Paying College Athletes Is Possible, If the NCAA System Gets Broken (Or Fixed)

Dan Levy@danlevythinksNational Lead WriterSeptember 12, 2013

Paying College Athletes Is Possible, If the NCAA System Gets Broken (Or Fixed)

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    In the last few weeks, Yahoo! Sports published an investigation alleging that five SEC football players—including a member of the 2011 and 2012 Alabama Crimson Tide national championship teams now in the NFL—accepted money and gifts from agents.

    Sports Illustrated produced a five-part series about impropriety involving payment and academic fraud at Oklahoma State University. Time, meanwhile, distributed an article framed around Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel and his alleged autograph business called, "It's Time to Pay College Athletes."

    Paying players has never been a hotter topic. There are a few really simple ways it can be done. First, we have to break the NCAA. The rest is easy.

    This slideshow is an attempt to explain and simplify the issues. It finishes with five payment plans for athletes, not all of which I believe in. You can skip ahead to those if you're solution-focused.

    The bigger the business of college sports gets, the wider the chasm between the haves (the coaches, schools, conferences and media partners) and the have-nots (the players) becomes.

    There was a time in college sports when the value of a scholarship was enough to offer a college athlete in exchange for his or her time on the athletic field.

    A free or discounted education that included room and board and access to academic advantages not available to the regular student body, like preferential class enrollment, free books, private tutors and an on-staff doctor and trainer for any health issues, as well as free meals, shoes and apparel, can be a rather impressive annual haul for a college student-athlete.

    At some schools, that list of benefits could exceed $50,000 to $60,000 per year for up to five years. For example, according to U.S. News & World Report, the University of Michigan costs more than $39,000 per year just for tuition and fees for an out-of-state student. Add in the cost of living, food, clothing and other benefits, and for most student-athletes, it is still a deal worth making.

    Contrary to a growing belief on this topic, college athletes are not slaves. They are not, in most cases, being exploited.

    There are, however, some cases in which the system is unfair to college athletes, and the schools, conferences, NCAA and media partners do conspire against these amateur athletes for their collective gain.

    The student-athletes are handed the same deal year after year—with slight inflation or cost-of-living increases—while the NCAA juggernaut rakes in billions upon billions of dollars to spread throughout the coffers of a broken, corrupt system.

    Can anyone blame an athlete for trying to cash in a little?

    The debate of whether college athletes should be paid a small stipend or a six-figure salary with a 401k, a company car and health benefits for participation in intercollegiate sports is long, heated and extremely nuanced.

    So now, on to discussing the issues at hand while offering—and debunking—some suggestions on how student-athletes can get a larger piece of the pie.

The Billion-Dollar Pie

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    College football is a multibillion-dollar industry.

    According to a Wall Street Journal report last year, ESPN procured the rights to a college football playoff for $5.64 billion over 12 years, which comes out to roughly $470 million per year. The doesn't include any of the other bowl games, which are still huge business, nor does it include the regular-season slate of games, which, when combined, makes the bowl package look like a bag of peanuts.

    The deal between ESPN and the SEC is reportedly the richest deal in college athletics history for a conference. According to some reports, noted in this Milwaukee Journal Sentinel article, the extension with ESPN could land each SEC school $29 million to $35 million a year, up from the current deal that pays each school $20 million.

    Spread throughout the current 14 SEC schools, the conference will bring in somewhere between $400 million and $500 million per year, which is in the neighborhood of $9 billion over the 20-year deal.

    Nine billion dollars from now until 2034. And that's just for one conference.

    According to this story from Forbes, the schools in the Pac-12 rake in $250 million annually, giving the conference around $3 billion over the course of its current media agreement with ESPN and Fox. The Big Ten, which also has its own network, shares a pot of $248 million per year for a total of $4 billion between the Big Ten Network, ESPN, CBS and Fox.

    The ACC has a deal with ESPN for more than $3.5 billion, or $240 million per year, to spread across 15 schools. Heck, the Big 12 deal seems like a steal, as its schools share $200 million per year, or $2.6 billion over the course of its current contract with ESPN and Fox.

    These numbers don't include the Big East deals (and whatever the rest of the Big East is called now) or any of the lower-tier, non-BCS conferences. It doesn't include the reported $15 million per year over 10 years Notre Dame gets from NBC in a recently renewed deal.

