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On Paying College Scholarship Athletes

Sports News: On Paying College Scholarship Athletes

There is more and more debate in the sports news on the topic of paying college scholarship athletes. It is of interest in cultural and lifestyle discussions. The primary impetus to pay them is because their university/college, the NCAA and their respective athletic conferences are making lots and lots of money. In fact the amount of money on the table annually is beyond significant, huge and exorbitant. It’s mine-boggling! Most of this money is coming from television advertising revenue. To quote an item from the internet, “The NCAA basketball tournaments, or ‘March Madness,’ have become a huge business. As Forbes’ Chris Smith wrote, CBS and Turner Broadcasting make more than $1 billion off the games, ‘thanks in part to a $700,000 ad rate for a 30-second spot during the Final Four.’ Athletic conferences receive millions of dollars in payouts from the NCAA when their teams advance deep into the tournament. Ditto for the coaches of the final squads standing. The NCAA as a whole makes $6 billion annually.”


Back when the following players were in college: Babe Parelli, Billy Cannon, Paul Horning, John David Crowe, Archie Manning, Roger Staubach, Earl Campbell, Hershel Walker, Alex Karras, Merlin Olsen, Lee Roy Selmon, Bill Russell, Lew Alcindor, Oscar Robinson, John Havlicek, Dan Issel, Louie Dampier, Cliff Hagan, Bob Petit, Tommy Heinsohn, Bob Cousy ) – all excellent players (imagine what they might be paid if entering the professional ranks today) — In a previous era, prior to 1980 before 24 hour continuous sports coverage of almost every college athletic contest (they have to cover almost all of them………….hey! they have a 24-hour news cycle and must fill it with something.) there wasn’t anywhere near as much money available. Consequently, there was nowhere near as much interest in, or concern for, fair treatment of, or compensation to the scholarship athlete.

The equipment wasn’t nearly as good. There was no such thing a “concussion protocol”. The college and university stadiums and gymnasiums (now arenas) and training facilities weren’t nearly as nice. For the most part only conference championships, bowl games, NIT and NCAA championships were televised. You had to follow your favorite player/team in the local paper and listen to most of their games on the radio. If a team or individual athlete appeared destined for national stardom, and you were lucky, there might be an article in Sports Illustrated. There was no discussion of, concern for or question about, a scholarship athlete being “treated fairly” and “properly compensated”. Hey, he got a scholarship! A free, four-year education! This was a time when college tuition was still reasonably affordable, at least relative to today’s tuition cost. But a college education was still out of reach for most American families and a free four year education opportunity was considered significant compensation.

And generally speaking, in that era there was very little “leaving college early”. For the most part, all spent four years or more in college, before entering the professional ranks. Back then, their primary goal was a college education.

This was also a time before exorbitant signing bonuses, ludicrous salaries and guarantees at the professional level. There was very little financial incentive to “leave college early”.

So why now, are scholarship athletes entitled to financial compensation when those from a previous era were not?

The sports are essentially the same, the games are essentially the same, the value of scholarships are essentially the same, the risks and injuries are essentially the same…………the only single factor, the only difference is the amount of money being distributed. How does this single fact entitle the scholarship athlete to financial compensation?

We have a mentality in the country that thinks some money is desirable, a lot of money is ok, but there is an amount above which (it differs from situation to situation) it’s believed to be too much and therefore undeserved. Subsequently, the individual, business, organization or institution must share it with others, others not always of their choosing. Certainly charity is at the heart of Christianity, and hopefully, individuals and organizations with great wealth will share, but it’s not solely dependent upon a specific wealth factor, the amount of which is determined by some third party.

I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to suggest that today’s elite or even marginally elite scholarship athletic recruit’s primary interest IS NOT a college education! Their primary concern is which school can I attend that will best showcase my talents in order to gain access to the professional ranks, in the shortest time period, for the most money. That in and of itself, is worth a lot of money! Compensation enough?

The NBA won’t recruit a high school athlete until at least one year after graduation, resulting in the much criticized “one-and-done” phenomenon. [A recently considered change will allow for the athlete to enter a combine and test his skills and return to college if he doesn’t measure up, without losing his eligibility – a very progressive and positive adjustment I contend] The NFL won’t recruit a high school athlete until at least three years after high school graduation, claiming they are not mature enough to endure the physical rigors of the NFL. Now there admittedly may be other motives and considerations at play in both instances. In the NFL, the player’s union is largely responsible for the three year gap. The three year rule helps protect veteran players from getting replaced early by younger, newer players. Neither the “one-and-done” phenomenon nor the “three-year-rule” were orchestrated or implemented by colleges or the NCAA, yet they are largely blamed for them.

