Is the pay-for-play debate about paying athletes or coaches making millions?

NCAA Football: Alabama Pro Day

Matt Hayes from Sporting News set off a firestorm of reactions earlier this month when he interviewed Bob Stoops on the subject of paying college football players. It’s well worth your time to read the piece. In it, he begins with the following statement:

There’s no avoiding it now. One social outrage has been identified and exorcised, and another has been teed up.

Goodbye, BCS. Hello, pay for play.

Very well put. Nearly a year ago, I wrote about the media’s decade long crusade against the BCS coming to an end. In the article, I mentioned that the media might find itself in a confusing situation without the common enemy of the BCS:

Seth MacFarlane once did a cartoon about the coyote finally catching and eating the roadrunner. After finally completing his 20-year mission, the coyote rapidly lost all meaning in his life and even came close to attempting suicide. Today the sports media world faces a similar conundrum after completing its decade long crusade against the BCS.

I was wrong. As Matt Hayes said, the next social outrage is clearly teed up. Paying athletes has replaced the crusade against the BCS. The reaction of so many sports writers to Stoops’ comments to Matt Hayes is clear evidence.

The transition from BCS victory to promoting the monetary compensation of college athletes was quickened by increasing television revenues, conference realignment and coaches getting higher and higher salaries. But, are these valid arguments to be used in the crusade for paying athletes? Unfortunately, when your goal is simply to promote a cause, logic is often thrown out the window, replaced with emotional pleas.

Is the presence of more money a legitimate argument to be used for the paying of players? The argument typically goes that colleges are raking in the money and it’s time to give some to the players that do all the work. Or, the multi-million dollar salaries of the coaches are cited in order to elicit that word that is used far too often these days: “fairness.”

Look no further than the reactions to the Matt Hayes column. Try and find one that doesn’t mention how much money Bob Stoops makes. Is his opinion more valid if he made a mere $400,000 annually compared to $4 million? How silly is that? I would argue that someone who worked his way up from a walk-on athlete and graduate assistant to a top coach in the game probably has an opinion worth considering. Nope, instead, he’s irrelevant because he’s financial successful. Somewhere along the way, earning a lot of money in this country became a bad thing.

snyderInterestingly, Bill Snyder made some recent comments about college football being in a “bad place.” Among his random comments was the statement that he’s “grossly overpaid for what I do.” There’s nothing more annoying than someone saying that they’re overpaid for what he or she does. I take that back. An individual saying “I don’t pay enough taxes” is worse. In both scenarios, each individual is free to open up his checkbook. Of course that never happens, which means the statements are a waste of breath. However, it’s the culture of demonizing success that is promoted by our media that encourages such false humility.

Imagine what would happen if Nick Saban came out and said that he is underpaid. Sports writers would be clamoring over themselves to blast Saban for his arrogant comments. Their criticism would be emotionally based, however, Saban’s comments would be factually correct. Saban could easily articulate that Alabama’s return on investment in Nick Saban is enormous. He brings tremendous value to the University.

Now that is a conversation worth having. That is a debate not cluttered with emotional nonsense. What value does a coach bring to a University? Once the debate shifts to such a topic, we can then relinquish the idea that it’s the job of the media, or Bill Snyder, or the NCAA or some other legislative body to determine that value. And it’s price.

It’s completely acceptable for Louisville to pay Charlie Strong whatever it takes to keep him if they can independently determine that they will generate a return on such investment. Where’s the outrage over under-performing, tenured professors that make hundreds of thousands each year? Coaches are fired all the time. The market works.

If you don’t accept that schools are free to pay whatever they want for a coach and that a coach is free to earn whatever he can, you’re likely to insert highly paid coaches into the argument for paying players. After all, the money a school generates is not their own to distribute accordingly. It’s to be distributed according to rules and regulations put in place by a legislative body that is formed with the media’s consent.

Bottom line: I have a hard time finding non-emotional, legitimate reasons to support the idea that a University should give a college athlete a paycheck or some other form of monetary compensation.

Instead, the problems that should be addressed are the restrictions placed on the student athlete. He or she should be able to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year, and he should be free to earn money outside of the athletic program.

These are legitimate topics that the sports media should focus on. These are issues that the NCAA and the various leaders of college athletics have put in place that hurt the student athletes.

Giving student athletes more options is a good thing.

You might argue that the option to go pro straight out of high school should be there as well, but that would require changes at the professional level, not the collegiate level. It’s the NBA that forces players to attend college for one year, and the NFL that forces players to wait three years after high school. Individuals should have options and the ability to choose their own path. If making money is of paramount concern at 18 years of age, that person should be able to choose not to play college football and instead go make money somewhere.

As always, I typically reference the Olympic model of compensation where the Olympics do not pay athletes, but where these athletes are free to make money elsewhere as opportunities arise. You don’t hear the media blasting the Olympics for not paying athletes even if television revenues are skyrocketing. It’s a non issue. Let Johnny Manziel get paid by EA Sports. Allow Marcus Lattimore to do a Gatorade commercial while he’s rehabbing his knee.

The Olympic solution would help relieve the pressure of the situation. It would increase the opportunity for student athletes. And, it wouldn’t open the door to the myriad of issues that would come about if schools began to issue paychecks to athletes. Maybe, the sports media crusaders would even be satisfied.



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  • If we are going to assume that some college athletes are currently underpaid, then we also have to assume that some college athletes are currently overpaid. Meaning a scholarship is more than they are worth to the university. I’m looking at you, women’s sports. Drop Title IX and there’s the money to pay men’s football and basketball players.

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