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August 15, 2013

From the Press Box: Stipends? No. Off-field income? Oh yeah, bring it on

TERRE HAUTE — The war flags have been raised. The trumpets have sounded.

With the Johnny Manziel autograph hullabaloo and the ongoing Ed O’Bannon suit against the NCAA for using his likeness as background, many have rallied to the battle standard of stipends as a means of compensating NCAA athletes who are allegedly being exploited for income by their universities.

This rally cry has a particular resonance among those in my profession, many of whom dislike the current system, and who detest the NCAA with a virulent passion.

Stipends are seen as a way to not only give athletes their fair level of compensation, but also to stick it to universities and the NCAA, who hoard money earned via the college football and basketball cash cows like their Gordon Gekko’s personal fiefdoms.

I’m as sympathetic to sticking it to the man as the next person. And I’m no defender of the NCAA.

But stipends aren’t the answer, even if you believe, as I do, that athletes should have the right to gain financially from their own likeness. Athletes deserve a piece of the pie, but I differ from some of my colleagues in what constitutes the pie.

Stipends work on the assumption that athletes aren’t compensated by the universities they represent. It’s true that athletes aren’t paid in legal tender and that their ability to be paid is held in vapor-lock by NCAA rules.

But the notion that athletes get nothing out of their full-ride scholarships is borderline offensive.

Athletes on full-ride scholarships are compensated with a free education that costs well into six figures by the time all is said and done.

An athlete attending Indiana State is being compensated roughly $16,800 per year in tuition and room and board. At IU, tuition plus room and board is $19,300 per year. If you’re an out-of-state student? Put it this way. The value of Victor Oladipo’s scholarship was $41,500 per year — IU’s tuition and room and board for out-of-state students.

I fully grasp that football and basketball athletes (theoretically) bring in income to universities too. But we’ve completely lost the plot if $16,800, $19,300 or $41,500 per year, plus an education that sets you up for life, is brushed off as an afterthought.

There are people who spend half their lives paying off college loans to attend these universities. Tell them that athletes aren’t compensated.

But let’s say you believe in stipends. How on Earth does a university manage them?

There seems to be a naive belief that athletes will break into Kumbaya at the thought of a $2,000-per-year stipend, that everything will be peachy keen.

Here’s how it’s more likely to play out. Star quarterback who gets the national attention looks at his stipend check and then looks at his third-string punter and sees that his check is exactly the same. Star quarterback asks himself, “Why am I getting the same money as he does when I bring the fans and no one cares about him?”

It’s a Pandora’s Box. The amount of individual athletes who truly influence attendance and income are a very small percentage. You get into the uncomfortable reality that not all athletes are equal when it comes to the revenue they produce. On the balance sheet, Johnny Manziel is not the same to Texas A&M as the Aggies’ long snapper is, so why should they get the same stipend?

If someone like Manziel is truly paid what he’s worth and the long snapper is paid what he’s worth, do we really have college athletics anymore? Isn’t that just a bastardized form of professional sports?

You get into the even more uncomfortable reality that many of the sports that colleges support at the varsity level don’t bring dime one into university coffers. How are those athletes compensated? Do they deserve compensation at all given that they bring nothing to the table financially? How are Title IX and gender equity addressed?

Moreover, if fans are buying tickets and merchandise out of loyalty to their alma mater or favorite team regardless of who the players are on the field, why do athletes deserve a cut at all? How do you distinguish between the income the university is producing via its own name versus the name recognition of the athletes representing the school?

You can’t. So universities shouldn’t be in the stipend business. Period. Full stop.

But that doesn’t mean athletes shouldn’t get paid.

The NCAA should remove the onerous rules that prevent athletes from capitalizing on their own likeness. Let them earn at will. Let the free market pay them what their worth.

If you truly believe an athlete should get paid what they deserve, then no limits should be put on their ability to earn from the private sector.

There should be no reason whatsoever that Shakir Bell or Jake Odum should be kept from doing a TV endorsement or be given a summer job at a friendly local business. That’s their business and not the NCAA’s.

I know what comes next. Abuse! Schools will abuse a free-market system until it hurts! SMU! Emery overnight envelopes!

Abuse is in the eye of the beholder. The “abuse” we currently attribute to off-field compensation is based on the insular world in which the NCAA rules currently hold sway. In no other business is it considered “abuse” to allow an athlete to get paid what someone is willing to pay him or her.

I had the argument put to me that in a free-market compensation system, someone like Phil Knight could pay every University of Oregon athlete $10,000 and give the Ducks an unfair advantage over everyone else. Maybe so. But as long as there are scholarship/roster limits, etc., in place, who am I to say that he can’t be a benefactor in that way or that athletes can’t take advantage of his generosity?

Let the NCAA make the rules and police the universities. Enforce scholarship limits, academic standards, etc. But unshackle the athletes and let the free market take care of their compensation.

Athletes deserve their piece of the pie. But the pie needs to come from the private sector, not from stipends.

Todd Golden is sports editor of the Tribune-Star. He can be reached at 812-231-4272 or at todd.golden@tribstar.com. Follow Golden on Twitter @TribStarTodd.

 

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