Bucks and Badgers: It’s long past time to start paying college athletes

Soon after moving into a new house last May, I got talking to our neighbor, and the subject of football came up. When I told her I was a Packers fan first and a Badgers fan second, she asked where I was from. I told her I originally hailed from Manitowoc but had spent the bulk of my adulthood (my official adulthood, not the period after which I decided to stop wearing Mountain Dew T-shirts to dinner parties) in the Fox Valley.

She said that made sense, because Madison natives were invariably Badgers fans first and foremost.

I guess I’d never thought about that before, but I found it a bit curious. After all, the Packers are, well, the Packers. They’re professionals. The Badgers are really just kids. Why wouldn’t you want to watch the best of the best?

Well, I’ve lived in Madison for a while now, and I have to admit, I’ve grown to appreciate the Badgers more. And the truth is, the student athletes who play football for the UW are, like the players in football programs across the nation, consummate professionals in every way but name.

Of course, there’s no question that college sports is big business. It’s common to say that college athletics garners millions of dollars for universities, but that’s understating it. Last year, for instance, the NCAA signed a jaw-dropping $10.8 billion deal with Time Warner and CBS just for the rights to broadcast March Madness. And that’s on top of the millions in revenue flowing into universities’ coffers for garden-variety TV rights and ticket sales.

So where does all that money go? Well, of course, some of it goes to the players through scholarships. But by and large, it’s not the guys whose heads are getting beaten in who are cashing in.

For instance, in February, UW football coach Bret Bielema signed a contract extension that will pay him $2.5 million in the deal’s first year. And UW Athletic Director Barry Alvarez is set to receive $1 million a year under a new contract that was approved last month by the Board of Regents. Of course, Bielema and Alvarez are paupers compared to some among the college football oligarchy. The total yearly compensation of University of Alabama football coach Nick Saban, for example, is nearly $6 million.

So with all that money sloshing around, isn’t it time the NCAA considers giving a larger slice of the pie to the “amateur” athletes who play the largest role in earning it?

After all, as scandal after scandal has shown, many players are profiting anyway.

Most recently, a former University of Miami booster told Yahoo! Sports that he gave unsanctioned perks to at least 72 athletes throughout the 2000s in what Yahoo! described as “a sustained, eight-year run of rampant NCAA rule-breaking, some of it with the knowledge or direct participation of at least seven coaches from the Miami football and basketball programs.”

According to the Yahoo! story, the booster, Nevin Shapiro, claims the benefits he provided to athletes “included but were not limited to cash, prostitutes, entertainment in his multimillion-dollar homes and yacht, paid trips to high-end restaurants and nightclubs, jewelry, bounties for on-field play (including bounties for injuring opposing players), travel and, on one occasion, an abortion.”

Sure, most of that sounds like a typical University of Miami football player’s intro to sociology syllabus (kidding!), but the takeaway message is clear: The system is beyond broken. And who knows how widespread this kind of thing really is?

How to address it?

South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier recently proposed a plan in which he would agree to pay 70 of his players $300 per game – out of his own pocket.

“A bunch of us coaches felt so strongly about it that we would be willing to pay it – 70 guys, 300 bucks a game,” Spurrier said. “That’s only $21,000 a game. I doubt it will get passed, but as coaches in the SEC, we make all the money – as do universities, television – and we need to get more to our players. We would like to make that happen. Probably won’t, but we’d love to do it.”

Clearly, Spurrier sees his proposal as a long shot, if not a non-starter. But it could get the conversation started – and nudge the NCAA into getting serious about the gap between what’s paid for through scholarships and what each student athlete actually needs to attend a university. After all, playing football is a time-consuming (and dangerous) job that often precludes taking on extra work to pay for little extras like clothing.

Now, it would be naive to think that such a plan would automatically dry up the illicit money and benefits that players receive from boosters, but it would be a good faith effort that could go a long way toward preventing resentment and cynicism from seeping into young minds. After all, there are no guarantees for a future payout, even if you’re a star player. Every student athlete is just a serious injury away from seeing all his or her future plans go down the tubes. And most college football players won’t get a whiff of an NFL locker room.

Of course, paying players could open a Pandora’s box (should the members of the fencing team receive the same stipend as football and basketball players? will universities get into bidding wars for the top high school quarterbacks?), but it’s long past time that the NCAA ditch the pretense of the amateur athlete and deal more honestly with its valued employees.

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