ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas sees college athletes at the highest level as exploited by the NCAA and wants them treated as professionals and paid.
“This is pro sports in every way except the athletes are students,” Bilas said. “And it is not a classic business. It is a multimillion-dollar business that is a cartel.”
Other panelists at Tuesday’s community forum, hosted by the Observer and sponsored by PNC Bank as part of the “Solving It Together” series, agreed there need to be changes in the way athletes are treated, but prefer an interim step.
One thing they all agreed on: There isn’t a simple, universally agreed-upon solution.
“I’m not sure how to solve the problem, only that there is a problem,” said ESPNU commentator Jason Sehorn, a former New York Giants cornerback.
He and others on the panel countered Bilas’ call for a professional model with a suggestion for what has been called a “full cost of attendance” stipend that could be paid to scholarship athletes across the board, not just to athletes in the revenue-producing sports of football and men’s basketball.
“That would eliminate the pay-for-play, but even then, how do you make sure every school can give the same to every player?” said Sehorn, who attended the University of Southern California. “You can’t just think about men’s football and basketball.”
Panelist Dré Bly, a former UNC-Chapel Hill football player who played 11 seasons in the NFL, agreed that a cost-of-attendance stipend is a good idea. He said he sometimes struggled to do the same things as teammates in Chapel Hill.
“I had to save the money I got if I wanted to be able to eat on Franklin Street,” Bly said. “I don’t think a player should get paid for signing autographs, but a stipend keeps kids out of trouble. Anybody who gets a scholarship should get that stipend.”
The question for some is what that professionalization would look like.
“I’d be concerned, and I don’t think people are thinking through the consequences,” said Kyle Kallender, commissioner of the Charlotte-based Big South Conference, a league made up of mid-sized institutions.
Those would include potential recruiting inequalities, a system that destroys the competitive balance and possibly increases the involvement of boosters and others in the payment of players.
Sehorn says he can foresee a bidding war between big-time football schools such as Ohio State and Michigan for a high school star.
“That’s fine for the NFL, but you shouldn’t bring it into an 18-year-old kid’s living room,” he said. “Do we really want to get into that, or is there an easier way to spread the wealth?”
That, most panelists suggested to the crowd of 500, could be a stipend.
“I don’t think anyone on the panel disagrees with total cost of attendance, a stipend,” Davidson College President Carol Quillen said. “I want my athletes to be students.”
Lawsuits drive the issue
The momentum for some form of athlete compensation is building.
Football players at Northwestern University could unionize, helped by a National Labor Relations Board ruling, now under appeal, that they should be considered employees of the school.
A lawsuit by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon opened the way for men’s college football and basketball players to be paid up to $5,000 a year for use of their likenesses.
And in March, lawyer Jeffrey Kessler filed suit against the NCAA, arguing that college sports should work on a free-market model along the lines of professional sports.
“Jeffrey Kessler is about to drive a truck through the NCAA,” Bilas said. “That’s the one to be afraid of. We’re going to be forced to do this, and we need to get ahead of it.”
The NCAA, Sehorn pointed out, has tried. But the NCAA would stop short of Bilas’ free-market suggestion, apparently preferring a stipend of approximately $2,000 to $5,000 per year on top of a student’s scholarship.
In August, the NCAA gave the “Power Five” conferences – the 65 schools covered by the most lucrative of the TV rights deals, including the Atlantic Coast and Southeastern conferences – autonomy to offer broader benefits to athletes.
The conferences are expected to approve the cost-of-attendance stipend at January’s NCAA convention.
That, Bly said, would be preferable to salaries.
“I’m not going to go that far to say they should be paid salaries,” Bly said. “But if they can get a little bit of money, it will eliminate some of the problems.”
Bilas said a stipend is not enough.
“That’s a stopgap,” Bilas said.
Bilas and Sehorn also said paying athletes wouldn’t jeopardize the colleges’ academic integrity.
“If you’re paying somebody to go to school, the incentive to not fail is great,” said Sehorn. “If you’re getting paid, your incentive is to stay there.”
Some forum attendees questioned Bilas’ professional model, including whether paying football and men’s basketball stars would force schools to eliminate other sports.
Bilas responded that there is “more and more money” coming into the system all the time. “I think if the sport is important to the university community, the university will pay for it,” Bilas said.
Kallander said that there’s a spending problem at Division I. “We’re seeing men’s-only programs being dropped,” Kallander said.
“They’re not cutting football,” Sehorn said. “That’s where all the money comes from. It’s easy to fund-raise for those sports, because that’s where the passion is. I don’t know if it’s easy to fund-raise for swimming.”
Another audience member questioned whether Bilas’ system would be fair to women.
“The idea that we can’t do this because of Title IX is insane,” Bilas said. “In what endeavor do we pay everybody the same? We are in a society where fair market value is paid.”
Quillen called the current system antiquated, but she is worried about fairness, too.
At 2,000-student Davidson, which doesn’t have big-time football or a huge television contract to pay the bills, she worries about her coaches’ ability to compete for players in a professional model.
“I want my coaches to have a chance to recruit great student athletes,” Quillen said. “If we can’t compete and pay as much, that would make me sad.”