    Let's not forget about deals like the one ESPN made with the Longhorn Network. It pays the University of Texas somewhere in the neighborhood of $11 million per year until ESPN makes back its investment, by which, per a 2011 report from CBS Sports, "Texas' revenues from the network will rise significantly."

    While we are counting shekels, let us not forget about the monolith known as the NCAA tournament, which is in the formative stages of a 14-year, $10.8 billion deal with CBS and Turner (the company that owns Bleacher Report).

    With all of this money, imagine how much the networks are making. I've officially lost count.

    Pardon the fuzzy math, but it's safe to say the NCAA and its member institutions will rake in more than $40 billion over the next 15 years from TV partners, and that doesn't include other corporate sponsors, radio partners, ticket sales and merchandise deals.

    How much of that do the players get again?

The Level Playing Field

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    Best I can tell, the NCAA exists for three reasons.

    First, the NCAA is a governing body tasked with implementing and enforcing rules to maintain a level playing field between all schools.

    Second, the NCAA exists ostensibly as a neighborhood watch to make sure the rules—however unfair and antiquated—get enforced.

    Third, the NCAA ensures the athletes retain amateur status. It is in the best interest of the NCAA and its members to keep the money away from the players.

    Let's go through these three rules—to explain why they are all stupid.

    The NCAA's idea of a level playing field is a farce. The organization thinks that by limiting the benefits given to student-athletes by the school or those closely associated, the playing field between all members will be level.

    Is a degree from Stanford worth the same as a degree from, say, Chicago State? How can the NCAA assert that the value of a college degree is the same at all schools when not only are tuition rates vastly different, but the graduation rates, quality of education and potential for postgraduate career advancement are nowhere near level between schools?

    Is a scholarship to the University of Florida worth the same for an in-state recruit as one from just over the border? While out-of-state scholarships can cost the school more money—Florida charges more than double the annual tuition and fees for out-of-state students—the value of one NCAA scholarship does not change.

    (Note: This is under the assumption we are talking about basketball and football, where every scholarship is a full ride. Dollars do matter in other sports, but this isn't about other sports.)

    The NCAA's level playing field is full of holes.

    So, too, is its ability to enforce the rules.

Bending and Breaking the Rules

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    The NCAA cannot police all of its members, so it relies on compliance offices at every school to report minor and major violations throughout the year. The NCAA even has the authority to punish schools for violating rules they haven't even thought of yet.

    Some years ago I had an idea to put a pop-up of our football stadium inside the team's media guide so when a recruit opened the book, the stadium literally popped out at him. Our compliance official liked the idea but rejected it, stating that while it wasn't an NCAA violation, it would be once we did it.

    That's the NCAA model. Everything is fair game until it says it isn't.

    Compliance officials handle everything from academic eligibility to players receiving extra benefits, often handling hundreds of athletes with a very limited staff.

    The reason is simple: Schools don't actually want to catch anyone.

    The policing becomes just enough to keep the NCAA away. I was told some years ago that we, as a department, had to report enough minor violations every year that the NCAA wouldn't suspect we were too clean and come in for an audit.

    That's how the NCAA polices its members—allowing schools to write their own parking tickets while hoping nobody notices they're driving a stolen car.

    The only true way the NCAA can police its members on major violations is to rely on the media to do its investigations. Even the Johnny Manziel investigation, handled by the NCAA, was prompted by media reports.

    If Yahoo! Sports' report about SEC players taking money from an intermediary for agents is true—and former lineman D.J. Fluker is heavily implicated—Alabama may have to forfeit its 2012 BCS national championship. (The evidence in the report all dates from after the 2011 national championship season.)

    That's how the NCAA polices its members too. By letting things happen and then taking away a trophy and a few scholarships.

    Oh, and by shaming the athletes.

    Now, the players know the rules, and just because they seem unfair does not give them the right to break them. It's just that in situations like this, the story is almost always about the players who took the money or cheated on the tests or signed the autographs. The stories are about the coaches who let parties happen or classes be skipped or envelopes full of cash be stuffed and shared.

    The stories are almost never about the culpability of the university presidents and those deep pockets funding their athletic endeavors, who are often the same people funneling cash to the players.

