A Full Ride Looks Empty To Some NCAA Critics

By Matt Winkeljohn
Updated: August 2, 2008

ATLANTA — Like some of his Boston College teammates, Ron Brace has played the new “NCAA Football 09” video game. Many of the animated players look and play a lot like the players they’re patterned after.

Brace has one thing in common with every player depicted: He’s not getting a nickel from the NCAA or game maker EA Sports.

He has a problem with that.

Brace, and others, take issue with the fact that college athletes are not paid beyond scholarships and aid even as their efforts earn millions of dollars for the NCAA, schools and coaches at the Division I level. Since the players are the reasons for the revenue, they say they should get a cut.

“It’s like a job. We get up early, work out, meetings, class and practice,” Brace said. “We’re giving up a big chunk of our life. I see no reason we shouldn’t be paid.”

Others say that the value and experience of a college education is the equivalent of getting paid. They point out that many athletics departments don’t make a profit. Paying athletes would make those bottom lines worse.

“Few players truly move the needle in terms of attendance, TV ratings, or merchandising, but it would be like the free agency system in baseball; you’d get a few guys making a lot of money, and others fighting their way onto campus,” Tech basketball coach Paul Hewitt said. “I think in the long run, the majority of student athletes would lose in that type of market.

“The idea is to provide educational opportunities for a lot of kids who could not afford one. I would hate to treat the few and leave out the many.”

Paying athletes is a topic that won’t go away because there is seemingly so much money to be had.


— At least 68 of 119 Division I football coaches have contracts for at least $1 million annually, according to coacheshotseat.com. Seven coaches in the SEC, including Georgia’s Mark Richt, make at least $2 million. Seven in the ACC, including Tech’s Paul Johnson, make at least $1.5 million. To compare, only five coaches in the nation earned as much as $1 million in 1999, according to USA Today.

— CBS is paying the NCAA $6 billion over 11 years to televise its three-week postseason basketball tournament.

— The Big Ten and Mountain West conferences have launched their own TV networks, which are projected to generate millions of dollars. The SEC is considering doing the same.

— Nike and Reebok, among others, negotiate million-dollar deals with colleges for the players to wear their apparel. Georgia receives $1.3 million a year from Nike, as part of a 10-year deal signed in 1999. Tech has deals with various companies, depending upon the sport. In 2006, those deals were worth about $325,000. Tech will announce a new deal with Russell in August that will cover most of its teams, according to assistant athletics director Dean Buchan.

NCAA president Myles Brand defends the system.

“You have to ask yourself why do universities engage in sports?” Brand said. “The answer is because it adds education value to the student experience. It [helps a student-athlete grow] as a person and acquire attitudes and skills that will carry through life.”

The range of possible ways to compensate student-athletes runs from a capitalist extreme that might reimburse only athletes whose sports make a profit to a socialist model that would aid every college student-athlete. That would mean paying several hundred student-athletes at some schools.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a professor of finance at Syracuse, contributor to the Black Athlete Sports Network (BASN), and a faculty affiliate at the College Sports Research Institute at the University of North Carolina.

He prefers the capitalist model.

“In any sort of fair system, it would have to be the revenue-generating sports,” he said. “If you’re the next LeBron James, and the school knows you are going to make [millions of dollars], you should have a right to negotiate a contract that fits expectations.”

So how to determine ahead of time the revenue that a student-athlete might generate for a school in order to negotiate a contract?

“The market knows all the answers,” Watkins said. “How did Louisville decide that [basketball coach] Rick Pitino is going to be worth the amount they paid him? You don’t really know, but you negotiated.

“You let people go in a room, and negotiate without handcuffs. Believe me, when the next LeBron James-type athlete comes along a deal will get done. He wouldn’t sign it and the university wouldn’t sign it if it wasn’t fair.”

Hewitt said that scenario will never work.

