Paying college athletes always has seemed wrong to me for a number of reasons. All college athletes aren't big revenue producers. There's no way to devise an equitable compensation system. Athletes in nonrevenue sports need the funds generated by big-money sports. A college education, along with training, equipment, travel, etc., has real value that shouldn't be ignored.
But the past few years have loosened my grip on the position, making it harder and harder to defend. Now the NCAA has come out with major reforms regarding financial aid, academic standards, summer basketball recruiting and scholarship limits.
Yet it feels like a case of too little, too late.
I've always contended that scholarships are the fairest, most equitable way to "pay" all athletes across the board — as long as the NCAA avoids crazy rules that prevent them from earning income available to other students. College sports are akin to work-study programs at the very least, and they should provide comparable compensation.
Among the sweeping changes it announced last week, the NCAA will allow conferences to vote on providing up to $2,000 in spending money for athletes — what the NCAA calls the full cost of attendance. A similar stipend existed for college athletes until 1972.
NCAA President Mark Emmert rejects the notion that it's a pay-to-play nod, pointing out that students on nonathletic scholarships receive the same type of "full-cost" payments. Emmert said schools that offer the additional funding will have to do so equally for men and women.
And therein lies one of the biggest problems in this issue, finding the balance between "equal" and "fair."
Schools in the BCS conferences will have no problem coming up with the money, though it might pain them to give hurdlers and halfbacks the same amount. Non-BCS schools might prefer to compensate only men's basketball and football players, though not so much the rarely used reserves in those sports.
There are no easy answers here and each possible solution contains unwanted, unintended consequences. For instance: If "School A" offers the extra two grand while fellow conference-member "School B" does not, there goes your level playing field, assuming "School B" doesn't resort to (more?) illicit measures to keep up.
As far as scholarships go, the new policy is long overdue. Schools will have the option to issue multiyear scholarships and guarantee them for the player's entire career. Currently, they are renewed annually and can be revoked for any reason — often because the coach found a recruit he likes better.
Yanking scholarships flies in the face of the NCAA's so-called aim of promoting education through athletics — which is the stated rationale for the organization's tax-exempt status. It's bad enough that this amateur sports enterprise rakes in billions of dollars while forbidding the student-athletes from making a buck off their own likeness. But it's even worse to arbitrarily grant and rescind scholarships, tickets to an education and a better life.
I know my stance on not paying athletes has been the minority opinion, held by a dwindling number of folks with each passing scandal, conference realignment, coaches' contract and TV deal. I know that crass commercialism based on amateur athletes is inherently incongruous, yet that's the essence of big-time college sports and the NCAA.
These reforms won't stop the inevitable shake-up. Facing a slew of lawsuits, a petition going around among student-athletes, questions from Capitol Hill, rebellious conference commissioners, talk of a bowl boycott and efforts to organize college athletes, the NCAA is in a heap of trouble.
And if I had to choose between my basic belief that scholarships are payment enough, and my basic belief that the NCAA is an evil, predatory organization, I'd go with the latter every time. Especially since reading a superb, exhaustive report in the Atlantic.
Be forewarned, it's a long piece, coming in at more than 14,500 words. But it's well worth the time if you want a comprehensive look at how we reached this point. When it comes to institutions worthy of our righteous indignation, the NCAA is right up there with Wall Street and the IRS.
After reading Taylor Branch's detailed piece, it's impossible to side fully with the NCAA against student-athletes on any issue, no matter where you stand on pay-to-play.
A handful of reforms doesn't change that fact.
Neither will they stop the ongoing storm, nor the impending ones.
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