Picking Splinters: Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems

Reggie Bush. Terrelle Pryor and several of his teammates. Enes Kanter. Josh Selby. Cam Newton. Jacob Pullen. Seemingly half the North Carolina football team. The laundry list of names besmirched by NCAA violations, or accusations thereof in Newton’s case, gets longer by the day.

At the core of these violations is one common denominator – money. Money to be made in the future, by working (against NCAA rules) with a player agent. Money made from previous time spent working in a professional athletic environment. Money in the form of gifts from an agent or booster. Money in the form of discounts stemming from local celebrity.

In the face of these increased infractions, a familiar cry has again been heard: Pay college athletes.

It seems like a simple solution, no? The problem is money, so let them make money. But as Marie Antoinette found with her famous cake quip, simple, poorly thought-out solutions can have disastrous consequences for all involved. And make no mistake, paying college athletes would be disastrous all around.

One common rationale used for the pay argument is that the NCAA is exploiting these athletes for their own profit. One look at the absurdly huge television rights contract given out for bowl games or the NCAA Tournament and it’s easy to get the idea that college programs rake in money while not sharing a dime with the players. That’s hardly true on either count and it’s a perception that needs to stop.

According to USA Today, only 14 major college programs made any kind of profit last season. That’s it. Require colleges to start paying athletes and you’ll see those red numbers getting bigger for the vast majority of schools. And in turn you’ll see them start to cut unprofitable teams in marginal sports.

So, why not limit pay to players on the profitable teams like football and basketball? Good luck setting up that standard. Do you pay stars more than benchwarmers? Or pay everyone evenly? And heaven help you if you suggest paying the men’s basketball teams and not the women’s. You’d have a Title IX lawsuit under your nose before you finished the sentence.

In addition to the impracticalities of paying players there’s the fact that they are actually very well compensated by their schools – it just may not take on the form of a pay check. In addition to simply covering tuition, room and board with scholarships, which will run most students somewhere north of $80K over four years, schools invest millions in their athletic programs. Sure, that helps improve the school, but guess who else benefits — the players.

Athletes seeking pro careers need to train and improve and they get to do so using college resources. They benefit from top-flight coaches, trainers and equipment, all of which would cost thousands of dollars (minimum) if these players invested in their development on their own. And while many will complain that schools will use jersey sales or athlete depictions to generate profits and improve the image of their program, the athletes depicted also benefit from the exposure as their “brand” is distributed to a national market. Does that sound like exploitation to you?

People need to understand that college athletics, like college itself, is an investment. If you’re a student, you spend thousands to educate yourself and earn a degree that will help you earn more money in the years after graduation. Even for college athletes who participate solely in the hope of pursuing a pro career, you invest your time (not even your money, since you’re on scholarship) to better your prospects at the professional level.

In exchange for your development, the school can use you to market its teams, sell tickets and reinvest in its student body with better facilities and faculty. Is that really so unfair?

No one is forcing these kids to go to college. No one is forcing them to pass up on a post high school career of any kind. If you want to or need to start earning money immediately, go right on ahead.

The NCAA will always have problems with athletes, agents and coaches trying to get ahead or cash in through some means. Paying college athletes will not solve that issue, and will likely create larger ones with even more pitfalls.

In the meantime, for those that can’t see the merits of unpaid college athletics or continue to demand an immediate influx of cash, I’d recommend perspective and patience. The money will come in time.