End Times: Big-Time College Athletics

A recent St. Paul Pioneer Press story on new Vikings punter Jeff Locke raised, again, the contention that NCAA student-athletes should be receiving a stipend for their services. In short, they should be paid; we assume for playing sports and not for going to school.

This argument is at a crossroads; it needs to be either moved forward in earnest or die. I suggest those advocating for more money – like Locke, who contributed to a fairly serious assessment of a scholarship athlete’s fair market value – genuinely address the end game, which would be the death of big-time college athletics as we know them.

The NCAA understands this, which is why it keeps walking the razor’s edge between amateurism and professionalism, answering the hard questions with a toothy grimace and a slap on the back. Say what you will about the NCAA, as duplicitous an organization as ever installed a water cooler, but they are protecting a very American way of life.

What Locke, who seems to be a smart enough fellow, and others like him fail to see is complex. For starters, big-time college athletes – and make no mistake, these are the lads for whom they bleed – are, in fact, paid. A 20-minute Internet search reveals the general salary scale. Using only the information provided by the University of Minnesota on 2012-13 tuition, we find that average in-state tuition is $13,526 without room and board. For out-of-state students – say the kids from Ohio and Texas that football coaches like so much – it’s $18,776.

So let’s just say that over four years, a full-scholarship player at the U receives between $54,104 and $75,104. This does not calculate room and board, training table, free Nike clothes or student services they receive, such as health care and academic counseling. So let’s round it to a conservative $80 grand over four years. That money might not be buying a student-athlete pizzas or tattoos, but it’s a lot of money they’re receiving for what they can bring to Minnesota.

Somewhere in America, this instant, there are parents fretting over how to send their kids to college, and who would probably walk through fire for such a tuition package. Which brings us to another issue the pro-stipend crowd doesn’t understand: No one feels sorry for you.

Yes, your image is used in video games, and the school sells jerseys with your number, lucrative business for the NCAA and your school. Whether you’re truly exploited is debatable. Regardless, you’re getting $80,000 (probably more, really; average state tuition in the U.S. was $22,261 in the 2012-13 academic year) to go to college. Full scholarship athletes are given the biggest head-start one can get in this country: a free college education. Some guys had to land on Omaha beach for that privilege. If you have a busy autumn, well, most college students do. Many, if not most, are working at Erbert & Gerbert to make ends meet. Think they’d trade with you? Me, too.

Locke sites a study called “The Price of Poverty in Big-Time Athletics,” for which he was a contributor while at UCLA. It raises some interesting but irrelevant facts, the most conspicuous of which is that, the study found, most scholarship athletes live below the poverty line. This is a non-argument; how many college students have money? Without using a calculator, I’d say 90 percent of all students are living in something at least akin to official poverty. But they’re in school, and most are working to support themselves and will leave with massive debt. You aren’t, and won’t.

As for fair-market value, be careful. Is that for putting on the uniform or performing? For showing up, or having your number used on a video game? Here, again, is an argument denying its own end game. In the real market, you’re not paid for showing up – and certainly not for collecting a scholarship – you’re paid for results. If one were to break down fair market share team-by-team, guys like, say, the punter would find their stipend smaller than the backup Sam linebacker.

Plus, try sneaking stipends for football and basketball players through the Title IX filter, then ask yourself this question: Who was worth more to the U last year, Marqueis Gray or Amanda Kessel?

College football and basketball players are not professional athletes; 90 percent of them simply aren’t good enough. Anyone watching the NBA playoffs can sort that out in 2 minutes. And here is the crux of the issue; it is the one block in the Jenga tower that is the NCAA that absolutely cannot be touched because one, that canard of amateurism cannot be brooked and two, NCAA programs, at any level, cannot afford to give their athletes any more money.

College athletics are on a collision course with bankruptcy. A trenchant USA Today article from May 10 reveals that of the 120 Division I-A football programs in the U.S., only 22 were self-sufficient and 16 turned a profit – and even some of those still received a subsidy from their school’s general fund, probably in the form of student fees. The median loss for the other 98 programs was an astonishing $11.3 million.

College athletics are closer to severely reining back expenses, from coach’s salaries to scholarships, than paying athletes. The dirtiest little secret in college football is that tightening scholarships from limitless to 85 didn’t reduce the competitive quality, or – as the most strident opponents warned – kill the sport. College football, in fact, has flourished as never before. Would reducing them to 75, or 65, send it over the brink? Probably not.

So think this through, fellas. It might be smarter just to keep your mouth shut.

2 thoughts on “End Times: Big-Time College Athletics

  1. Only one thing I’d clarify in this otherwise outstanding argument: college athletes do work. Playing football in their job. Most kids have the skills to deliver pizzas during college and are rewarded at a low rate; football players are at the height of their abilities and land very well-paying college jobs. As for the argument that the college makes money off of them, well, the pizza place makes money off of Chet the delivery driver, too.

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