Paupers on the Playing Fields

While the colleges, the coaches, and the broadcasters make out like bandits, student athletes can't enjoy the fruits of their own talent. Should they?

So you're Peyton Manning.

Today your earning power as a football player is a National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) scholarship worth thousands of dollars. When you turn pro, you will be worth a thousand times more.

The difference between now and then isn't determined by supply and demand. Then, as now, millions will pack stadiums and watch you on TV. The thousandfold difference is artificial.

By the rules of the NCAA, a college football player cannot receive a dime more than his room, board, books, and tuition in payment for providing entertainment that--here in America--is valued and sold for millions of dollars in tickets and TV contracts.

Nor can Manning endorse his favorite shoe. He can't babysit for $5 an hour. He can't even benefit from the 12-foot images of himself being used to advertise automobile dealerships on KAT buses.

A year from now, will he be here in Knoxville for another season in orange and a last halcyon moment of college life? Or will he increase his compensation a thousand times? No wonder UT coach Phil Fulmer wishes for rule changes, so that top draft picks can get loans or find another way to get a half-step up the earning graph.

No wonder, too, that lately people in college sports are talking seriously about paying student athletes.

'Increasing benefits'

"Please," implores Katherine Reith, Director of Public Information for the NCAA, "don't call it 'paying.' Call it 'increasing their benefits.' A number of college presidents would be upset at the former and not the latter."

Whatever you call it, the unthinkable is getting a little more thinkable every day. This summer NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey has been floating ideas in his speeches to athletic directors and in conference meetings, "just to get people thinking." He's brought up theoretical possibilities like allowing players to earn money from endorsements and salting those bucks away in future-use trust funds, or getting loans tied to future earnings as pros. Not surprisingly, Dempsey says he's gotten very mixed reactions.

"I think he's doing a good job of defining the problem and not alienating the members," says UT hoops coach Kevin O'Neill, who is serving on a special committee assembled by the NCAA to look at ways to help the welfare of student-athletes while protecting the amateurism of college sports. The committee, chaired by William E. Kirwan, University of Maryland president, met July 17-18 in Kansas City. Says O'Neill, "It was the best, most worthwhile committee I've ever been involved in, by far. Going into those meetings I was a huge proponent of, 'Let's just pay scholarship basketball and football players.' When I saw what it would cost and found out some statistics on athletic departments around the country, I understood a lot of the issues a lot better."

Still, O'Neill thinks there are ways it can eventually be worked out.

"The problem is adequate compensation, doing what's fair for the athletes in a way that people can stomach," says Doug Looney, longtime college football writer for Sports Illustrated, whose recent Sporting News article laid out 10 "solid ideas" for increasing the benefits of college athletes--from monthly stipends, unlimited pay for stars, trusts, sharing 10 percent of the net profits of individual sports, and allowing outside jobs and endorsements to giving 50 home tickets to each athlete, to be sold or dispensed as he or she pleases. "The market for that sport would determine the level of compensation," says Looney. "That's capitalism."

And nobody can deny that capitalism is what's driving this train.

History will show that somewhere between Dink Stover at Yale and the advent of the Tostitos, Poulan Weedeater, and Outback Steakhouse bowls, major-college athletics became a tsunami of money. The revenue sports (hoops, football) and their TV contracts are washing ashore with huge bucks--enough, fortunately, to irrigate all the other sports, notably the laudable, unfunded gender-equity mandates of Title IX.

Coaches are bringing down bigger bucks than ever--some just to go away when they lose. An anointed few--Rick Pitino, for example--get seven figures from shoe contracts alone.

Players, in the meantime, are among the most regulated individuals in America, living by Postal Service-sized rulebooks ensuring fairness of competition and consistency of scholarship benefits among NCAA institutions. Athletes are not allowed to get part-time jobs, take gifts, get treated to meals, sign contracts, endorse products, appear in charity calendars, or drive shiny cars provided by grinning boosters. (Hence the NCAA motto: Fermus Oculae ad Sooner Macadamus, which translates as "Close your eyes when you walk through the Oklahoma parking lot.")

Until Herschel Walker left Georgia for the USFL a few years ago, players weren't even allowed to leave early, by mutual agreement between the NCAA and the leagues. That agreement would have withered if exposed to our nation's rigorous restraint-of-trade statutes, so superstars are now heading for the pros in record numbers, where they're getting signing bonuses surpassing the gross national product of all but a handful of nations in the Southern Hemisphere.

