Pay for play: College athletes deserve more

Colin Kennedy
Sports Editor

Days after University of Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier publicly claimed he often went to bed starving, the NCAA ruled last week that its student athletes can, and should, receive an unlimited supply of food.

The latest move in the never-ending debate made headlines mostly because it was seen as nothing more than a reactionary move to the Final Four’s most outstanding player in Napier. But perhaps the decision to feed student athletes indefinitely is a symbolic victory for those arguing in favor of the “pay for play” model.

It’s a discussion that’s been ongoing for years, maybe decades. The precise figures are scattered, but there is no denying that student athletes help generate tens of billions of dollars in revenue for higher education institutions and the NCAA each year.

The kids receive scholarships, meal plans and heaps of national publicity in return for their services. But let’s be real here, many of these kids aren’t attending college to go to class.

It’s a tough mold to crack, and the NCAA hasn’t showed any indication it’s going to back away from the current model, which forbids student athletes from accepting any form of compensation for their play. But to suggest that a “college education” is sufficient reciprocation for what today’s top student athletes are producing is more than a stretch. It’s ludicrous.

As with any heated debate, there are valid arguments on both ends. Proponents of the current system will contend that adolescents need one or two years of college for the experience and development. Meanwhile, critics will claim that modern athletes are gambling their futures on the intercollegiate playing field, risking serious injury only to be exploited by the NCAA and universities alike.

And then there’s the inevitable fact that many of today’s top student athletes are being paid and catered to under the table, regardless of NCAA regulations.

So, let’s cut the bologna and get down to the brass tax: The athletes who generate the largest chunks of revenue for universities and the NCAA are typically the same athletes who have the potential to forego college and play professionally directly out of high school — they aren’t playing football at the University of Alabama to get a degree in homeland security.

But, the fact remains that two of America’s most popular professional leagues (NBA and NFL) require athletes to attend at least one year of college. And that’s not going to change anytime soon.

The modern university, for today’s top athletes, is nothing more than a pit stop. So why should institutions be able to make billions off of kids who are jeopardizing their future for a relatively meaningless scholarship?

Your answer: they shouldn’t.

Athletes required to attend college, whether it’s for one, two or four years, should, at the very least, be provided insurance.

I doubt we will see the day when student athletes are paid as university employees, as that would undermine the educational system as a whole, but we can’t continue to hand them a dorm key and a carefully-designed class schedule as compensation for risking their future.

Instead, maybe athletes should be drafted to professional organizations out of high school. The university requirement can still stand, but let’s provide our student athletes with assurance they aren’t attending college purely to benefit the university.

Here’s how it would work: A hypothetical 18-year-old quarterback, who is rated among the best in the country, is drafted in the first round of the NFL draft by the Washington Redskins. He commits to that organization, but first fulfills his two-year college requirement at the University of Miami before joining the Redskins. Instead of simply handing him a scholarship and reaping the benefits, the university is held accountable for compensating that athlete for the profits he provides.

Just not right away.

A clause in the player’s professional contract would stipulate that the individual is entitled to a certain (predetermined) percentage of profits he or she generates for the institution through television appearances, jersey sales, etc. while at the university. That money will then be paid to the athlete (by the university) in a rookie contract.

In simpler terms, the 18-year-old high school quarterback plays at Miami for two years without direct compensation, knowing that he will be paid for his efforts once he fulfills his two-year requirement and joins the Redskins in the NFL. The university is able to generate revenue through its top-rated quarterback, but will be required to assist the Redskins in paying the player’s rookie contract based on the amount of money that player generated for the school.

 An incentive-based system would help to protect the student athletes from career-ending injuries, compensating them for services previously provided and also ensure that players perform to the peak of their potential.

Additionally, such a system would enable professional organizations to develop a farm system of sorts, where they can evaluate collegiate players they know are going to be joining their organization down the road.

If a player exceeds his potential during his abbreviated stay at college, perhaps he receives a greater rookie contract upon leaving the school. Conversely, if the athlete underperforms or is injured, the professional team can elect to cut ties with the athlete (still compensating him for his time in college) and pick up a compensatory draft pick in the later rounds.

Much like the current system, this proposition isn’t without flaws. But the way our intercollegiate athletic model currently operates, the money doesn’t match the motive.

No longer should we argue that the opportunity to receive a college education is a fair exchange for the benefits today’s top athletes provide.

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