Monday, September 19, 2011
Show Me the Money
As predictable as cat-fights on the "Housewives of New Jersey" or tone-deaf hopefuls on "American Idol," whenever a scandal arises involving NCAA violations, paying student-athletes is offered as remedy for all that ails college sports. The recent revelations involving Ponzi schemer Nevin Shapiro's claims of providing Miami University basketball and football players with wine, women, and all but song is no exception.
As with other NCAA embarrassments, we've heard its endlessly repeated cause as the financial exploitation of scholarship athletes. And just as surely, we've heard Rod Tidwell's endlessly repeated solution from the Jerry Maguire "show me the money" playbook of just compensation. Since everyone is fattening their wallets except those risking injuries and packing stadiums, morality demands student-athletes be shown some "benjamins."
Yet satisfying what to some are Oliver Twists in high top sneakers and shoulder pads by offering a piece of the NCAA economic pie will not transform the scandal du jour into a rare occurrence. In fact, doing so will create far more problems than it eliminates.
At its essence, the argument to pay student-athletes is based on fairness. The supposedly nonprofit NCAA takes in over $750 million annually from broadcasting rights, licensing deals involving student images, and gate receipts. Universities generate revenue from selling likenesses of athletes used in video games, from lucrative deals with shoe companies such as Nike or Reebok, and from peddling everything from game tickets to game jerseys.
Forced to relinquish commercial rights to their own images and making enormous demands on their time and bodies, the pay-for-play crowd sees student-athletes as modern day indentured servants. Often coming from impoverished backgrounds and with little or no pocket money, temptation is overwhelming to illegally accept gifts from boosters seeking ego gratification, from bookies seeking point-shaving favors, and from agents seeking clients. Continuing to enrich college athletics without fairly enriching those most responsible for generating its revenue is, many insist, immoral, exploitative, and another NCAA scandal waiting to happen.
But believing that providing college athletes with "laundry money" for personal expenses will counter the largesse offered by unscrupulous "jock sniffers" is to believe what never has been and what never will be. Simply put, the money that college athletic programs could offer student-athletes is "chump change" compared to what they're already being offered under-the-table. And the reason for this has nothing to do with a lack of compassion, appreciation, or generosity for the efforts of student-athletes. More than anything, it has to do with bottom line dollars and cents.
Despite lucrative broadcasting contracts and full stadiums for collegiate basketball and football, virtually all other collegiate athletic programs lose money. Even the perennial champion UConn women's basketball team lost over $700,000 last year. And if this was the grim economic reality for the celebrated Lady Huskies, what then of track and field, gymnastics, swimming, soccer, and other programs too numerous to mention?
In 2010, 53 public schools in the six largest collegiate conferences lost almost $110 million from women's teams. At the same time at the same schools in the same conferences, men's teams had profits of $240 million. And while some of this revenue paid for a few high profile college coaches and university presidents, it also funded labs, libraries, dorms, and athletic programs running deficits. So even by limiting "salaries" to student-athletes in profit-generating sports, other programs operating in the red and supported by their revenue would surely suffer from such robbing Peter to pay Paul handouts.
Moreover, because Title IX prohibits sex discrimination at educational institutions receiving federal funds, pay-for-play stipends could not legally be limited to profitable programs. If basketball and football players are paid, all student-athletes must similarly be compensated. The costs of such equality would foster the cannibalization of educational budgets even at schools not already operating close to the financial edge.
The only way to maintain the financial integrity of non-profitable athletic and educational programs and still pay student-athletes would be for someone to pick up the tab. And other than taxpayers, that "someone" would likely be higher tuitions for students who can't run 4.5 forties or hit threes from downtown.
Beyond the devil in the details problems of paying student-athletes a salary, the reality is that a college scholarship is already fair compensation for their efforts. While the tangible worth of "full ride" four-year athletic scholarships at major private universities exceeds $200,000, the lifetime dollars and cents value of a college degree is easily three times that amount.
According to the U.S. Census Bureau, people graduating with a bachelor's degree earn nearly twice as much over a lifetime as those only completing high school. The College Board estimates that earnings potential for college graduates is at least $800,000 more than for those ending their formal education as high school seniors.
And while it may be debated what the actual monetary value of a college education is, there is little doubt its intrinsic value as a life changing experience extends far beyond increased purchasing power. Whatever its amount, a salary quickly disappears. If education is used to better one's existence in ways having nothing to do with materialistic concerns, its value is incalculable. After all, what is the opportunity to turn one's life around actually worth?
How then are student-athletes taken advantage of by receiving a free education that otherwise might well be beyond their financial reach? How then are scholarship athletes exploited gaining admission to universities with transcripts inferior to less physically gifted students often rejected from those same institutions? How then is refusing student-athletes a salary unjust even though their free rides are largely funded by taxpayers and other equally broke students paying off college loans long after graduation? And how will stipends for jocks already viewed as campus luminaries not further contribute to an entitlement mentality fostered by privileges including priority class scheduling, excused absences, tutoring assistance, and "athlete-friendly" professors?
Even the rationale that a salary would provide student-athletes from impoverished backgrounds spending money not available elsewhere is bogus. Seemingly reasonable, why shouldn't kids making enormous sacrifices in time and effort for the betterment of the entire university receive a few bucks for an occasional pizza or a movie? Aside from the budgetary damage to non-profitable programs, such "modest salaries" would engender and overlooking the value of the free education provided, those favoring athlete spending allowances ignore the money already available from the NCAA and from Uncle Sam.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association allocates money to a Special Assistance Fund for low-income athletes to use for clothing, travel home, and "other essential expenses." Moreover, the Federal Government provides Pell Grant aid to students depending on financial need and costs of college attendance. As with the NCAA aid, Pell grants are not paid back and can be as much as $5,550 for the current academic year.
It would seem that applying for such assistance shouldn't be too great a hardship for athletes in dire need of pocket money. And it would also seem that once granted, $154 a week for a nine-month academic term would be more than enough for pizzas, whatever their topping, and for movies, whatever their price of admission.
Few could deny that efforts made by student-athletes benefit their entire university communities. But suggesting they are not fairly compensated for sacrifices willingly made is highly debatable at best and absurd at worst. After all, where else can kids just out of high school receive goods and services valued at $50,000 per year by playing a game they love? Where else can college freshmen gain a cost-free chance to multiply that amount by a lifetime factor of 10 while becoming celebrities after arriving on campus? And where else can "accident of birth" athleticism be parlayed into a no-cost education paying lifelong emotional and financial dividends whatever path is ultimately chosen?
Despite demands for fairness and claims of exploitation, the current non-salaried connection scholarship athletes have with their schools is not a zero sum game. By any reasonable standard, it more closely resembles a win-win relationship. Yet insisting the opportunities afforded student-athletes are not enough, the pay-for-play crowd sees things far differently.
Even though student-athletes are already fairly compensated, even though paying them will harm other programs, and even though funds are already available for poor students, their "show me the money" mantra is blindly accepted as the righteous cure-all for what is wrong with college sports. Somewhere Rod Tidwell is smiling.