Amid this Kmart shopping frenzy, evil agents are luring callow youths away from the land of amateurism with loans, contracts, promises and worse. Specifically, athletic programs are trembling over the case of Massachusetts star Marcus Camby and agent Wesley Spears, who allegedly let Camby and some friends charge $1,800 worth of clothes on his credit card, then tried to blackmail Camby in a failed attempt to woo him as a client.

The NCAA is the impartial arbiter of this carnival. It and its member institutions believe in strict adherence to its rules of amateurism--for players. Some 80 percent of the NCAA's entire $240 million operating budget for next year will come from its seven-year, $1 billion basketball contract with CBS.

Even Walter Byers--for 36 years the NCAA's Pope, J. Edgar Hoover, and Pete Rozelle rolled into one--sees the landscape differently in retirement from the way he did a few years ago. "The wheel of fortune is badly unbalanced in favor of the overseers and against the players," wrote Byers. The powers in intercollegiate sport, Byers told Looney, which include some 25 football and 35 basketball schools, don't want to change because they "are doing very, very well. The beneficiaries of monopoly practices don't want to change the monopoly."

"What we have with major-college athletics nowadays is two separate philosophies," says O'Neill. "One is amateurism and academic ideals. On the other hand, we're talking about making money and winning national titles. We have a conflict of interest even within our philosophy behind major-college sports."

"It's philosophy versus some students' realities," says Reith.

Two Points of View

Like all complicated issues, there are at least two sides to the touchy questions in big-money college athletics. As spokesmen for the extremes, let's use two imaginary, though strangely familiar, characters. To tell us what's right, what's best for the integrity of the institutions and the moral fiber of the nation, let's turn to Buzzcut Goodposture.

Buzz has been around a while. He wears thin lapels and yearns for the good old days--when Knute Rockne was paid as a chemistry professor and coached football for the glory of God; when Roger Staubach fulfilled his obligation to the Navy and had youth enough left over for all those Super Bowls; when Bear Bryant sat Joe Namath down for the Orange Bowl and taught America that rules apply to everybody (sorry, Tom Osborne, you're no Bear Bryant).

For another perspective, let's give a fair hearing to another breed of cat--let's call him Vitalis Tassleloafer.

Vitalis is a good guy, even if he talks fast and his car has all that chrome on it. He believes in free enterprise--just like Bob Dole. He wants to help the kids. They work hard. They need a break. When they hit the pros, they'll have to match wits with those hard-boiled team owners. Vitalis wants to help 'em get a good deal and figure out where to put all those millions. This guy is on a lot of college coaches' minds right now--because he's all over the place (ask Marcus Camby).

Since the special NCAA committee has just gotten started, the members are resolved not to make official comments about the items on the table. But we can talk about the issues and make our best predictions.

"I don't think there's any doubt that everybody wants to do more for the student-athlete," says O'Neill. "Everybody wants to do the right thing. Everybody wants to help. It's just finding feasible ways to do it that can go ahead and not break the rules and not put the student-athlete in a position where everybody can't be treated fairly, in terms of gender equity and different sports. It's a lot more expensive adventure than people realize, even if you're talking about a monthly stipend."

Discretionary Money

Back in 1993, a poll at the American Football Coaches Association annual meeting found that 71 percent of Division I-A coaches thought that some form of monthly payment should be provided for their players. "The problem is they have no walk-around money," said Virginia Coach George Welsh. "It's hard to be in the social part of the college. You should be able to go see a movie a couple of times a semester or go for a pizza once a week." At that time, an athletic director sounded like Marie Antoinette when he said, "Athletes that meet federal criteria are eligible for Pell Grants. Also, athletes have three months during the summer when they can be gainfully employed."

So what would be a fair stipend? Until the late '60s, NCAA athletes got "laundry money" of $15 a month (roughly the cost of a Stealth Bomber in today's dollars). In 1984, Johnny Majors came out openly for paying $50 a month, and he predicted the NCAA would adopt the necessary rule changes within four years. Recently, Florida State Coach Bobby Bowden, who earns $975,000 a year (including $225,000 from Nike) recommended $75 a month to the NCAA.

Realistic talk bounces between $100 and $200 a month. "Do I favor paying the athletes?" asks UT Athletic Director Doug Dickey. "No, not at this time, because 80 percent of the schools in the country can't afford it. That's been up on the flagpole for review a number of times, and I have never seen anybody put forth a plan that appeared to be feasible in light of a couple of things:

"Number one, gender equity has added a significant number of women participants in the last five years and the cost has been rather significant to athletic departments. That has got everybody in the status of, 'We're just not going to do anything until we get all that balanced out and get our revenue and expense streams under control.'

