Scott Fowler

Paying college athletes: An idea that’s gaining traction

As the money generated by college football and men’s basketball grows into the billions, there is more outcry for the players in those sports to share in the revenue.

In courtrooms across the country, resolution – and possibly revolution – is coming. Numerous lawsuits have been filed. Some football players at Northwestern University have attempted to unionize.

And the “Power Five” conferences – made up of 65 of the richest and biggest schools, including all of those in the ACC and SEC – are trying to establish autonomy. Fearful of letting the courts decide their fate, they want to set the new rules themselves and plan to offer stipends that would include $2,000 to $6,000 a year for expenses above a full scholarship.

One of the men leading the “pay for play” charge is Charlotte lawyer Jay Bilas – an ESPN television analyst who played and coached basketball at Duke University.

“Players are not mistreated,” Bilas says, “but they are exploited. Anytime you make money off another, while at the same time restricting that person from making money in that same enterprise, you are by definition exploiting them. Now it’s not a sinister thing. Everybody’s intentions are good. But it’s exploitation, pure and simple.”

In Bilas’ ideal world, the NCAA – the organization that governs big-time college sports – would undergo such massive changes that it would be largely unrecognizable. Players not only would receive full scholarships, as they do now, but they would also be paid whatever their institutions felt they were worth to the college. The best ones would be represented by agents and sign multiyear contracts out of high school that might include bonuses for staying in school and penalties for leaving early. While Bilas is the most visible advocate of this plan, scores of former and current athletes, lawyers and agents support the vision.

Inside the current college athletic system, a number of people disagree with it. They think that athletes shouldn’t be paid outright by their schools, arguing that a full college scholarship covering tuition, room and board, and books is a great deal already – and one that eventually will be sweetened by the “cost-of-attendance” stipend of about $2,000 to $6,000 annually that many schools plan to offer.

UNC Charlotte athletic director Judy Rose says an out-of-state scholarship at her school is worth about $33,000 per year, and other benefits the athlete receives pushes the total value to more than $40,000.

“I’m concerned about where our industry is headed,” says Rose, who added that she believes her university will likely offer a “cost-of-attendance” stipend at some point. “I’m a big proponent of amateurism. And there is not one student on our campus, in my opinion, who would not trade places with a full-scholarship student-athlete who leaves college with no debt.”

But Bilas argues that athletes don’t have the same on-campus opportunities as normal students, using his own family as an example.

“My daughter is a sophomore at Duke,” Bilas says. “She’s an artist. And she happens to be pretty talented. She sells her work, and she’s celebrated for it. Nobody says, ‘Hey, you dirty professional artist, stay away from our amateurs. You’re supposed to be here to learn.’ Other students can work and make whatever money they want. ... We only say this about athletes. And if tomorrow we said, ‘All right, all restrictions are gone,’ the world would not spin off its axis.”

Unintended consequences?

But it’s not a simple process, either. A number of issues would loom if players were paid.

Rose favors the “cost-of-attendance” stipend personally.

But she and other college administrators say that actually paying the highest-profile athletes for their performance and making them employees would put a lot of money in the hands of a few stars. Other scholarship sports – likely nonrevenue men’s sports such as wrestling, tennis and swimming, because federal guidelines mandate offering women’s sports equal opportunity – could disappear from some campuses.

Says Steve Patterson, the athletic director at the University of Texas: “To blow up the college model for the benefit of one guy like (former Texas A&M quarterback) Johnny Manziel and disadvantage 499 students on our campus for the benefit of one guy – who may or may not be successful in the pros later on anyway – is ludicrous.”

“There are quite a few unintended consequences that could come from this,” Rose says. “Basketball and football are the ones that are making the money. Some of the lawsuits are saying that you have to fund men’s basketball and football players to this level. ... So if you do it for men’s basketball and football, you’ve probably got to do it for all of your women’s sports that you’ve got. Then you may not have the money to do it for the other men’s sports and they may disappear.”

That worries about every swimming coach in the country, David Marsh says. Marsh now coaches Olympic-level swimmers in Charlotte, but he once was a college head coach who won 12 national swimming titles at Auburn.

“This could be absolutely devastating at the highest level of our sport,” Marsh says, “in that there could be a complete elimination of many men’s swimming programs. There is no doubt that men’s Olympics sports would become a casualty if other athletes are paid. There are swim coaches all over the country on pins and needles waiting to see how this settles, and I’m sure that goes for the coaches of other nonrevenue sports, too.”

The issues are so thorny that even players disagree about them. Marvin Williams, a current Charlotte Hornet, left UNC Chapel Hill in 2005 after just one season and became the No. 2 pick in the NBA draft. He did it, he said, because his family was “very poor” and he knew he could make millions the next year while still a teenager. Still, he says, he didn’t really want to leave.

“If college athletes were compensated, I don’t think I ever would have left college,” says Williams, who adds that he returned most summers to Chapel Hill to take courses and eventually graduated. “I would have done something to try and get a fifth year out of it. I loved every second of it. It was just a business decision for my family.”

But Gerald Henderson, 26, says putting money in a fund players could access after they leave college would make more sense. Henderson played at Duke from 2006 to 2009 before leaving college a year early. Paying players directly right out of high school, Henderson says, would be “a little scary” because the money might be managed poorly and possibly get blown on expensive cars or jewelry.

‘Schools have got the money’

Many college administrators also say they wouldn’t be able to find the money to pay players. Bilas says that’s hogwash. He says the biggest schools constantly build new facilities and always are able to pony up seven-figure salaries for their men’s football and basketball coaches. The money, Bilas says, continues to trickle down into every corner of college athletics – except into players’ pockets.

“Right now, six baseball coaches in the Southeastern Conference are making more than a million dollars a year,” Bilas says. “Baseball coaches! The schools have got the money. They just spend it all. And they spend on what they want. They spend it on paying each other and building giant facilities. And then they claim they don’t have any money.”

Bilas knows many fans don’t want to be bothered with the details. They just want to see people treated fairly and the games to be played. He says he felt the same when the NFL and its officials couldn’t come to a labor agreement in 2012, resulting in the use of replacement refs.

Bilas said he didn’t care that much about who was right – he just wanted football. He wanted the problem solved so the officiating would get better and the games would be more enjoyable.

But Bilas is passionately involved in this issue – and he thinks his side is going to win.

“The tide is turning,” Bilas says. “I think the outcome is already decided on this. It’s just a matter of how we are going to get there. Players are going to be paid. Now whether it happens in five years or 10 or 15, I have no idea. But there’s no way we’re going to make this kind of money and never pay the players.”

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