Commentary

Pay college athletes? No

Updated: November 18, 2010, 4:49 PM ET
By Johnette Howard | ESPN.com

If you want to argue that college football or basketball players should be paid because of the billions their sports generate, there are more sympathetic characters to hitch your wagon to than the ones who have retriggered the debate: Auburn quarterback Cameron Newton and his church pastor father, who stands accused of trying to auction his son off to the highest bidder as he was being recruited. Thursday brought yet another allegation, this one that the elder Newton wanted to be paid in $50,000, $50,000 and $80,000 chunks if his son went to Mississippi State.

But choosing flawed messengers isn't the only reason the play-for-pay lobby should pipe down or, better yet, go away. If that crowd would think for a second about the complexity of what they're suggesting, they'd stop all their yelping.

Paying some college athletes bigger cash cuts won't work, and it ain't going to happen, anyway.

[+] EnlargeCameron Newton
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesWould the college experience of athletes such as Cameron Newton differ if they were paid employees of their universities?

"Never. Ever. No, no, no," said Chris Plonsky, who oversees women's athletics and has a host of other responsibilities at the University of Texas. "Athletes will never, ever be treated as employees of universities. I can promise you that."

Has anyone ever even produced a viable model of how such a new system would actually work?

"There isn't one," Plonsky said.

"Not that I know of," agreed Scott Ketchmar, a Penn State professor who works in the field of sports ethics and sports values.

Still, the absence of any plan hasn't stopped the amped-up disgust and cries to "just pay Division I football and men's basketball players already." The call rises again whenever a story comes along like Newton's possibly-illegal recruitment. Or when fans discuss the Reggie Bush under-the-table payment scandal that rocked USC. Or when a Sports Illustrated cover story details how former sports agent Josh Luchs gave illegal benefits to more than 30 college athletes (including former USC receiver R. Jay Soward, who has said, "I would do it all again").

By now, the arguments for paying college athletes are familiar: These college teams are making billions from television and gate receipts, and the kids get "nothing." Just a grant-in-aid.

Lamenting how the Newton allegations surfaced two months after Bush forfeited his Heisman Trophy, the New York Times weighed in with a story titled, "How Broken Does College Football Have to Be to Fix It?" An online columnist for Fox Sports argued that under the current system there's no incentive not to cheat. Auburn alumnus Bo Jackson said he still intends to use his Heisman vote for Newton because the QB is innocent until proven guilty -- and it's hard to argue with that.

Still, others have said, "Don't blame athletes even if they are on the take, blame the 'corrupt' college system" -- as if being for Newton or Bush is some righteous protest against "exploitation."

That is ridiculous. Just stop it.

"Well, I'm an ethicist, and I don't buy that either -- excuse me," Ketchmar said. "There are so many harms here when certain schools or individuals play fast and loose with the rules. To let people who commit abuses say, 'I'll ignore these principles because you, you've got it all wrong, we're really courageous soldiers against the system' -- that's baloney. It's people trying to get what they can get ... [And] we can't universalize such behavior and say that anyone under this kind of 'pressure' or anyone in society who feels the system is stacked against them can unilaterally act out however they see fit. Because then what we'd have is chaos."

Plonsky said she has "no empathy" for the "can't blame 'em" argument either because, "You can't reward abuse of the system. You can disagree with the system and fight to change it, but you can't condone corrupting it ... [And] not to sound callous, but look: There are 400,000 men and women who have signed on for the college sports experience under the NCAA umbrella.

"They can't all have been duped."

Plonsky added that if people think the current system is so exploitative, they do have an alternative.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Jennings
Gary Dineen/Getty ImagesBrandon Jennings couldn't go to the NBA directly out of high school, so he went to Europe to play basketball.

"Representing one's institution entails a voluntary sign-on to our structure -- emphasis on voluntary," Plonsky said. "They could avoid all this if they like, and be [basketball player] Brandon Jennings and be paid to play right away out of high school, as he did in Europe. I respect that. If you're talented enough and you want to be able to compete under other conditions and arrangements, there are places you can go. They're called the NBA, the NFL and Major League Baseball. But that's not what we do or emphasize in universities."

A full grant-in-aid college scholarship for room and board, tuition, books and fees -- which amounts to about $41,832 a year for an out-of-state student at the University of Texas and more than $200,000 over the life of a five-year scholarship -- is, in fact, not the same as "nothing."

That said, I'm right there with anyone who argues college athletics could use some changes. Count me in.

The NCAA should give athletes one no-strings-attached transfer without any penalty or waiting period to play elsewhere. Get rid of one-year scholarships and go back to the four-year promises that were given out until 1973. Give athletes more freedom to work and earn money during the year, too.The NCAA should expand and expedite payouts from its assistance programs that help student-athletes pay for everything from clothing to computers to travel home for emergencies.

Most importantly, NCAA schools should accept an idea that's been around a while to add a cash amount to help cover what's known as a student's "cost of attendance" outlay. In 2009, an advocacy group called the National College Player Association and Ithaca college professor Ellen Staurowsky released a study of all 336 Division I schools and estimated the average annual expenses not covered by scholarship cost of attendance at $2,763 per student.

That gap should and could be closed.

"And I feel like at the Division I level, anyway, we actually could get that voted in," Plonsky said. "We should do the fair and right thing."

But beyond that, just shouting, "Pay players already" ignores many, many issues and potential nightmares.

If college athletes became full-fledged employees, the arrangement doesn't merely stop at cutting Johnny No-Neck a pay check. There are worker's compensation, taxes, gender equity and insurance issues. Who would set the pay rate? Should stars get more or would there be a flat rate for everyone? Can a college athlete/employee renegotiate? Get fired? For what?

The NCAA says that about two dozen of its member athletic programs, all of them big-time Division I schools, make a profit, among its more than 1,000 member institutions. So revenue-sharing arrangements within conferences might have to change to help have-not schools make their athletes' paydays. But schools can't be forced to share private donations, such as the $165 million gift that T. Boone Pickens gave Oklahoma State's athletic department.

And how do you avoid paying athletes on men's non-revenue sports teams such as wrestling, crew or baseball? How do you ignore Title IX, the federal law that requires athletic departments to spend the proportionally same amount of money on women's athletics?

The answer is you can't. You'd have to pay them all, if you pay anyone. Or get ready to go to court.

Most universities would say that violates their mission to serve everyone they admit.

But let's pretend for a second that the play-for-pay crowd did get its way. Guess what? It wouldn't stop corruption in college sports.

If a legal $225 monthly "cost of attendance" stipend feels good, the $1,500 a month that Soward estimates he got illicitly while at USC would still look nice piled on top of that.

That's why Ketchmar was right when he said, "I don't know of a better system. For better or worse, a lot of college athletes do get a good experience."

And Plonsky was just realistic -- not callous at all -- when she pointed out, "If athletes don't like how college athletics are run, they do have a choice."

It's just not the choice that gets shouted the loudest.

"Don't like it? Don't come."

Johnette Howard is a columnist for ESPN.com and ESPNNewYork.com, and is the author of "The Rivals: Chris Evert vs. Martina Navratilova, Their Epic Duels and Extraordinary Friendship." She can be reached at jphinbox@yahoo.com.

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