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Paying Players Not Likely to Happen or Solve Problems

August 26, 2011 Columns No Comments

The subject of paying players in addition to the scholarships they receive is certainly not a new one. Questions have been asked about it for quite a while, with many feeling like players should be paid and for a litany of reasons from television contracts to coaches’ contracts to sales of player jerseys. And while the discussion seems poised to go to another level now that the NCAA is exploring the subject, two things remain true: pay for play will be very difficult to make reality, and if it ever becomes reality it’s not likely to solve the problem of NCAA violations that proponents think it will.

By now, we’re all familiar with a rash of NCAA violations that have happened in recent years regarding extra benefits. Players have accepted cash, jewelry, electronic items, cars and much more, and there have been allegations of players’ parents or others close to them asking for money to get them to commit to the school. We’re also familiar with how flush with cash the NCAA is, and measures of it are everywhere. There’s the $771 million a year television contract for the NCAA Tournament in men’s basketball, as well as the nearly $2 million a year that NCAA President Mark Emmert takes home in salary.

The usual argument for paying players looks at those signs of riches, then notes how players don’t get a penny of it. They say that a scholarship, which nowadays is worth over $40,000 a year at many schools, is simply not enough. They mention the added costs of attendance, which are not insignificant, and the commissioners of the Big Ten and SEC have spoken in favor of allowing their member schools to include this for their athletes.

All of them make some sense on a basic level. Economics and other realities change all of that.

While it’s true that new television deals are helping big-time programs become flush with cash, it’s not spreading to all schools. Most of the big money also comes from football, which is the driver behind a lot of things like new deals and conference shuffling. In fact, many schools get a large amount of their revenue from things like student fees and ticket sales. Hence the big money deals that make the news might skew the perception, but the reality is a little different for many schools.

For a good example, one need only look to last season’s big story in the NCAA Tournament. After signing head coach Shaka Smart to a new contract nearly quadrupling his salary, VCU announced a plan to raise student fees by $50 per student. More than a third of the fee goes toward intercollegiate athletics.

It doesn’t end there. If you’re going to pay the Heisman candidate running back or the star point guard, you also have to pay the third-string quarterback who may never be good enough to play in a non-blowout as well as the project center who barely gets off the bench because he’s so raw. For that matter, you can’t just pay the football and men’s basketball players (and perhaps the men’s ice hockey players in some schools as well) – there are also the baseball players, women’s volleyball, track and field, and so forth.

With the sheer number of athletes that covers, even paying them $100 a month will generate a fairly large bill that a lot of schools aren’t likely to be able to afford. And if you think a school can avoid this issue by just paying the revenue sport athletes, think again. This is a litigious society we live in, and as such that is sure to be contested legally, especially with Title IX in place.

But even if this could be taken care of somehow – whether some form of revenue sharing like we’ve seen in pro sports leagues or some other measure – it’s far from a given that this would put an end to extra benefit violations. In fact, a look at human behavior and the desire for more shows that cracking open the door the slightest bit won’t keep it there – instead, it would lead to people blowing the door open and crashing through to try to get more. Paying players wouldn’t stop at just giving them a small amount of money; you can be sure schools would try to find ways to pay some players a good deal more than that in violation of new rules. In addition, as that happens, players getting paid leads to violations then being harder to prove, as illustrated in an excellent column on the subject by colleague Pat Forde of ESPN.com.

One might say that instead of all of this, why not make the athletes employees? That brings along its own set of issues that are not easily resolved, not the least of which is that once again, all of the athletes would have to be employees, not just the football and men’s basketball players.

Talking about pay for play is not a bad idea. It is a conversation worth having. But at the end of the day, not only does it face serious headwinds to adoption, it also doesn’t seem likely to solve the problem proponents hope it will. Proponents of the idea probably shouldn’t get their hopes up.

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