Despite criticism, NCAA stands strong on amateurism for student-athletes

Photo by Avery FranklinPaxton Lynch, former quarterback for the Memphis Tigers, recently signed a contract to become a Nike athlete. Under NCAA rules and regulations, student athletes are not allowed to profit from their likeness until they turn pro.

The University of Memphis arrives to the Final Four, where 80,000 fans are in attendance, NCAA TV deals are paid for and TV time has been allotted. Twenty minutes before tipoff, the team’s unpaid athletes decide to remain in the locker room until there is a change.

Yes, this scenario is unrealistic, but it might take such a standoff before student-athletes are paid, said CBS Sports national college basketball columnist Gary Parrish.

“It would probably take something like that or it would take common sense prevailing, or an NCAA president who comes in and says this is crazy, let’s do it a better way,” Parrish said.  “My guess it will be the latter, a president who is rooted in common sense.”

The 2016 NCAA men’s basketball tournament brought in more than $900 million through its corporate sponsors and television contract with CBS and Turner. In 2015, the NCAA’s total revenue eclipsed $912 million, according to the NCAA’s financial statement for the 2014-15 fiscal year. The previous year, the NCAA’s total revenue nearly reached $1 billion ($989 million), as reported by USA Today.

Currently, the NCAA provides full athletic scholarships, which include tuition fees, room/board, books, three meals a day and unlimited snacks. And at some universities, cost of attendance stipends, which are determined by the university’s financial aid office, are granted to student-athletes in specific sports.

On the NCAA’s website, the association takes the stance for student-athletes that education comes before athletics, and paying athletes would undermine their amateurism status.

Ben Strauss, co-author of Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA and contributing writer for The New York Times, argued in a business as large as the NCAA, everyone profits from the money being made except for the players.

“The NCAA alone brings in close to a billion dollars, while conferences with their own TV networks bring in another $200 to $300 million,” Strauss said. “Coaches like (University of Alabama football coach) Nick Saban make $7-million a year, and Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) at Duke makes $9.7 million. And yet the players driving this business get nothing more than a scholarship.”

However, the NCAA claims paying student-athletes would ruin the fabric of the academic landscape, as their website states: “Maintaining amateurism is crucial to preserving an academic environment in which acquiring a quality education is the first priority.”

Strauss refutes the idea that academics come first in college athletics, pointing to low graduation rates and simplified majors.

“Further, the education that they are supposed to be getting – the education that is supposed to make this dichotomy ok – is too often meaningless,” he said.

Strauss’s arguments are evident in scandals at several big time college athletic programs, most recently the University of North Carolina and Syracuse University. Both universities faced off in the 2016 Men’s Final Four.

Parrish agreed with Strauss, in claims the NCAA says the payoff for a student-athlete is an education. Parrish points to the North Carolina scandal and how athletes were pushed into taking classes, which don’t contribute to their education.

“You’re not really educating them at all,” Parrish said. “You are putting them in bullshit classes. So when they get out, they have a degree that doesn’t mean anything and they don’t know anything. So how much is (an athletic scholarship) worth if it’s worth nothing?”

The recent scandals show that some student-athletes are not getting the education they need, despite the NCAA’s claims that education comes first. The majority of NCAA athletes will have to rely on their degrees, as they seek careers outside of professional sports.

Only 3.7 percent of the 71,291 NCAA college football players reach the professional level. Of the 18,320 men’s basketball student-athletes, only 11.6 percent make it professionally. And just 4.7 percent of the 16,319 women’s basketball players play in the WNBA or overseas, according to the NCAA.

American Athletic Conference Commissioner Mike Aresco said athletic scholarships are worth more than they ever have been and sides with the NCAA that student-athletes should not be paid. Paying student-athletes would break the connection between athletics and education at universities, he said.

“I don’t feel like you really can preserve the collegiate experience, because once you do that it becomes a professional model and everything changes,” Aresco said. “There would be a totally different environment that would not be college sports. It’s just that simple.”

University of Memphis Deputy Athletic Director Mark Alnutt agreed with Aresco and the NCAA that student-athletes should not be paid. Alnutt argued for a higher emphasis on education, because of the small percentage of athletes who reach the professional ranks.

“That’s where you need to place the value on the education, not concentrating on a few of the student-athletes that are out there at a high-profile position,” Alnutt said. “You have to look at it holistically.”

Although Gabe Kuhn, a starting offensive lineman on the University of Memphis football team, agrees that the NCAA is making strides to bridge the gap in compensating athletes, he said there is still a long way to go for the organization to properly compensate athletes for the time and effort they put into their craft.

“In the past decade, I think they have made more strides than they ever have, but too many student-athletes I know live in worse conditions than they should be living in,” Kuhn said. “And when you account for all the hours that we spend either in football or academics, you’re looking at full-time hours. It feels like a job a lot of the time.”

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Parrish suggests that student-athletes should be able to profit through an open market by using their names and likenesses. The arrangement would not change the college athletics landscape, he said.

Parrish cited the Olympics, which transitioned from amateurism in 1986, as a similar model for college athletics to adopt. The International Olympic Committee does not pay its athletes, but it allows them to profit off marketing and sponsorships deals.

“What we are going to do is tell student-athletes — football players, volleyball players, everybody — that you get whatever you can get,” Parrish said. “We’re (the NCAA) not paying you, but we will not prevent you from profiting off yourself. If somebody wants to pay you to be in school to advertise for them and be a spokesperson for them, that’s fine.”

Parrish said this will benefit all parties, as players who have market value would be compensated for what they are worth, while the NCAA would be able to limit its ongoing lawsuits and still be able to maintain its high revenue.

“What’s the problem?” Parrish asked. “You can still make all the money you make, you don’t have to risk losing it all, yeah it changes the way we do things, but if all you care about is money, which seems to be the case, I’m giving you a way to make all the money and stop all the lawsuits.”

Many argue that this system would play into the hands of the big money schools, but Parrish said that point is irrelevant, as the big money schools already have all the advantages.“If you look at the national champions the next 10 years and the past 10 years, I bet it will look about the same,” Parrish said. “Alabama would have a recruiting advantage over everybody like they do now. Memphis would have an advantage over most smaller schools, but that Kentucky would have a recruiting advantage over Memphis. It wouldn’t change the order of anything.”

Alnutt cited endorsements as a potential middle ground between the student-athletes and the NCAA. He said he could get on board with student-athletes accepting endorsement deals as long as it was heavily regulated.

“Again, it has to be within reason, it has to be controlled. You don’t want to look like NASCAR on your jersey, you have all these sponsors,” he said. “But if those opportunities exist, why not explore and see how it can be regulated or done the right way.”

Strauss points out student-athletes are the only ones who can’t profit off their trade while in school, and regardless of how it happens. something needs to change.

“The NCAA has done a very good job of using terms like student-athlete and convincing everyone from fans to policy makers that paying college athletes is inherently wrong,” Strauss said. “But the truth is college students get paid all the time from those working in the campus bookstore to musicians getting paid to give concerts. It is only athletes who are denied the right to be paid for their work, and overcoming this perception remains the biggest hurdle.”

Memphis Mirror writers Avery Franklin and J.T. Mullen also contributed to this story.

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About the Author

Omer Yusuf

When he’s not reminding his fellow Memphians about it never being cold, Minnesota native Omer Yusuf is the sports editor at The Daily Helmsman, the University of Memphis independent student newspaper. Yusuf has also interned at The Commercial Appeal, Memphis’ largest daily newspaper. Yusuf loves sports, but he wants to assure the world he’s more than just a sports mind.

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