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Student Athletes

I'm sitting here on the couch partaking in the Madness of March by watching the North Carolina Tar Heels take on the Washington Huskies. It's a thoroughly entertaining match-up of two top-notch basketball programs.

I was half paying attention during one of the many 3-minute media time-outs (or was it one of the many team time-outs?) when a commercial came on showing a bunch of college athletes doing their things in slow motion with dramatic music playing. It was an ad for some bank or another with a tag line about human highlight-reels. The commercial was followed by another selling beer, featuring, BTW, the guy who plays the mentally-unstable "Captain America" on Generation Kill, a miniseries well worth watching. But I digress.

The thought that came to mind is that all of the student athletes in the first commercial, combined, were paid less than Captain America in the second commercial. How do I know this? Because NCAA athletes are forbidden from accepting any type of payment beyond their scholarships, or their school can be severely punished. So if those were actual NCAA athletes in the commercial (they may not have been), then they were paid a grand total of $0 for lending their likenesses to an ad for some corporate entity. Captain America, meanwhile, is presumably making a decent living by shilling for light beer.

The idea is that NCAA athletes are amateurs, and as such represent the embodiment of athletics in its purest form. They're just reg'lar ol' students, just like all the other criminology and hotel administration majors. Of course, if you've ever attended a Pac-10 or Big-10 college, or most any university with a major athletics program, you know this all pretty much bunk. At Berkeley I had several Cal football players in my Astro 10 recitation section. Well, more accurately, I had several enrolled in my recitation sections. I never saw them during the Fall semester because they were busy practicing and packing Pac-10 stadiums.

I think the notion that NCAA athletes as students first, athletes second is a charade, and a deeply unfair one at that. I'm not saying it's unfair for all the non-athlete students who have to attend class while the athletes don't. Most people enroll in college to take classes (at least I hope they do!), and most students have no problem attending class. I think it's unfair for the athletes who work hard to bring in tens or even hundreds of millions of dollars to their universities, and their only reward is a scholarship and the burden of a bunch of classes they have no time to learn from (college students: yes, I know I shouldn't use a preposition to end a sentence with. But it just sounds better that way).

My humble proposition: pay the athletes in accordance with their skill level. If they happen to be interested in a college education let them take special classes with separate instructors, special class times and reduced course loads during the season. This may sound radical, but A) most colleges pretty much do the latter by providing special tutors and excusing athletes from class when they play on the road and B) why not do the former when colleges already pay college coaches far more than anyone else at the school?

The salaries of state employees is public information, and the San Francisco Chronicle has a handy app that lets you look up the income of various UC profs, administrators and coaches. For example, a UC professor who also happens a member of the National Academy of Sciences makes a salary of $219,998 per year, while the UCLA men's basketball coach makes $150,000 per year. Not bad, eh? But if you glance over at the second column "Total Pay," the prof makes $219,998 while the coach makes $999,999. As another comparison, in 2008 the Cal football coach Jeff Tedford made $2.8 million annually, while the Berkeley Chancellor made a measly $430 thousand.

This might not seem very fair, but even though the prof likely brings in several hundred-thousand a year in grant money, and the UCLA men's basketball program makes tens of millions each year, many times more than the coach's annual salary. In 2004 the Pac-10 made $12.3 million from the NCAA basketball tournament alone. Granted, a lot of this money goes to paying for other money-losing sports, but a school like UCLA is going to make a hefty profit each year. So, to my thinking, it's only fair that the coach of the men's basketball team get payed many times more than a top professor. Everyone get's paid according to what she/he can bring in for the university, at least to a good approximation.

Everyone, that is, except the athletes. An athletic scholarship can range from $500 to $30K a year, and most of it goes back to the university to pay tuition. An athlete like U. Washington's Isaiah Thomas (no, not that Isiah Thomas, the younger version), who leads his team with 15.7 points and 6.3 assists per game while wowing the crowd with his ball-handling skills takes home about a 100th as much as his coach each year. As electrifying as Thomas is, at 5 foot 9 he's not likely to have a prolific NBA career, if one at all, which means he stands to make < $30k/year playing in Europe or lesser professional basketball leagues rather than signing million-dollar contracts. That, or he'll have to hit the job market with his American ethic studies degree. I'm not sure what that particular job market looks like these days, but I'm doubtful his 2.6 GPA (another team high, by the way) will fling wide doors of opportunity.

Isaiah Thomas (photo. University of Washington)

Thus, I think it's only fair to pay people like Thomas now for all of the revenue they are bringing to their athletic programs, conferences and universities. A few hundred thousand a year, bennies and a retirement account seems about right for a guy who nearly led his 7th ranked team past #2 UNC to the Sweet 16 (man, what a nail-biter!). Either that, or require the coaches to serve "professor coaches" and make them to teach a criminology course or two each year with a salary capped below that of other professors: $100K/year should be adequate for such a "pure" athletic post.


Miss Pudding said…
I had several student athletes in my intro to geology class at Michigan State. Thankfully, my class wasn't during March Madness, but a friend had a top basketball player in her recitation, during a year that MSU one the finals. Thankfully, he bucked the trend and was actually a good student (and a one of the top players on the team...interesting combo).

I think you have some pretty good points. Maybe they try to limit compensation to students to keep the playing field even, so that all of the schools don't have an undue advantage? This reminds me of the argument of amateur status at the Olympics.

Still I guess it doesn't make a lot of sense.

What do you think about the BYU kid that got kicked off the team for having sex with his girlfriend?
blissful_e said…
I would be very interested to know what actually does become of the top college athletes after they graduate. Surely the work ethic of all those practice hours pays off? Many people are professionally quite successful in areas not related to their degrees simply because they work hard.

There is so much heart in college athletics... just like in the Olympics. I wonder if some of that would disappear if the athletes were paid in proportion to the amount they bring in?
JohnJohn said…
Yes, the heart on display during March Madness is part of why I watch. But it's also why I watch the NBA playoffs (and not so much the regular season).

But let's be clear: if it were just about showing kids play the game they love, then the NCAA organizers wouldn't make them stand around for 2-3 minutes every 5 minutes of play while they sell Lexus cars and light beer.
Miss Pudding said…
You know, it never occurred to me that March Madness is like the Superbowl, and those kids aren't seeing a dime.

Perhaps it's like academia, in general. On the whole, colleges and universities are making a lot of money, of which they put a huge chunk back into the system, but your average assistant professor isn't making mad bank like the guys in industry, but you do have your job security. The kids aren't making tons of money, but they're in the machine.

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