College Athletics: To Pay or Not to Pay

11/20/2011, 9:23 a.m.
There are some who say the issue of whether student-athletes get paid is gaining momentum,...

There are some who say the issue of whether student-athletes get paid is gaining momentum, while others like writer Seth Davis believe that any such momentum is media-driven.

My colleague, Charles Sutton, argued quite persuasively in these pages last week that student-athletes should not be paid while in school. To his credit, he introduced the idea of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) setting aside 15 percent of money generated from Division 1 athletic programs - $1.3 billion - for players to access upon graduation. While this is a worthy concept, I believe that student-athletes should be paid more than anything they receive now.

To be clear, I'm not one of these people who think the free education offered to these athletes lacks worth. For all of us saddled with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans that we'll be paying back until we're 85, we wish we had the athletic ability that took us to the promised land of a free education.

In return for their services on the gridiron, basketball court and other fields of play, student-athletes receive free tuition for at least four years, textbooks, a place to sleep, food, and per diems for meals on the road. Some get stipends of a few thousand dollars a semester, but otherwise are prohibited from taking money from other sources.

In light of the fact that major college athletics programs generate billions of dollars for colleges and universities, and that this windfall comes compliments of the athletes, I believe that student-athletes should be paid more than whatever they are offered now.

I am not a math whiz or financial guru so I would leave it to greater minds to figure out how to fashion a financial model of payments, but it stands to reason that these athletes should be paid according to their contributions to the financial well-being of the institutions they serve. I envision a broad-based pay structure that would include athletes from track and field, soccer, hockey and on down the line.

University presidents and other officials have argued, rather convincingly in the past, that only a handful of NCAA schools turn a profit. Writer Seth Davis, in a story critical of some elements of an article by noted author Taylor Branch, said that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black. And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable. "That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called non-revenue sports," he explained.

That being said, it makes me wonder that if so many schools are losing revenue, why do coaches continue to attract the types of stratospheric salaries they do?

An annual roundup of Division 1 coaches' salaries by USA Today shows that University of South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier makes a princely sum of $2.03 million a year with a maximum bonus of $1 million. The school also pays for Spurrier's membership fees, monthly dues and related assessments (excluding food, beverages and related charges) for two country clubs and one dining club to allow Spurrier to "develop and promote interest in and support and sponsorship of the football program and the University."