    It's almost never about the culture within the NCAA system that allows impropriety to happen because a few hundred bucks here and there from a booster satiates the players enough to them keep quiet and happy.

    Moreover, it keeps the players from organizing against the system.

Payment Plan 1: Pay All the Players

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    Many people have suggested that with so much money funneling into college athletics, all the players should get paid.

    That is not a sustainable business model for most schools. And remember, the NCAA is about hurting those with means, money and opportunity, so long as it means keeping the playing field level.

    Paying every athlete a stipend would bankrupt less successful athletic departments and force them to cut sports in lieu of paying student-athletes to play.

    Let's say a student-athlete can be paid $8 an hour and, in addition to class, spends four hours per day at athletic-related events. That would come out to around $225 per week. If paid over the entire year, that amounts to little more than $11,600. It's not bad, but it's hardly what top players deserve. It is far from enough to curtail impropriety from boosters and other outside influences.

    In addition, if that amount were given to every athlete at a school, it would cost some schools with large athletic departments nearly $5 million per year in salaries for their players.

    Some departments can't even pay their staff. How is it reasonable to expect them to pay the players?

    Should the schools that turn a profit be the ones who pay their players? Every bookkeeper in America will figure out a way to show losses (some already do) so the school wouldn't have to pay. Moreover, the schools that do pay players would get all the best ones, thereby eradicating any chance of a school that didn't pay players competing in any sport.

    That's not very level.

Payment Plan 2: Pay the Revenue Athletes

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    While paying everyone is not sustainable, there has been a groundswell of support for paying just those athletes who play revenue sports.

    That makes more sense, but again it flies in the face of the NCAA's desire for a level playing field. 

    Some men's basketball teams don't make any money, especially those that do not qualify for the postseason. Most women's basketball teams—even those that make it to the postseason—do not make money at all.

    Conversely, some non-traditional revenue sports can turn a profit, namely top-level college baseball, lacrosse or soccer programs.

    Is it fair for schools to pay players on one team because the sport makes money but not pay players on another, even though that team could actually be more profitable to the school?

    If a high school player was a standout in baseball and football but had to pick one in college, would he ever pick the sport where he wasn't going to get paid to play?

    Miami notoriously used to load up on additional scholarship athletes for football by putting its speediest receivers and defensive backs on track scholarships, as noted by in 2010. Could teams start doing that with cash, too, by putting players on the rosters of multiple sports in order to pay them more?

    This is better than paying everyone, but it's not great.

Payment Plan 3: Pay the Best Athletes

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    People have actually started suggesting the best players should get paid in the revenue sports, which is an idea so ludicrous I can't even believe I'm addressing it.

    Who determines the best players? If a star quarterback is a senior, he is far less valuable to a coach than a true freshman 5-star recruit recently signed to replace him.

    Would coaches determine value? Does that mean that each player would have to negotiate his own contract with the coach to determine a fair level of compensation? If a player goes from leading scorer one year to a complementary player the next because the coach was able to recruit better talent, does he take a pay cut?

    If you thought transfers were a nightmare for coaches now, it's usually just based on playing time. If you added a monetary component, nobody at any school would ever want to join a team as a backup.

    Every top player would try to find a place where he could be the No. 1 option to make the most money, making it impossible for coaches to build teams and give players time to grow and develop.

    Even then, how much money are we talking about, really?

    In the SI piece on Oklahoma State, the report indicated that players were given bonuses for certain plays: sacks, interceptions, touchdowns. Would that be a fair way to pay players if the bonuses were sanctioned by the NCAA?

    Could you imagine the chaos on a basketball court if players were paid per point or rebound?

    The idea of giving players bonuses for reaching a bowl or the NCAA tournament may work—players already get a ton of swag for reaching these events, so why not money too—but that could lead to a greater separation of haves and have-nots in college athletics.

    Why would a top player run the risk of missing the NCAA tournament if there was money on the line? Wouldn't it behoove players to all sign with the best schools to guarantee a trip to the Big Dance, then the bank?

    The NCAA would not want that.

Payment Plan 4: Don't Pay, but Let Them Earn

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    Under the current NCAA rules, players are allowed to make money and hold jobs. It's just that the rigors of being a student-athlete often preclude them from having the time to find real jobs.

