NCAA Rocked by Another Scandal: It’s Time to Start Paying College Athletes

College basketball was rocked by yet another scandal last week that saw several renowned schools and coaches under the spotlight. Legendary Louisville coach Rick Pitino is one of many to lose their jobs over the FBI investigation, which found coaches, players, agents and financial advisors caught up in a web of bribery and fraud charges.

Many have raised questions over the fact that it was the FBI that unearthed the corruption rather than the NCAA, which has raised broader questions about the legitimacy of the NCAA and its hypocritical ideals of amateurism.

We scold players and feign outrage every time another story breaks of players taking money under the table, but the real outrage is that these players are not being paid in the first place.

Why are they not paid?

The primary reason college athletes are not paid is to uphold amateurism. In fact, the very ideals of amateurism on which the NCAA was founded were nothing more than a cynical hoax designed to keep money in the right hands.

In 1955, Ray Dennison was killed during the opening kick-off of a college football game. The impact of a tackle fractured his skull and smashed the base of his skull into his spine. Dennison left behind a wife and three children, aged four, three, and 18 months. Dennison’s widow was told she could not claim worker’s compensation, as he was a “student-athlete”, a volunteer and therefore not an employee.

Walter Byers, the man who made the NCAA into the powerhouse it is today, admitted in his memoirs that the term “student-athlete” was carefully crafted and intentionally ambiguous. Former TCU running back Kent Waldrep is another victim of this, who spent years pressing for compensation from his wheelchair after being paralysed in a game in 1974.

Waldrep was told in 2000 that he was not entitled to workers’ compensation because he had not paid taxes on the financial aid he had received from the school and was therefore not an employee.

The NCAA paints amateurism as a noble ideal upholding the sacredness of the sport, but really it’s nothing more than a crafty legal tactic.

Perhaps the most popular stance amongst fans that are against paying players is that it would detract from the purity of the game. Ironically, this is usually the opinion held by wealthy alumni and/or boosters, who pour incredible amounts of money into building lavish facilities so their former schools can lure in top prospects – wouldn’t it be easier to just pay the athletes directly?

Another point made by those against paying the athletes is that it would be too difficult and too complicated. This is usually in reference to Title IX, a US Amendment from 1972 that promotes equality in education and financial aid. Outside of the Power Five, many of the schools competing in football and basketball do not make profit, and therefore would have to take funds away from academics or other sports to pay their top athletes. While this could seem like special treatment, athletes in cash-generating sports like football and basketball were admitted to the school specifically because they will make them money, and it is therefore not unfair for them to reap some extra benefits from it.

Why should they be paid?

The first answer to that question is pretty simple – money. In 2010, the NCAA announced their new 14-year March Madness deal with CBS Sports and Turner Broadcasting, worth $10.8 billion, make up about 80 percent of the NCAA’s revenue. Last year, ESPN reported that the country’s wealthiest athletic departments, the Power Five, brought in a record $6 billion in just one year. Still, not a penny of this money goes directly to those who truly earn it.

In 2010, A.J. Green was suspended for the opening four games of the Bulldogs’ season for violating his amateur status. Green had quite literally sold the jersey off his back after the final game of the previous season, in order to fund a holiday. While Green served his suspension, the Bulldogs’ official shop continued selling replicas of his jersey for $40 a piece.

Another example of the hypocrisy of college sports came in 2011 when news broke that Cam Newton’s father had put him in the shop window coming out of high school. While the NCAA investigated Newton, he compliantly wore at least 15 corporate logos on his helmet, visor, jersey, wristbands, pants, and shoes as part of a $10.6 million deal Auburn had with Under Armour.

Cases like Dennison and Waldrep are also a stark reminder of the risks players take every time they step on the field or court. In 2013, the whole country watched in horror as Louisville basketball’s Kevin Ware suffered a horrendous leg break attempting to block a shot during the March Madness tournament. Ware has now recovered and is playing professionally in Greece, but he was yet another reminder of what these young athletes risk for our entertainment and the NCAA’s bank accounts.

One of the main arguments against paying college athletes is that they are already compensated through scholarships. While most of these athletes will tell you a scholarship is simply not enough, there are plenty of other reasons why this is a completely flawed argument.

Scholarships offered to athletes are typically given on a yearly basis, meaning if they get dropped from the team or perhaps severely injured, their scholarship could no longer exist. In basketball and American football, many of the athletes come from impoverished backgrounds, and they are extremely unlikely to afford to stay in school if they lose their scholarship.

Take Joseph Agnew, a football player at Rice University in 2010. After the coach who recruited Agnew changed schools, the new coach replaced him with a recruit of his own, meaning if Agnew wanted to finish his degree he needed to find $35,000. Agnew, with the help of the National College Players Association (NCPA), sued the NCAA, claiming they were violating anti-trust laws.

The court ruled against Agnew, meaning an NCAA rule set up in 1973 still resides – a rule that effectively means coaches decide which scholarships are renewed each year. From 2008 to 2009, 22 percent of players on Division One basketball teams were not renewed and lost their scholarships.

There are also countless cases of academics not being taken seriously at schools with top athletic programmes, such as the FSU scandal in 2007 that led to the suspensions of 61 athletes across ten sports. 98 out of every 100 NCAA athletes don’t make it professionally, meaning their education can make the difference between economic stability and poverty in future life. Interviews and investigations at FSU revealed countless cases of professors allowing group consultation on exams and unlimited retakes of online tests. Basically, the school dropped the ball academically and the student-athletes took the punishment for it.

If they were to be paid, how would it work?

Joe Nocera of The New York Times has suggested a salary cap idea, which doesn’t break the bank but also maintains free-market principles. Basically, every Division One basketball and football team would have a salary cap, meaning schools must determine with which positions, players and recruits their funds are best suited.

There would also be a minimum salary of $25,000 for each player, pennies compared to the revenue hauled in by big schools every year. Nocera suggests a cap of $650,000 for basketball teams and $3 million for football; hardly unreasonable considering Michigan football head coach Jim Harbaugh made $7 million last year.

Nocera also wants to see lifetime health insurance for the athletes, a worthwhile expense. Lastly, although athletic eligibility would stay at four years, this plan proposes extending academic eligibility to eight years, allowing athletes to properly concentrate on their studies and get the degree that 98 percent of them will certainly need. While Nocera’s plan is a somewhat costly one and would have to negotiate fairly around Title IX, it is certainly a smart outline of what a system that pays its athletes could look like.

Since 1905, when the first full-time football coach at Harvard was granted twice the salary of an average professor, college athletics have taken a front seat throughout the United States. The ideals of amateurism the NCAA was founded on were as flimsy then as they are now, and the recent basketball scandal is yet another reminder of this. College American football and basketball players not only bring billions to their schools and the NCAA, they risk their careers and potentially their lives, all without even the certainty of knowing their scholarship will still be there the next season. It’s time to start paying college athletes.

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