If these two artificial barriers did not exist, allowing any high school athlete with sufficient skills to be drafted; would this discussion be necessary, much less even exist?

Moses Malone, Darrel Dawkins, Kevin Garnett, Kobe Bryant & LeBron James went into the NBA directly from high school. All had/have successful careers. Why the artificial barriers?

I acknowledge there are some high school athletes that were drafted into the NBA that were not successful. Not successful for a variety of reasons, lack of sufficient talent or size being the primary one. But if the NBA’s claim that one more year is sufficient to guarantee success, they are naïve, or believe the public to be.

Some of the arguments:

  1. If a high school athlete hires an agent and enters the draft, he can never again be eligible for a college scholarship.

     Hey, it’s a choice! And he/she must live with the consequences of the choices.    

     2. He/She is not physically &/or emotionally mature enough to endure the rigors of the professional sport’s schedule and commitments.                                                                                                                                                                                      A valid concern and likely accurate in most cases, but again a choice they and their families must make and be prepared to live with.                                                                                                                                                                        3.He/she are not financially astute enough to responsibly handle the vast amounts of money they will be paid professional sports.

Likewise a valid concern.

Colleges, Universities and the NCAA are all accused, [again only because of the amount of money involved] of exploiting the scholarship athlete as unpaid, highly skilled labor, earning millions, even billions at their expense. All the while the athlete is risking career-ending injuries that may leave them with nothing.

At first blush, a very compelling argument! The athlete risks everything and potentially gets nothing in return, while the institutions reap vast fortunes.

But it’s not entirely a one-way street.

Why does the elite or even marginally elite high school athlete seek schools like Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Kansas, Arizona and UCLA, in the case of basketball, instead of taking visits to and scholarship offers from Murry State, Morehead, Alabama Birmingham, Ball State, or Florida Gulf Coast? Why do elite football recruits seek slots at Alabama, Ohio State, Texas, Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Michigan, Notre Dame instead of any number of smaller, lesser known schools.

Simple, Kentucky, North Carolina, Alabama, Ohio State et al, have something of value to offer. They each play almost every game on national television, greatly enhancing the athlete’s exposure and the showcasing of their talents. These school’s facilities, coaching & training staff, medical, surgical and rehab resources all far outstrip the lesser colleges. All this because of and provided by the television ad dollars paid for success. The athlete is also provided, plush housing accommodations, academic tutoring, and the opportunity for a four-year, tuition-free education from a top-notch college or university.

Likewise the cry of exploitation (a hot-button word which prejudices the argument from the beginning and which I resent) is always for the elite athlete. Almost without exception, each of these “exploited” individuals are in team sports.   In order for him to shine, showcase his skills, receive national exposure and maximize his potential, the colleges and universities have to field, equip, train, house, feed and educate 80 to 90 other student athletes (in the case of football) of lesser talent and skill-level in order to “exploit” this one so poorly treated individual. Many of these other 80 or 90 individuals won’t pan out. Some will get injured, some will transfer, some will merely quite, some will languish in mediocrity, never fully living up to their potential. The time, energy and expense of recruiting them, training and caring for them (for however long they remain) must to be absorbed by the institution — cost of doing business as it were. (Perhaps it can be deducted from the amount the “exploited” athlete should otherwise have received.)

What does the college or university get in exchange? In the case of basketball, one year of their services at best. In some cases, a fair exchange, no doubt. In football currently it is three years.

As recent as the 2012 college football season, questions are being raised about the three-year obligation in football. In 2012-13, his sophomore season for the South Carolina Gamecocks, Jadaveon Clowney emerged as the best defensive player in college football. In the 2013-14 season, his junior year, he was often accused of sandbagging much of the time, taking a pass to protect himself from injury and at the same time retaining a high draft position. As late as October 2015, John Saunders on ESPN’s Sports Reporters , expressed “concern” for Georgia’s Nick Chubb, LSU’s Leonard Fornette and Florida State’s Devon Cook, all sophomore football players. He derided the NFL’s “three year rule” stating all three are physically ready for the NFL, but are impeded by the rule, while they “risk injury, playing for a scholarship.” He went on to propose a “what if” hypothetical situation. What if, all three decided to sit out their junior year of college and get paid to sit by an agent or shoe company representative?