"Number two, athletes who do not have private funding from home have access to the Pell Grants. These are available to all students whether you're on scholarship or not. Of 350 scholarship athletes at UT, about 80 of them draw Pell Grants to one extent or another, up to $2,700 a year. That's money to be used for transportation, entertainment or whatever else you choose. If you qualify, you can get it.

"Number three is the NCAA Emergency Fund. This is money from the basketball contract that at UT has distributed about $27,000 to our athletes for eyeglasses, emergency transportation home, other needs, which can mean an additional $200 or $400. In the past this has only been for athletes on the Pell Grants, but it's been expanded this year so that people who are not on Pell Grants can qualify."

(Time out: Pell Grants to needy athletes, while the institutions get TV bucks and the coaches get millions from Nike? Cut to a nightmare: an NCAA official, tossing and turning as he dreams of budget-busting Congressman John Kasich (R-Ohio), dressed as Casablanca's Captain Renault, who blows his gendarme's whistle and exhorts, "I'm shocked!--Shocked!--to learn that federal money is subsidizing the commercial excesses of big-time college sports! Round up the usual bureaucrats!")

Goodposture: "You can't pay only the revenue-producing athletes. You've got to give the same to everybody, and that would bankrupt most athletic departments. Where is this money supposed to come from?"

Tassleloafer: "Hey, I think they can figure it out. Gender equity says 'opportunities,' not dollars. And maybe a salary cap for coaches would loosen up the budgets a little."

Amateurism

Since this issue cuts to the heart of the NCAA's reason for existing, it's understandable that many are reluctant to hastily throw amateurism in the trash can.

The NCAA came into being in 1906 because Teddy Roosevelt was concerned about (a) the number of young athletes being killed each year playing football, and (b) the widespread practice of hiring nonstudent ringers. Right under "Basic Purpose of the NCAA" it says that the whole idea is to make sure athletes are "a vital part of the education system and an integral part of the student body," and to draw "a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate and professional sports."

"We are in amateur athletics," says Dickey, "and we are very tough on individuals who try to violate that. Consequently we live with a rather Puritan attitude about it, but we do have room, board, tuition and books."

Goodposture: "The NCAA athlete enjoys the priceless opportunity to drink from the fountain of learning and live the life of the mind, to form bonds of camaraderie in the rigors of physical exertion. He is getting room, board, tuition and books. Let's keep college sports what they were meant to be--a healthy adjunct to academic and student life."

Tassleloafer: "Okay, Plato. Education is great. But these kids are worth a lot. They bring in beaucoup dineros, and they are walking ad campaigns. Whoever heard of Boston College before Doug Flutie? Why shouldn't they get their share? Or at least have a few bucks to go to the movies like every other kid on campus? What's the big deal? The Olympics gave up amateurism, and the synchronized swimming looked better than ever."

Cheating

"The cheating is out of control," says Doug Looney. "It reminds me of Prohibition and the 55-mile-per-hour speed limit, when Congress passed laws Americans simply didn't obey." Are some players paid under the table? Are boosters still sliding bucks under the table, despite the NCAA's all-out jihad against the practice?

"I don't know if it's any different than it's ever been," says Kevin O'Neill. "In real estate, some people cheat. In banking, some people cheat. On the stock market and the securities exchange, people cheat. I think some coaches and schools cheat. That doesn't mean everybody does or that everybody's bad. There are bad things going on in every business. We're no different."

Goodposture: "Athletic departments have done a great job of controlling boosters, and college sports is cleaner today than ever. Every time there is a violation, we hear about it in the papers for months. Those are good rules, and there's no reason to change them."

Tassleloafer: "I wouldn't know about anybody breaking rules. But I can't even take a kid out for a hamburger. What's the point?"

Free Enterprise

All these discussions have talked about need. But we're talking about value and competition. Athletes are valuable and college sports are now in competition with pro sports for talent. "I make no apologies for the fact that I am a capitalist," wrote Georgetown Coach John Thompson in a recent Washington Post piece. "And I am not saying that money is bad." Thompson was decrying the flood of underclassmen (including Georgetown sophomore Allen Iverson) pouring into the NBA mostly because of the message it sends to the kids in the street. "We've got to be realistic about how we keep players in school," says Thompson, who's not talking about the stipend. "An allowance for kids to go to the movies pales in comparison to a multimillion dollar pro contract." Instead, Thompson gently advocates a re-examination of our definition of a student-athlete. "An accurate definition of today's student-athlete would mandate new (and hopefully simpler) NCAA rules."

