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Is paying college athletes worth the cost?

NCAA to explore issue for Division I sports.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011 - 10:43 am

When it comes to the debate on whether to pay college athletes, Purdue basketball coach Matt Painter offers this thought:

“If you want to get paid, or think the system is wrong, go pro. That's what the pros are for.”

Should student-athletes get money for personal expenses (the popular term is “student-athlete welfare”)? Should the star quarterback get more than the reserve offensive lineman or a wrestler or track athlete? Is it fair that most mid-major conferences (such as the Horizon League for Butler, the Summit League for IPFW and the Mid-American Conference for Ball State) lack the money to pay athletes, while power conferences such as the Big Ten and ACC do? Where would the money come from?

NCAA President Mark Emmert doesn't support paying athletes, but he isn't ducking the issue. He's holding a two-day retreat Aug. 9-10 to discuss it and the future of Division I sports with about 50 university presidents and chancellors. Painter would love to be part of that discussion.

“Would I like to see players get more money since you see the staggering numbers college basketball generates?” he says. “Sure. There's nothing wrong with that. But it can't be anything extreme. I don't want to lose the amateurism.”

How staggering are the financial numbers? The NCAA is getting $10.8 billion for its 14-year NCAA Tournament TV deal. Teams make about $256,000 per tourney victory, although that money is totaled up by each conference and divided evenly among members. That means Indiana, which has missed the last three NCAA tourneys, gets as much money as Purdue, which has made the tourney for five straight years and qualified for two Sweet 16s.

In football, the Bowl Championship Series distributes $174.07 million from its five bowl games, with the automatic qualifier conferences — Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC, Pac-10 and Big East — getting $145.2 million. The other bowls also have payouts. Notre Dame, for instance, made $1.7 million for its participation in the Sun Bowl.

That sounds like a lot until you consider the cost of going to bowl games (The Bloomberg News reported last December that at least 13 schools spent more to play in a bowl than they received in payoffs, with the losses totaling more than $3.8 million), and the overall cost of college athletics.

A study by the NCAA and USA Today showed that 206 Division I public athletic departments lose money. Indiana and Purdue are two of the 22 public universities that make money.

Thanks to the Big Ten Network, IU had a surplus of $1.1 million. Purdue made $3.3 million.

Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany brought the student-athlete welfare topic to the national forefront in May at the conference's spring meetings.

That came after Ohio State was rocked by the resignation of football coach Jim Tressel over allegations of lying to school and NCAA officials about football players receiving illegal benefits (cash and tattoos) for trading memorabilia, plus NCAA violation issues involving current Heisman Trophy winner Cam Newton and former Heisman winner Reggie Bush.

“There was a lot of discussion on how we can improve the experience of student-athlete welfare,” Delany said. “There is a lot of pressure on intercollegiate athletics. There have been a lot of incidents. We want to make the system more sustainable and healthier.”

Full athletic scholarships cover tuition, room and board, books and fees. Not covered are entertainment (including meals), clothing, laundry, transportation and incidentals.

All students, not just athletes, can apply for Pell grants, which award up to $5,500 a year. The money doesn't have to be repaid. It's awarded based on financial need and costs to attend school.

Athletes also can apply for NCAA emergency funds, which can be used for travel and other expenses if a family member gets sick and the athlete doesn't have money to get home.

IU athletic director Fred Glass says there is a method for calculating personal expenses based on the community where each school is located.

“The Big Ten is showing a willingness, pursuant to Commissioner Delany's leadership, to paying the full cost of education,” Glass says. “But no matter how you look at it, it's costly.”

• • •

You hear stories about players needing money to eat, to take their girlfriends out to dinner or to do laundry. That is true, but then there's the human-nature factor. Give an athlete, say, $500 a month, and how much would go for food, dates and laundry, and how much for, say, tattoos and frivolous purchases?

“I do think there needs to be a little bit more money for players,” Painter says, “but we've got to talk about the avenue and what's right. Just handing them money so they can get some new Timberlands (shoes) or a couple of extra CDs, I'm not hip on that. But if that money goes to the right places — yeah.”

Former Indiana All-America Calbert Cheaney, now the Hoosiers' director of basketball operations, doesn't support paying players.

