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Murphy: No clear answers in question of pay for play

POSTED: July 9, 2011 10:11 p.m.

The issue of paying college athletes draws a lot of passion from both sides of the debate.

Even intelligent people who opine on tweaking the amateur status of college players tend to see the issue in black and white. But there is a lot of gray in the middle when hashing out the details.

The best argument for paying college athletes is that it would isolate agents and boosters who want to give kids a golden handshake. If schools were giving players a bolstered stipend, per diem, salary (whatever you want to call it), it makes sense that kids wouldn’t have to look outside the program for money to get by. In his defense of paying college athletes, Syracuse University professor Boyce Watkins called the NCAA’s current system of glorifying student-athletes, but not pay them for their services “pseudo amateurism.” He says free books and tuition is not enough, and on that level, I tend to agree.

However, if the NCAA were to adopt a pay scale for athletes, it would quickly become the most slippery slope college sports has seen in years. It would strip away any semblance of amateurism, and how would such a model would operate?

How do you decide which athletes get paid? How much money? Do you only pay athletes for sports that generate revenue for the institution? Lawyers and athletic directors could poke that proposal full of so many holes that it will become extinct before it ever gets implemented.

Schools are also sharply divided on the idea, generally breaking down to bigger schools that have large TV deals and full stadiums in favor of paying players. They have the cash on hand to give players a little piece of the pie. However, smaller schools generally feel like they would be unable to handle such a financial obligation since many are already losing money and rely upon student fees to make ends meet in the athletic department.

What makes it equally difficult to enforce is that the NCAA has lost 44 enforcement agents charged with investigating such issues. That makes it seem like they are only going to go after the most egregious offenders, and let the others fly with little or no consequence.

And since there has never been a model for justifiably and fairly paying student athletes, it makes it seem as if this is an issue for now that really has no legs.

One proposal that did get some attention recently was South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier’s call to pay players $300 per game. Even though he knew his model wouldn’t go far, he was hoping it would get the conversation started in earnest. He asserted that his proposal came with all the best intentions since many players are limited to their tiny per diem that the school sets, which is hardly enough make taking a handout from an agent, or other prohibited source, unappealing.

Most athletes do a get a small check to cover general expenses. However, if an athlete chooses to live off campus, then a big chunk of that money goes to paying rent. The NCAA has a formula in place to approximate how much money is entitled to an athlete for room and board based on the approximate cost of living in a dormitory. After that, little cash is left for eating out, new clothes or a car payment.

That hardly matches up with the money that is pouring into some of the biggest revenue-generating programs. The University of Texas football program led the list in 2010 with a profit of $68,830,484, according to the Business of College Sports website. And all of the top 20 biggest-profiting programs are football teams. These guys can’t keep a lid on the money since it is rolling in so fast.

And they can’t afford to give their hard-working players a little more green?

However, the argument that athletes are totally taken advantage of by institutions and given nothing in return holds little merit. For out-of-state tuition for a full-scholarship athlete, meal plan and living expenses, it can total well over $100,000 for the life of a four-year scholarship. Student athletes also historically have a lower rate of student loan debt when leaving school than non-athletes. That seems like an incentive to me to play college sports for cash-strapped kids.

Regardless, agents and boosters are always going to have a hand in corrupting college sports. And paying athletes may do little to stem that tide.

That’s why the of issue play-for-pay is one without a real black-and-white answer.

Bill Murphy is a sports writer for The Times.



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