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Jacobsen: Student athletes “paid” enough

Vicky Jacobsen | Monday, April 8, 2013

Do you know what I’m being paid to write this column? Go ahead, guess.
It’s nothing. Nada. The production assistant who made sure the correct jumble and crossword were placed in today’s Observer is probably pretty close to that too.
Students don’t get paid to perform in university-sponsored plays or operas. Marching band members get food money when they travel to away games, but otherwise they wake up campus at 8 a.m. on football Saturdays for the fun of it.
So you’ll excuse me if I don’t buy into the notion that college athletes are victims of exploitation just because they aren’t getting a salary.
For one thing, it’s patently ridiculous to say student athletes aren’t getting any sort of financial compensation for their time and talent. Ladies and gentlemen, that’s what a college scholarship is. (Interestingly, I’ve never heard anyone complain about the exploitation of athletes in Division III or Ivy League competition, where athlete scholarships are not allowed.)
An athletic scholarship is worth up to $200,000 plus the lifetime of increased earning potential that comes with a college degree. If that doesn’t constitute fair payment, what exactly would?
Perhaps “fair” would be a payment based on athletic department revenue. If that were the case, a lot of athletes would end up owing money to their ADs: in 2009, only 14 of the 120 FBS schools made a profit from their athletic programs. If college athletics is the big business that a lot of people claim it is, it isn’t a very lucrative one.  
Now I’m not claiming that everything is just as it should be in college sports. I would be the last one crying if we were to throw out the NCAA rulebook and start all over again. Until someone can explain why football players get goodie bags at bowl games but cross country runners lose their eligibility if they accept a prize offered for winning a summertime road race, I have no use for that organization. And I don’t know if there are any other countries on earth where a football or basketball coach can be the best-paid public servant in a state or province.
The solution, however, is not to pay football players so that their income is closer to that of their coaches, but to stop paying coaches millions of dollars. Perhaps Maryland would’ve been able to save several of the seven varsity programs terminated in 2012 if the Terps hadn’t paid former football coach Ralph Friedgen $1.75 million a year even after he was fired. It’s a thought.
There are dozens of other reasons why paying college athletes is unneeded and unreasonable. Where is the money for these salaries coming from, especially for the 106 FBS programs already hemorrhaging money? It’s unfair if a volleyball player gets paid the same as A.J. McCarron, since he brings in more money to his school. But pay them different amounts, and you’ve got a Title IX nightmare. A lot of non-athletes already complain about the perks that athletes get – do we really need to deepen that divide? And don’t think a star running back will turn down a free car just because he’s getting, say, 10 grand a year for football.
But most importantly, student athletes shouldn’t be paid because they’re not professionals. They do not have to play in college. If they have the talent and desire, they could get paid to play basketball in Greece. They could be in Q-school or minor league baseball or the D-league. They could train for the Olympics or play pro tennis in Europe. I’m sure a football agent would bankroll a football player if he just wanted to train for a year before he was eligible for the draft.
If they felt like they were not getting what they wanted out of their college experience, they could transfer or quit, just like I could stop writing for The Observer if I wanted to.
But they continue to play for the same reasons the rest of us drop so much time on our activities: because we’re learning things that might help us in our chosen professions. Because we’re giving back to our school. Because we value the friends we’ve made along the way.
And, most of all, because we genuinely enjoy it.

Contact Vicky Jacobsen at vjacobse@nd.edu
The views expressed in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.