Presumably, Thompson's new definition would allow his players to receive a share of the millions he receives because the Hoyas wear Nikes. Of the 64 teams that made the NCAA tournament this year, 63 have shoe deals with either Nike (30), Converse (15), Reebok (9), Adidas (7) and Asics (2). The vast majority of those shoe deals are with individual coaches and not schools. (Notable exceptions: North Carolina and Michigan in basketball, Miami and Southern Cal in football.) College presidents recently put their feet down and ruled that coaches must get approval for outside income. They didn't go so far as to say that the money should go to the schools. Why shouldn't it go to the players?

This is a question that may come up again.

"I can't wait for the next big surprise: the strike," says ABC News correspondent Armen Keteyian, author of several eye-opening books on college sports. "There has been a lot of talk about that. And no wonder. What happens if five minutes before a Final Four game Arkansas just says, 'We're not coming out'? All it's gonna take is one kid too many who's seen his jersey sold for $100 at the school store to say, 'I've got $11 in my pocket. I'm turning down agents left and right, and I've had enough.'"

An NCAA Players' Union? That idea has been thrown around for a decade by a former Duke hoopster named Dick DeVenzio, but it's never stuck to the wall. The idea sounds far-fetched, but so does the Weedeater Bowl.

"We give 'em a college education," says Doug Looney. "But that's just part of the whole picture. Why do we put a cap on what they can earn?" If Neill Sandler Ford wants to put 12-foot paintings of Peyton Manning on K-Trans buses, why shouldn't Peyton have a say about it? Or at least be allowed to get a shiny new Escort out of the deal? That may not be fair to the linemen who block for Peyton. But free enterprise is not fair. Rational homo sapiens might argue that a ticket to the Final Four isn't worth $6,000. But that's what scalpers were getting in Charlotte two years ago.

If we pay football and basketball players, shouldn't we pay field hockey players? By Title IX laws, you'd have to. The way around that would be to place big-time sports in a different category.

Goodposture: "So recruits go where they can get the best promo deals. I think I'm going to be ill."

Tassleloafer: "To tell you the truth, Buzz, that's pretty much the way it is now."

The Super Division

Eight years ago, in his first year as coach at Marquette, Kevin O'Neill wrote a guest column in the Chicago Tribune advocating a Super Powers Conference, and he still thinks it's a good idea. The NCAA has discussed a restructuring of Division I-A to reflect that some schools operate with considerably more resources than others. You could argue that a super-powers conference already exists, since about 20 percent of Division I-A athletic programs make money and the rest don't. "Is there as much money at Prairie View as there is at South Carolina?" asks O'Neill. "There's not. Until we have some sort of division, we can't truly address these problems anyway. We may make some modifications, but we've got to set some parameters down eventually."

Might that new division be a quasi-pro conference, with separate rules and practices for the top football and basketball programs? "We don't want that," says Doug Dickey. "We are part of the Southeastern Conference and we have no interest in doing anything else."

Goodposture: "The danger is that this would be a minor league, where the athletic dog wags the academic tail. Is that what we want?'

Tassleloafer: "This is just acknowledging that some schools are in different categories than others. There's Division III and the Ivy League, with no athletic scholarships at all. There's Division II for smaller budgets. A few years ago they put the in-between schools in Division I-AA, and it worked out fine. This is the same thing."

The Superstars & the Agents

All the previous discussions, says Doug Dickey, are separate from the issue of the high-profile, $5 million player. "Should Todd Helton have been allowed to borrow $30,000 or $50,000 as he went through his senior year?" asks Dickey. "Should he be able to borrow the money to insure himself? I think there are some possibilities that President Kirwan is looking into."

"You're walking a thin line between making sure you capture that amateurism that has been great in college athletics," says O'Neill, "and then going ahead and singling out an elite few and separating them from the rest of the athletic department. Is that right? Who knows? That's why guys go pro. That's their option."

Goodposture: "Slimy sleazeball agents have no business within 50 yards of any NCAA event. They should be banned and punished and exiled to beneath the rocks they crawled from."

Tassleloafer: "Ouch, Buzz. You're hurtin' me, babe. Who's out there looking out for these kids when they're making these tough decisions and dealing with all these big numbers. If a kid needs a little help, why shouldn't I help him out with a loan? Who does it hurt?"

Education

Two decades ago, James Michener shook everybody up with his book Sports in America. "The testimony of former players is overwhelming that no young man can go all-out for a serious football or basketball team and carry a full load of studies," wrote Michener. "To require him to take three or four serious courses, as is attempted now, is ridiculous; worse, it is damaging, since it corrupts the academic process at the same time it initiates the player into a sense of academic failure."

