Should College Athletes Get Paid?

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With all that money in big-time college football and basketball — and much more to come under new television contracts — should the players be paid?

Second question: what, if anything, should the University of Memphis do to become more like its old rival, Louisville, which is in the preseason Top 10 in football and is graduating to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) next year? In basketball, Louisville reported an astonishing $42 million in revenue in men's basketball in 2011-2012 — nearly six times as much as Memphis. And this was the year BEFORE winning the NCAA tournament.

Some perspective first from Wren Baker, deputy athletic director at University of Memphis. As is often the case with well-intentioned disclosure mandates, the reporting from different colleges and universities to the U.S. Department of Education is "highly inconsistent." Some (including Memphis) were told to make expenses and revenues balance, but DOE didn't get around to everyone. Baker, who was athletic director at a previous employer in Oklahoma, said including or excluding a major fundraising campaign such as the $7 million Tiger Scholarships in basketball makes a huge difference. Generally speaking, he said, expenses are a more reliable figure than reported revenue. Basketball revenue is probably understated, while football revenue is overstated.

In 2010, the NCAA made a $10.8 billion, 14-year deal with CBS and Turner Sports for broadcast rights to the men's basketball tournament. ESPN is set to pay $5.6 billion over 12 years for college football rights. Defending national champion Alabama reported football revenue of $82 million and expenses of $37 million in 2012. With all that money floating around, commenters such as New York Times columnist Joe Nocera have called for players to be paid, perhaps a stipend of $2,000 a year in addition to their scholarship.

That's a solution in search of a problem. Nobody is forced to play big-time college football or basketball; the schools in the five major conferences have no trouble filling their rosters. While $2000 per player, times 100 players at Division 1 football schools seems affordable at $200,000 a year, I don't see how $2000 makes anyone more or less of a slave to the powers that be in college sports when a scholarship is worth $15,000 to $45,000 a year.

What would fair compensation have been for, say, DeAngelo Williams at Memphis or Denard Robinson at Michigan, who turned ordinary teams into bowl teams? The top players who are pro prospects will still make their stay-or-go decisions based on their draft prospects. Their pay days will come. Exposure makes those contracts more valuable.

The majority of college athletes enjoy the benefits of playing at a high level. My son and I were thrilled that he played a year of baseball in the SEC. When he quit the next year, finances had nothing to do with it but playing time and study time had everything to do with it.

A stipend would not address the hypocrisy issue, which is vastly overrated. Those of us who are fans "get it", but we either pay up and watch anyway or we stay home and cut the ESPN and TBS cable bundle and decide there are more important things. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

The University of Memphis, to borrow a March Madness phrase, is on the bubble. To hear its leaders tell it, the new American Athletic Conference is a potential add-on to the Big Five football conferences and boasts a ready-for-prime-time line-up of basketball powers such as Memphis, Cincinnati, Louisville (for one year) and Connecticut.

In the most optimistic scenario, Memphis becomes more like Louisville, which has a slightly smaller (55,000 seats) but newer (1998) football stadium and teams that consistently come close to filling it. The Cardinals spend $18.7 million, or $6 million more than Memphis on football, and made $23.7 million, or $11 million more. In basketball, the numbers are even more unbalanced, with Louisville at $15 million expenses and $42 million in revenue and Memphis at $7.5 million on both sides of the balance sheet.

Does sharing FedEx Forum with the Grizzlies hurt the Tigers? No, says Baker. The university has a "fair deal" and the Grizzlies impact both the revenue and expense side.

Louisville, on the other hand, is the primary tenant of the 22,500-seat KFC Yum! Center that opened in 2010.

The basketball programs have taken different paths to national prominence, Memphis recruiting super stars for a year or two and Louisville keeping some four-year starters. Paying Derrick Rose or Tyreke Evans a college stipend would have been ludicrous and would not have made them one bit more likely to stay in school and get degrees in accounting. And I bet Louisville's Luke Hancock, who is not a hot pro prospect despite scoring 22 points in the 2013 championship victory, wouldn't trade that for anything.

The fan experience is not a rational thing, and the older the fan the crazier it seems. Pros, amateurs, shamateurs, they're performers, and willing ones at that, getting something of value out of it or they wouldn't do it.

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