“I don't think it's a good idea. I don't agree with it.”

During his college days in the early 1990s, Cheaney didn't have a car. He rode a bike (usually an old one that thieves wouldn't consider stealing) to class and practice. In bad weather, he'd walk, although he'd joke that, because he didn't want to be late, he ran. Sometimes he'd take a bus. Sometimes students with cars, seeing a rain-soaked college basketball superstar on foot, offered rides.

“Sometimes you wish you had some food to eat,” he says. “Sometimes you didn't have that. At the same time, if you start paying players, it's not amateur anymore. You want to keep it amateur.

“You come to college to get an education and play basketball. You've got the scholarship and it pays for everything. If you're good enough, at the end of the day, you go to the NBA or to Europe or somewhere else overseas and play for money.” Cheaney did that and earned $30 million during his 13-year NBA career.

• • •

The idea of paying athletes intrigues IU basketball coach Tom Crean — “I'm for anything that helps the players. That's the most important thing. If there's a way to find an ability to do that within reason, I'm for it” — but he's more in favor of helping the travel costs of players' parents. “I wish there would be a few things we could do to make that better.”

Painter also supports helping parents pay for travel, particularly in the postseason. In recent years Purdue has opened NCAA tourney play at New Orleans, Washington D.C., Portland, Ore., and Spokane, Wash. It also had Sweet 16 trips to Phoenix and Houston.

Because teams don't find out where they play until Selection Sunday, just a few days before the tourney starts, there's no way to save by making early airline reservations. Depending on the location, the quality of the hotel, meals and other expenses, parents could spend $2,000 to $3,000 per NCAA tourney stop, perhaps more.

For Butler this past season, which lost in the national championship game, that meant traveling to Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Houston.

“Tournament travel for parents needs to be addressed,” Painter says. “(In 2010) we found out Sunday night we're playing in Spokane on Thursday at noon. You know what it's like getting airline tickets for that? How are players' parents supposed to pay for that? They want to watch their kids play. Some of our parents don't go. Some do. I don't think that's fair.”

Then there's the question of how much to give players and whether athletes from money-making sports, primarily football and men's basketball, should get more than other athletes.

Emmert has suggested that Title IX legislation would mandate that women athletes would have to be paid the same amount as men. Similar arguments could be made for the other men's and women's sports. Glass says an athlete on a full ride could get the full share of expenses paid for, while another athlete on only a quarter-scholarship might get only a quarter of the “federal dictated personal expenses paid.”

• • •

Where do you find the money to give players? While Indiana is one of seven Big Ten athletic departments making money, Glass isn't excited about losing that surplus to pay athletes.

“The money would have to come from additional money we raise though the Varsity Club. Every year to pay tuition and room and board and the full scholarship cost is a real tough one for us as an institution.

“If the conference decided to prioritize it and carve it out of the Big Ten Network money, that might be a little more palatable, but that's still less money than we might otherwise get. If the NCAA decides to take some of its student welfare money to that, that's a little more painless for places like us. It's part of how the whole thing gets looked at.”

Glass understands the financial advantage the Big Ten has over mid-major conferences. The NCAA has said only a plan that would be doable for all Division I programs would work.

“If a fairly well-off conference like the Big Ten does it, what does that mean for mid-majors?” Glass says. “Are we competing for the same kids? If we are, and in some cases we are, that would give us an advantage. Is that good, bad or indifferent? Those are the kind of things the Big Ten will look at and decide what our position will be.”

One concern is that if the needs of players and parents grow, and the uncertain economy can amplify that, the temptation to look for shortcuts will grow with it.

“The tougher things get,” Crean says, “the more that allows outside people to get involved.”

No one expects giving players money for personal expenses will do away with problems. Those who want to cheat will continue to do so. Still, Glass sees merit in exploring the idea. When he was a student at IU, he had part-time jobs during the school year and summer.

“I made some scratch (money) and I could get by,” he says. “But we demand so much of student-athletes today that it's almost unrealistic to expect them to have jobs.

“That's why student-athlete welfare is attractive to me. That's the plus side. On the questioning side is where does the money come from and what is the competitive effect?”

It likely will be years before those questions are answered.