sport at every major college or university in the country becomes willfully ignorant, using plausible deniability as a crutch, rather than doing their jobs and policing their staff; remember, players are basically employees of the university. 

Bruce Pearl loses a couple SEC games for violating NCAA policy and Dez Bryant loses his entire season because he wasn't sure a dinner he had with a mentor would violate that same NCAA policy.

If the sports media hadn't made a federal case out of Jim Tressel's transgressions at Ohio State, he may still be there.

Six Ohio State players were going to lose half a season for trading spandex pants for tattoos.

And here's the rub of what Wetzel is getting at: Players offer an easy target when it's the adults, the administrators, the people making millions who really ought to be vilified for the heads in the sand routine.

Here's my solution: Encourage self-policing by universities and coaches while perpetuating transparency and accountability through financial incentives and disincentives. 

College sports is big business, and it should hurt your bottom line to be caught cheating.

On the other hand, it shouldn't be the players who feel the brunt of punishment for violating the rules when it is the coaches, administrators and universities who reap the majority of the benefits from those same players.

If a coach catches a player breaking the rules, the coach and the university should have the authority to determine the punishment, but it would have to be made public. This way the team could suspend the player temporarily and not have to lie to the NCAA.

If an athletic director catches a coach, the same would be true: The university would have latitude to handle it themselves, but the incident would have to be made public.

However, the NCAA will reserve the right to complete its own investigation and determine whether or not the punishment was sufficient.

This creates an incentive not only to be even-handed when cracking down on cheaters, but also to be thorough in the investigation of any allegations.

Now, if the NCAA or a media outlet finds out about these transgressions and the university was unaware of such a problem, it should have the authority not just to take away scholarships—which it should and likely would do—but there should be financial penalties as well.

Vacating wins or taking away bowl games doesn't do anything to punish a school. Do you think Pete Carroll cares about vacating wins or bowl games? Of course not, he got paid then and he's getting paid now.

Likewise, if a coach like Carroll bolts and is found to have been in violation of NCAA rules, he should be open to fines and penalties as well. He was earning the big bucks and breaking the rules. As a result, he should have the suffer financial consequences for that.

Take away people's livelihood and suddenly they fall into line, I assure you.

But you still may be asking, "Well what does this really change? Players still don't get paid and will still break the rules to make money."

This new system offers a solution to that problem by changing the culture of college athletics.

For instance, if the players at Ohio State knew that no matter what they did, their coach and their administrators would lie for them, then you're creating an environment free from consequence.

The penalties for these types of transgressions have always been looming, but because coaches and administrators want the players on the field, they're willing to lie; and yes, willful ignorance is the same.

As a result, players felt invincible and started getting greedy.

That's why the argument for these players who are "just trying to get by" is ridiculous. Players break the rules for cars, jewelry, tattoos and innumerable other things that are nothing short of luxuries.

Guys like Ty Duffy can talk all they want about these players not getting the "value" for their product, but remember, colleges, while many are non-profit organizations, are part of a business.

Jay Paterno, an assistant coach at Penn State and son of legendary coach Joe Paterno, does an excellent job detailing the benefits players receive attending a big-time university, from a free education, to room and board, etc.

Additionally, what he's trying to do is remind readers that most of these student-athletes would never have had the opportunity to receive a four-year degree from many of these prestigious schools without an athletic scholarship.  

I'm not going to rehash what he wrote because he does an excellent job fleshing out the argument. I do want to make an important addition. 

The value of a scholarship, of being a major college athlete, is anywhere upwards of $50,000 a year to work a part-time job, as Paterno explains.

At Penn State, like in Paterno's example, an out-of-state player receives upwards of $80,000 based on out-of-state tuition costs.

If you don't think a scholarship is the same as cash, ask the parent of a Penn State student who has to pay upwards of $200,000 for his or her student, and that figure is without accounting for interest payments on loans.

Joe Paterno, the head coach at Penn State, made $1.1 million in 2010, which means he makes more than 13 times what his "employees" make.

The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ran a story two weeks ago about the pay CEOs receive as it relates to the average worker. I know we may be getting into a little apple/orange problem with the Pennsylvania versus Wisconsin issue, but the concept is not unique regionally.

According to the article, the average CEO of Wisconsin's 57 publicly traded companies in 2010 was $3.89 million per year, while the average worker in Wisconsin made just $39,104 a year. 

That's about 100 times less money.

You may say the bigger problem is exorbitant CEO pay, and to some degree that is part of it, but when the compensation ratio from coach to player is 10 times better than in the private sector, cries over "value" fall on deaf ears. 

Furthermore, the revenue generated by money sports offsets the costs of all of the sports which don't generate such huge profits.

In fact, an article in 2009 from a local Madison new outlet even argued that if the Wisconsin football program continues to struggle, it may jeopardize the success of all UW sports, given the huge profits the football team creates for the athletic department budget.

When you think about it this way, creating accountability and financial punishments for coaches and administrators makes even more sense.

CEOs make exponentially more money than their employee, presumably because they have to manage all of those employees, act as the face of the company, and in many cases, assume the risk.

If we start holding the revenue receiving entities more accountable, then the system is equitable. Paying the players doesn't solve the problem. 

Players ought to be responsible for their actions, which means they too deserve to be punished.

On the other hand, the only way this system remains equitable is if the money-makers in the equation, the people reaping the most benefits from the system, are held accountable when the people they put in charge fail.

It's the job of a manager to hire and fire people, to recruit the right ways and bring in the right people. If you don't, you get fired. That's the way it works in the real world, but not the NCAA.

That's the true problem with college athletics.


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