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Is The NCAA About To Start Paying Its Athletes?

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"Is The NCAA About To Start Paying Its Athletes?"

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NCAA president Mark Emmert

NCAA president Mark Emmert

CREDIT: AP

In the raging debate about paying college athletes, the NCAA’s top officials, from president Mark Emmert to major conference commissioners, have held a firm line: it’s not going to happen. Not now. Not ever. “There’s certainly no interest in turning college sports into the professional or semi-professional,” Emmert said in December. Doing so, he said in September, would create “something very different in collegiate athletics.”

There has, however, been an exception to that policy since 2011. The NCAA calls it a full cost-of-attendance allowance, an extra benefit added to existing scholarships to ensure those aid agreements cover the basic expenses athletes incur. The idea has broad support at the biggest NCAA schools. It has languished, though, because smaller schools say they can’t afford the stipend — proposed in 2011 as a $2,000 annual payment. They make up a majority of Division I, and thus they’ve been able to keep it from becoming reality.

Until now. Possibly.

The NCAA’s annual convention is going on this week in San Diego, and presidents from the largest Division I schools — the 65 that make up the five BCS conferences — have proposed a new governance structure that would give them more power on many issues, including the stipend. If they’re successful in instituting the new structure, and it seems they will be, it’s more than a possibility that the stipend will finally gain approval. It will be optional, but it’s hard to see any of the big schools choosing not to offer it. If Texas is handing out $2,000 (or whatever amount the schools ultimately approve) extra to its athletes, you can bet Oklahoma will too. And Alabama. And Florida. And Kentucky. All the way down the line, at least in the power leagues.

And so big schools will be handing money to their athletes.

Does that count as “paying athletes”? In a way, sure. A stipend is certainly a payment of some kind, and because it is being offered to athletes, it’s arguable that it’s a payment for playing sports.

At the same time, it’s not necessarily what many NCAA critics have in mind when they talk about serious reforms. About paying players.

The stipend is necessary. In the current structure, an athletic scholarship doesn’t cover the full cost of attendance at most universities. The average athletic scholarship, in fact, leaves athletes with a $3,200 annual shortfall when it comes to covering basic costs, according to a study from Drexel University. And it does go above and beyond what the NCAA has been willing to offer players in the past. But this debate isn’t about whether athletes should be compensated, because they already are. It’s about how they should be compensated and what rights they should have in that process. In that sense, the stipend largely perpetuates the current structure. It’s a creative, albeit necessary, way to address some of the criticism of the current system without drastically changing it.

But players will still have little, if any, say in the system. The arrangement will still be a scholarship (plus a stipend!) or bust. Don’t like it? Don’t play.

“They’re still within the framework of the old system,” author and historian Taylor Branch, who wrote a landmark piece about the rights of college athletes two years ago, said of the stipend in 2012. “The coaches and athletics directors decide (how much they get paid). This is like a tip a waiter gets. You can’t get market values, and you can’t object to it without being called unethical.”

The stipend, then, will make college athletics a little more fair in the sense that scholarships will cover the actual cost of attendance. But it won’t address the fundamental unfairness people like Branch, Ed O’Bannon, and other NCAA critics see when they look at college sports.

That said, the stipend and the proposed changes that will lead to it are indicative of where the debate over paying players — and the NCAA’s position on it — may be heading. “We want to self-regulate so Congress doesn’t have to, so a newspaper [media] doesn’t have to,” Emmert said this week. But that’s not exactly true. As Sports On Earth’s Patrick Hruby has noted, the stipend issue was a form of response to a 2006 legal settlement that said the NCAA had to “establish a $10 million fund to reimburse college athletes for — you guessed it — educational expenses incurred beyond their scholarship amounts.” The NCAA wants us to believe the stipend is some sort of an altruistic gesture from its members. But the NCAA only gets altruistic when somebody forces it to.

In that sense, this may be the first step, a small step, down a slippery slope of change that the NCAA doesn’t want to think about right now: toward more rights and compensation for players. CBS columnist Dennis Dodds argued that point Wednesday, saying that the “climate has changed so much lately that the NCAA faces the likelihood of having to redefine an amateurism model it has shaped for the last 11 decades.” Dodds posited that the next iteration of the NCAA could be one that supports even more compensation rights for athletes, one that allows them to share in the money they make from their names, images, and likenesses. The stipend, Dodds argued, is in effect an act of self-preservation, an admission that the current model needs to change if the NCAA is going to keep on.

Another major lawsuit could help bring about that sort of change. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon sued the NCAA, claiming that players deserve a cut of the money generated by the use of their names, images, and likenesses. The NCAA disagrees and insists it will fight the case all the way to the Supreme Court. But if the writing on the wall says the NCAA may lose, that fear and self-preservation necessitate giving players that right, will the NCAA balk, or will it act as it has on the stipend, making the semantic case that this isn’t really pay-for-play but an honest way to preserve some players’ rights largely within the current system (see also: the Olympics)? And how will it act when the issues grow larger, when the fight for rights and compensation continues to escalate alongside coaches salaries, television contracts, and revenues?

Skeptics and defenders of the NCAA status quo may see the slippery slope argument as an exaggeration. The power conferences after all reminded everyone in their proposal that they remain opposed to any sort of “pay-for-play” model. But there’s reason to see it the way Dodds does. The NCAA once opposed the sort of television contracts that permeate college sports now. It wasn’t that long ago that a stipend would have been anathema to even the biggest schools. In the past, the NCAA wouldn’t have even acknowledged a debate about its players rights or whether they deserved compensation of any kind outside a scholarship. This is an organization, like any other big sporting league, that is concerned with its own preservation. It doesn’t make major changes until forced to do so. Lawsuits, media scrutiny, and that overwhelming desire to endure have caused major shifts in its outlook before, so it’s not unreasonable to think they may do so again, especially as criticism increases, athletes “organize,” and legal fights mount.

The stipend won’t come close to fixing what’s wrong with college sports, and the NCAA’s membership probably isn’t going to consider a full-on “pay-for-play” model any time soon. From that standpoint, the stipend is still stuck in the same model that already exists, even if it is incrementally fairer to the athletes who will get it. Look at this in the context of NCAA history, though, and it may prove to be a small step on the long road toward creating an organization that respects the rights of its players, even if it only does so to survive.

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