“If we pay these kids, the ones that are truly moving the needle would get more. In that scenario a lot of kids would have the doors of higher education closed to them,” Hewitt said. “This [system] has helped an awful lot of kids change their lives, and their families’ lives.

“I think people look at this as a simple thing. It’s not simple, the difference between the number of kids that would gain and the number that would not … you can’t even begin to comprehend the disparity.”

When eight or nine football players at the ACC and SEC preseason football media gatherings were asked their thoughts on this subject, some had given the idea of pay-for-play little thought.

Others, like Brace and Tennessee senior running back Arian Foster, say pay-for-play is an idea whose time should come. But Foster saw problems arising.

“How would you divvy it up among the players?” he asked. “Would one player get more than another? If you ask me should we do it, I believe we should. There is a lot of money being made off of us.”

Graduate student cornerback Jeremy Gray of N.C. State has issues with paying only student-athletes from revenue-generating sports.

“It would be hard to deal with, so the best decision is probably to keep it as it is,” he said. “How would you weight a tennis player against a basketball player? It wouldn’t be fair to everybody.”

Falcons quarterback Matt Ryan, whose likeness in his Boston College jersey appears on “NCAA 09,” is torn.

“You do a lot for the school,” said Ryan, who signed a $72 million contract with the Falcons after he was selected third in the NFL draft. “At the same time, there’s an innocence to it that’s great about college football. I had a blast. While I do understand the concern for being paid, I also really enjoyed my experience up at BC without being paid. But I think something will happen in the future.”

Drs. Watkins and Richard E. Lapchick, president and CEO of the National Consortium for Academics and Sport and founder of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society, are open to the idea of tilting financial assistance toward under-privileged student-athletes.

“I’ve always felt that student-athletes should get some additional income, particularly those who come from families with less than traditional support,” Lapchick said. “It’s a huge, big business. Somehow, we have to find a way to give student-athletes more of a fair share.”

Watkins said, “It makes no sense that a guy could be worth $10 million or $15 million a year to a school, and his mother is being evicted from her apartment.”

Brace said NCAA rules and the time athletes invest in their sports make it more difficult for them to take jobs than for regular students, and that should be considered.

“If you’ve got a guy coming from a bad neighborhood, and he needs money … he’s going to do whatever he can to make money,” he said. “If he can’t work a 9-to-5 job, that just leads to him doing bad things.”

Brand has a counter, although it was forced upon the NCAA.

In January, the NCAA reached agreement on an antitrust lawsuit filed by four former student-athletes and agreed to set aside $218 million through 2011-12 to help the more than 150,000 Division I athletes in all sports pay for basic expenses not covered by their athletic scholarships.

Even before that deal, the NCAA says it gave $7.7 million in clothing assistance, $2.6 million in medical expenses and more than $159,000 on emergency travel for athletes with financial hardships in 2006-07. The NCAA also says it gave $27.7 million for items including computer equipment, summer school, insurance, medical expenses, and educational programs and expenses.

Brand might be more willing to listen if all the money translated into overflowing coffers. He said two dozen Division I programs make a profit each year, and it’s not always the same schools.

Finally, Brand contends that the millions of dollars flowing from the NCAA to member schools not only help improve facilities, but student-athletes end up compensated beyond their scholarships in the form of campus support systems.

“Thanks to the additional monies, most universities are providing $150,000, maybe $200,000 per athlete in tutoring, computers and things like that,” Brand said. “Most students would love to have that ability. This is a full ride that goes well beyond what most students get.”

All that is certain is that no change appears imminent, and it may be impossible to predict the impact on the system were it to change.

Alabama offensive lineman Antoine Caldwell seems happy with what he has.

“I think one day I think we will get to it [players being paid] because of how much money is made,” Caldwell said. “Is it the right thing to do? I’m about 50-50 on that. They make a lot of money, but we’re on a scholarship and we have a chance to get a great education. A lot of people don’t get that.”

NOTE: Staff reporters Tony Barnhart and D. Orlando Ledbetter and researcher Sharon Gaus contributed to this article.