Back in the 70s, there were enough examples of non-student-athletes to back up Michener's opinion. Since then, the NCAA and its member institutions have made a valiant effort to improve the graduation rates for scholarship athletes.

Each year the NCAA gathers and distributes the schools' graduation results for that year's entering class (allowing six years to graduate) along with the totals for the most recent four classes. Being especially tough, the NCAA now counts transfers, kids who are kicked off teams, who leave early for personal reasons and who leave early for the pros as non-graduates, so percentages anywhere near 80 are fabulous, and anything above 50 percent is pretty good.

In general, scholarship athletes--including tennis players, swimmers, golfers and gymnasts--graduate at about the same as the student body as a whole. At UT, athletes posted four-year figures of 44% among the men and 65% among the women for a 50% overall average. This compares to student-body averages of 51% for the men, 56% for the women and 53% overall.

Some schools do better than others, but they're all trying. The most recent four-year numbers for SEC football are unstartling. In ascending order, they are Arkansas 31%, LSU 39%, Tennessee 41%, Florida 45%, Auburn 45%, Georgia 46%, Alabama 47%, Ole Miss 56%, South Carolina 57%, Mississippi State 58%, Kentucky 61%, and Vanderbilt 82%. (In a league with Vandy, the usual suspects of egghead football programs around the country logged the following four-year averages: Stanford 75%, Rice 76%, Notre Dame 76%, Michigan 76%, Northwestern 76%, Virginia 76%, Wake Forest 77%, Penn State 82% and Duke 93%.)

There are statistical highlights and lowlights around the country, but college degrees are a possibility for those who choose to pursue them. This area is another minefield of good intentions and bad results. With Proposition 48, the NCAA made an honest effort to up the entrance requirements to make sure high school youngsters were better prepared for college. Such high-profile names as Anfernee Hardaway had to sit out their freshman years of college because they didn't "pass" the ACT. Hardaway says it was humiliating, but he learned from the experience. Kevin O'Neill says the new admittance requirements simply close opportunities, mostly to minorities. "I don't think that's right," he says.

But what about those who have no interest, preparation or intent to do anything but play sports? The most radical suggestion in Looney's Sporting News article was to stop requiring athletes to take full academic loads, especially in season, and "tailor the academic regimen" to meet the needs of each athlete. For some that might mean school after eligibility, or graduate school. For others that could mean a "sports development" track--in other words, virtually no school at all.

"Never," declares Katherine Reith. "The NCAA will never go along with the idea of athletes not going to school." Even the idea of not going to school during the season--with the practices, workouts, road trips, film sessions--is anathema. "We've got to recognize that 99.9 percent of NCAA athletes will never make it to pro sports. It's still that one percent in a highly visible group that is really driving these discussions."

Goodposture: "All this talk is completely irresponsible. A college degree is the most important thing to a young man's future, whether he goes on to make millions or not. Student-athletes should stay and complete their educations. Red Grange never finished at Illinois when he went pro. Too many youngsters leave before they receive their degrees, and it's a shame."

Tassleloafer: "Who needs a college degree with $5 million sitting in the Global Manifest Destiny Stock Fund? I'm all for getting a degree, but these days pro athletes can come back and buy a school if they want to."

What's Going to Happen

It's possible that in two or three years Division I-A could restructure into a top league of--pick a number--60 schools who want to go full-bore. Football and basketball players at these big-time schools might receive stipends of $100 a week during the school year as part of their scholarships. They'll be allowed to sign with agents, and they'll also be allowed to earn money from endorsements that will be put in trust funds that can be borrowed from while the player is still in college. They may even share in the revenue from the licensing of jerseys. It seems likely that someday NCAA athletes will be allowed to appear in TV ads and be paid for them, as any other student can do right now.

Will revenue-producing players be treated differently that non-revenue-producing players? Will marquee players be treated differently than non-marquee players? Perhaps this new, elite Division I-A could place these revenue-producing athletes in a new classification--university employees perhaps?--that will distinguish them legally from other scholarship athletes and sidestep expensive gender-equity snarls.

Beyond all that, though, college sports will remain pretty much as they are, and pretty much as they have been for well over a hundred years. The most productive outcomes may be that, in repelling the barbarians at its gates, the NCAA might a) send a clear message to John Thompson's kids in the street that only a handful of athletes win the Publishers' Clearinghouse and make big money in the pros, and b) spark a widespread re-commitment to the idea that a college degree is the goal and not merely a necessary inconvenience for intercollegiate athletes. Or maybe that's just Buzzcut Goodposture talking.

© 1996 MetroPulse. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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