    One of the biggest problems in college sports is that athletes sometimes get paid for little to no work by local businesses and boosters. Players can make hundreds or even thousands of dollars for nothing, which is currently a violation of NCAA rules.

    It shouldn't be.

    Players should be allowed to make money off their own likenesses, so long as the money they make is not being facilitated through the school and there is no connection to the academic institution in any tangible way. 

    For example, if Johnny Manziel wants to make money for an autograph, the NCAA has to let him do that, so long as he doesn't sign anything, for money, with a Texas A&M logo on it.

    At the same time, Manziel can set up autograph sessions around town, as long as the school isn't promoting them or hosting them. So he can sign an A&M jersey; he just can't get paid for it. But if you have a Johnny Football hat, that'll cost you $300, preferably in small bills.

    This system can work, and the NCAA must change this rule immediately.

    The system wouldn't work, however, if the players get money from jersey sales.

    It's well known that coaches control which jerseys can and cannot be produced by merchandise companies. Even though the names are not on the backs of jerseys per NCAA rules, coaches can still limit the production of certain numbers, allowing fans a very limited selection of choices to support the team. 

    Say I saunter in to a local South Carolina Gamecocks team shop and plunk down $150 for a brand new No. 7 jersey. How much of that should go to Jadeveon Clowney? Half?

    How much should go to redshirt sophomore tailback Shon Carson, who also wears that number this year?

    If I buy my son or daughter a Rutgers jersey with No. 27 on it, should some of that money go to NFL running back Ray Rice or true freshman defensive back Delon Stephenson? What about the five players who wore the number between those two?

    (Note: I'll admit putting names on the backs of jerseys would obviously fix that problem.)

    Players should be allowed to make money off their own images. If a tattoo parlor wants to give out free ink to any player who sits around for half an hour and brings in other clients, it should be allowed to do that. It's borderline unconstitutional for the NCAA to preclude players from making money off their own celebrity.

    There should, however, be a line between personal celebrity and school-sanctioned payments. Not allowing players to make money on officially licensed merchandise keeps both sides clean.

Payment Plan 5: Let Agents Pay Players

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    This last option, when combined with the previous one, solves everything.

    Let the agents pay the players.

    Let agents into college football and basketball and baseball and whatever else, and allow them to pay players as much as they want without anyone losing eligibility.

    The system is already broken, with AAU and select coaches funneling players to certain schools for kick-backs in money or merchandise.

    It happens everywhere, so let the kids get a piece of that action.

    If an agent wants to pay a few players while they are in college, that money in no way hurts the program. In fact, it may help the program.

    Agents are in the business of making money, not giving it away, so the players who get contacted by agents are habitually those from whom the agent sees a return on that initial investment. If a player is given money by an agent, it stands to reason the agent expects that player to excel in college and make the professional ranks.

    Allowing agents to pay players could give players more incentive to make it to the pros, which helps the team on the field this year and helps with recruiting in future years.

    By letting the agents get involved, the money distribution can become a feeder program that can be policed by the NFL, NBA or MLB as much—or more—than the schools.

    This is not a suggestion to make college football and basketball (or other sports) the Wild West. The rule would come with three very important caveats.

    First, only sanctioned agents are allowed to work with players. If boosters, coaches or unlicensed agents are caught giving money to players, the player would be ineligible to ever play amateur sports again, and the benefactor would be fired or banned.

    Second, the agents are not allowed in or around the athletics facilities. Coaches cannot run their programs with agents inside the huddle.

    If an agent shows up to practice or is seen in the locker room after a game, he or she is no longer allowed to work with student-athletes at that school. Multiple violations would result in a loss of license.

    Third, and this is the most important one, all of the money given to players has to be recorded, tracked and repaid within five years of a player's graduation or declaration of going pro (whichever comes first), or the agent forfeits his license to be a professional player representative.

    Players can be paid as much as the agent wants while in college, but the players must pay it all back within five years of going pro or graduating, putting the responsibility solely on the agents to pick the right players to pay, while never giving out too much that a player wouldn't be able to pay it back within the allotted time.

    The agents are already in every school, and they're never going to leave. Everyone has their hand in a pocket somewhere in college sports.

    By legalizing and regulating the rules for how and from whom a player can receive extra benefits, the NCAA can actually start to level the playing field between those with all of the money and the ones who deserve a lot more.