The implication here once again is that the college athlete is being unfairly controlled and exploited by the universities and the NCAA.

In none of this is there any concern expressed for their contractual commitment to the school they signed with, or the credibility of their “word” when they committed. I doubt the university that signed them, expected less than their best, less than their full commitment. Do you suppose Clowney, when he signed with South Carolina told Steve Spurrier, “Now look, I’ll sign but don’t expect me to go all out on every play. You don’t really expect me to risk injury my third year by playing all the games do you? And understand, in my third year, any games I do play, it won’t be full tilt.”

Per NCAA rules, an individual is permitted to borrow against future earnings from an established accredited commercial lending institution for the purpose of purchasing insurance against a disabling injury or illness (that prevents the individual from pursuing a chosen career) or for the purpose of arrangements for loss-of-value insurance. A third party (including donor/booster) cannot be involved in arrangements for securing the loan.

“The maximum amount of insurance benefit that any player can get under the NCAA policy is $5 million, according to Chris Radford an NCAA media relations official. ‘This insurance program is in place to protect against a career-ending injury, but should not be confused with a ‘loss-of-value’ policy, which the NCAA does not offer.’ Radford said.

To the credit of the NCAA, it has set up a program where a player can get a low-cost loan for the premium and pay it later. Typically, a $5 million policy will cost anywhere from $45,000 to $65,000. The premium is, like most insurance policies, dependent on a number of factors, including what position the player plays.

“The NCAA grades the athletes at anywhere from $1 million, all the way up to $5 million and then lets the player go to a lender for the loan.” said insurance broker Rich Salgado of Coastal Advisors, LLC. “The player never actually gets the money, it’s paid straight from the lender to the insurance company, so it’s a very simple, tight system and it’s a very, very good rate for the player. We would all be fortunate to borrow money at those rates.”

These quotes from Yahoo Sports. For full article by Jason Cole, February 13, 2013, go to:–even–5m-insurance-policy-for-jadeveon-clowney-isn-t-enough

One proponent of paying college scholarship athletes makes the point, and a good one, that being a college scholarship athlete is a “full-time-job”, requiring a commitment of several hours practice, travel and game participation above and beyond normal college student requirements. Conversely it can be argued many “non-athlete, non-scholarship” students must put in several hours per week in part-time jobs in order to have “walking-around-money”, or money for clothes, transportation and perhaps books. And unlike the scholarship athlete, there are no paid tutors to help them stay abreast of their classwork and remain academically eligible. And the financial burden of a college education is entirely on them and their parents, unless of course they are able to get some type of academic scholarship.

This proponent suggested a mere $1,000 to $2,000 per semester to protect the athlete from abject poverty and to provide for the essentials of college life such as an occasional week-end movie, money to go home for a visit, or an occasional meal out. This same proponent argues, a semester stipend as he proposes would help teach the athlete how to manage money, again a very good point.   Who becomes responsible for insuring the athlete spends the money on such items as mentioned above and who is responsible for teaching them to properly manage and utilize the money.

It should also be pointed out not all scholarship athletes come from poor families. Many come from very comfortable, if not well-to-do middle class families and have no need for financial largess from the institution.

Just an aside: Do you know of, or have you seen a single scholarship athlete on television or in person that does not have tattoos? Most are covered in tattoos. Now, I don’t have a single tattoo, but I don’t imagine they are free. Where does the money to pay the tattoo artist come from?

Also, better watch out for the “bling-salesman”!

So let’s suppose we do pay them.

It’s easy to bandy about the idea of paying student athletes and it may be a feel-good position for some sports talking heads to discuss, but what are the particulars? Who sets the guidelines?

