Revisiting the format of NCAA sports

Faced with a number of recent public controversies, such as the assorted indiscretions of Heisman Trophy winner and Texas A&M quarterback Johnny “Football” Manziel, NCAA President Mark Emmert held a press conference to address possible changes to his organization. Although he didn’t announce which specific aspects of the association would be changing, his statement has led to an even louder roar from some parts of the media and former college athletes that now is the time to implement salaries for college players.

Many NCAA reform ideas begin with support for plans to offer athletes scholarships, a salary or a stipend. A plan proposed by seven major SEC coaches offers players a $300 stipend for each game played. Many proponents of that plan say that because the NCAA makes more than $750 million from TV and marketing rights and more than $800 million overall, the organization has the money at its disposal to pay the players such a stipend. This revenue statistic, however, ignores the fact that the NCAA pockets hardly any of that income.

According to NCAA, 96 percent of all money collected by the organization is redistributed back to the member institutions to pay for the student grants and academic enhancements. Which is all to say that beginning to pay players opens up a big can of worms.

First, scholarships and perks already equate to an enormous amount of compensation for student-athletes. Analysis by USA Today has determined that a scholarship is worth upwards of $25,000. And that doesn’t even include free perks such as coaching, athletic trainers, housing, medical care and food. Apparently, all of this is not enough compensation for an amateur athlete.

For those who do not go on to professional leagues, they leave college with a bachelor’s degree, which, on average, will lead to earnings of more than $900,000 over the course of their careers, according to the U.S. census, all without any of the debt many normal college grads accrue. While some say this is inconsequential because few athletes take advantage of their education, it is still extremely valuable for the 98 percent of student-athletes who do not become professional athletes.

Another problem that arises with paying student-athletes is differentiating between types and levels of athletes. If the NCAA decides colleges can pay their student-athletes, universities would have to decide whether  players of a sport that brings in the most money (usually football) are worth more than others. It would be a major strike against campus collegiality if softball and soccer players had to watch their football counterparts get thousands while they got little or nothing as a penalty for playing a “less lucrative” sport.

Additionally, only 22 college athletic departments in the United States made a profit in the last year, with most universities depending on football and basketball proceeds to pay for all the other sports. If the NCAA decided to blanket payment for an entire team — the football team, for example — then the star quarterback would be paid the same as the 80th player on the depth chart. Move to performance-based pay, and poisonous atmospheres would manifest themselves in locker rooms all over the nation.

Any plan to pay student-athletes is far too complicated to succeed, and the best alternative seems to be to keep things as they are and refuse to pay athletes more than their scholarship.

The players need the schools as much as the schools need the players, because without the media platforms and top-level coaching and training, the players would not be adequately prepared to make hundreds of thousands, if not millions, in leagues such as the NFL, NBA, MLB. The NBA and NFL require athletes to be one and three years out of high school, respectively.

Despite the complaints lodged against the NCAA, many student-athletes and their families are and will continue to choose collegiate athletics over many other alternatives, as it affords many of them a wonderful opportunity for athletic, academic and, indeed, personal growth that many other people are simply not lucky enough to have.

Contact Glenn Borok at [email protected].