  1. Who pays them? The college or University? The NCAA? Their conference?
  2. How much are they to be paid? Will it be the same at each college? Is a $2,000 stipend less valuable at a school in the North East or West Coast, than it is at a school in the South?
  3. Will it be a direct cash payment to the student athlete with no accountability for how or on what it is spent? Or will it be a reimbursement process, where he must bring receipts for the approved expenditures and receive reimbursement.
  4. What happens when an athlete burns through the entire stipend the first week in school? (Unlikely you say? – Don’t kid yourself!) Can he/she go back for more? Can they borrow against next semester’s stipend? Can they get a do-over?
  5. How do you protect against this legal Stipend being comingled with other outside money?
  6. What about receipts from the sale of the player’s jerseys or autograph as has been proposed?
  7. How much player pay is too much?
  8. Is there an income above which the player has to pay for his tuition, and room and board?
  9. What happens at the team level when one or two players earn amounts well above the rest of the team through jersey or autograph sales?
  10. Are they each to split a portion of the schools earnings from conference revenues and NCAA tournaments and playoffs?
  11. Are the colleges and universities still to be held accountable for rules violations and infractions?

Some of these may sound far-fetched, but when you open those gates, there’s no turning back.

Do the ideals embodied in the concept of amateur athletic competition no longer have merit? Once money is introduced, no matter how small the amount or what the intended purpose, all bets are off. You no longer have amateur sports and you openly invite all sorts of options and elements into the mix, and institutional control goes out the window!

There is no such thing as a little bit pregnant or almost a virgin. You either are or you are not.

Once the idea to pay scholarship athletes becomes acceptable and tolerated, all that remains is to quibble over the amount. And it won’t remain the same and it won’t remain small.


  • Eliminate the one-year and three-year barrier to professional sports drafts (even though unlikely because of NBA-NFL opposition)
  • If athlete accepts a scholarship offer from a college or university, he/she must remain a minimum of three years, and/or forego entry into the draft for three years.
  • Colleges and universities must offer four-year scholarships, instead of the current one-year at a time.
  • NCAA must raise the amount of insurance a scholarship athlete can purchase from the current maximum of $5 million to $20 million and revisit and revise the amount every 3-5 years.

I realize this is a long article and I’ve developed it over a period of time. Just today, December 31, 2015 on the Dan Patrick Show, Charles Barkley, who’s thoughts and opinions I respect for lots of reasons, spoke on the topic. Charles believes anything that can be done to help the athlete is fine, but he makes two very important points:

  1. No one has or wants to place a value on a free college education, suggesting at least to me, there is real value in terms of monetary remuneration and, again in my mind, diminishes the argument of exploitation.
  2. Secondly, Charles points out, you can’t just pay the football and basketball players. You must also pay all the minor sports participants, golf, softball, archery, fencing — both men and women participants.

Your thoughts?
















  1. John John

    Very compelling argument supported with relavent examples. It is indeed a Pandora’s box that if opened will change the landscape of college athletics forever perhaps ending it as we know it. I prefer the option of removing the barrier between high school and the pro’s.

    • BurtonB BurtonB

      Thanks, John!

  2. Tim Landers Tim Landers

    Dear Bill,
    You make some good points, and this is a slippery slope. Title IX says that ALL Atheletes regardless of the sport or gender would need to be paid. At most schools only Football and some Basketball programs generate any revenue, meaning Football pays for the Woman’s Tennis Team. The dollars are so big that Football at my Alma Matter, Florida State generates over $300 Million annually. This makes it even more of a business than it was in the late 70’s when I was a 17 year old Offensive Lineman. I often recall the incident of my first full contact practice. My line Coach grabbed me by the cage and pulled me to the sidelines and screamed, (with tobacco juice coming from his mouth. “The taxpayers from the state of Florida are INVESTING $100K in your fat ass NOT TO MISS BLOCKS”! I instantly realized this was a business and continued to realize the program had no interest in my education just as long as I stayed eligible. The high dollars are also putting pressure on the Coaches to maintain success with little loyalty. Look what FSU did to Bobby Bowden who built that program. For over 20 years FSU never finished out of the top 5 with 2 National Championships. Two off years, (still winning and attending Bowls) he was forced out. Net, net from my perspective some small stipend in addition to School, Books, Room & Board might be warranted and possibly fend off the outside influences in today’s money filled game.

    • BurtonB BurtonB

      Hey Tim-
      Good to hear from you and thanks for responding. You obviously have an inside perspective that has to be respected. Since I never played big-time college sports, I can only offer an opinion, which is all this weblog is about. I invite and welcome perspectives such as yours. Thanks again. Hope all is well with you.

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