Dollars vs. diplomas: The NCAA controversy over students being paid to play
Going to work seems like a tedious and unenjoyable task for most, but every two weeks when a pay–check direct deposits into the bank it seems like the stress of the job was worth it. Now imagine working those 40 hours a week, and having thousands of people pay hundreds of dollars to watch you work, and not getting paid for it? In the minds of some student athletes, that’s exactly what life is like.
Under the National Collegiate Athletic Association [NCAA], athletes must play under the rules of “amateurism,” which means they may not be paid in cash or other goods and services for their work, otherwise they will lose amateur eligibility and can no longer compete in college athletics.
Not being able to play for a school may not seem like the biggest deal in the world, but for many college football players, one of the highest-grossing income sports for the NCAA, not being available for NFL scouts to see is detrimental.
NFL rules state that players must be out of high school for three years before they are eligible to enrol in the NFL draft and combine, so those years of college football showcase their talents to potential teams.
There are two sides to the argument of playing these amateur players in college athletics. Many argue that the schools make money off these players names and performances and they don’t see a cent of it and work for free; but these players are usually on full-ride scholarships at top universities while getting to play the sport they love — only a dream for students who would never be able to afford a post-secondary education.
In many cases, the NCAA brings down the hammer when it comes to amateurism infractions. In 2005, University of Southern California running back Reggie Bush violated the rule of receiving payment as an amateur, and as a result, USC’s 2004 national championship as well as Bush’s Heisman award were vacated and are no longer recognized by the NCAA.
A similar incident happened to the Ohio State Buckeyes in 2010 when football players signed autographs for free tattoos, which resulted in head coach Jim Tressel having to step down from his position, and the team not being bowl eligible for one year, the year that new head coach Urban Meyer took the team to a perfect 12-0 season that would not result in even being allowed to play in the Big Ten Conference championship game.
Theatrics and finances that are the backbone of American college athletics aren’t the focus in Canada; some may say it’s because athletes weren’t talented enough to take their talents elsewhere.
What the case actually has been that ‘student’ comes before ‘athlete’ in student-athlete for a reason.
In Ontario, the situation is a little bit different. Students are not allowed to receive full scholarships for pure athletics, but rather can receive athletic financial awards (AFAs), which are capped at $4,500 in Ontario. Athletes must have an 80 per-cent average coming out of high school to be eligible for an AFA.
In upper years, the average drops to 70 per cent in Ontario and 65 per cent in the rest of Canada, which has different rules for how much financial assistance university athletes are allowed to receive.
“For a lot of schools, not all schools, but a lot of schools, their graduation rates are horrendous. A few years ago, I saw Louisiana State University was in the national championship, and their graduation rate was 33 per cent.
If they were African-American, it was about 15 per cent. At the end of the day, you have to have a degree,” said Peter Baxter, the athletic director for Wilfrid Laurier University since 1998.
“Your degree is going to take you a lot further; you could be injured at any time in sport and it’s gone. At Laurier, our graduation rate is six per cent higher than a non-athlete, so it’s 95 per cent.
When they come in, our recruitment isn’t scholarships, our recruitment to a parent is that we’re going to get you a great athletic experience, but we’re also going to get your son or daughter a degree.”
Athletes who play at an elite level, usually Division I or II sports, attempt to be recruited by big name schools to try and get a chance as a professional athlete.
The problem with this mindset is not only that less than one per cent of college athletes actually do make it professionally, but also that declaring for the draft means leaving school before a degree is finished, which is the argument as to why these athletes should get financial compensation instead.
The National Football League established a rule that players must be out of high school for three years before becoming eligible to play.
The National Basketball Association does not carry the same rule, but most players enter college for one year to get exposure by teams before leaving to go professional.
Canada has it’s fair share of professional sports leagues like the National Basketball League of Canada (NBL), the Canadian Football League (CFL), and even sports for women like the Canadian Women’s Hockey League (CWHL), to name a few. The problem, however, is that these leagues don’t generate nearly as much income as their American counterparts.
“There’s 12 [Laurier alumni] right now who play in the Canadian Football League, the average career for most Canadians going into the CFL is about 2.6 years, if less. A lot of them, if they get drafted, they’ll play, but most could be making about $75,000. You’re not going to be investing that, your career might last, if it’s long, six years, so you won’t make a lot of money in the CFL, and nobodies gone to the NFL from here,” Baxter said.
Many athletes in America who are Olympic hopefuls at young ages that can be as young as 15 struggle with the decision to pursue these dreams or attempt to go to school
“They’re young and they want to pursue that dream, but Kwaku Boateng, who plays for Edmonton, he was an Academic All-Canadian and was in the school of business. He worked for Kik along with a few other football players who do, and he told me if football doesn’t work out, well he has the business side. I think Kwaku might be working in the off–season with Sunlife Financial as a representative in the summertime.”
The cost of an education in America for a Canadian, who would qualify as an international student, can skyrocket to over $200,000 for a four-year undergraduate degree, and many athletes do not get full scholarships. On top of that, the athletes who may not be good enough to play in Division I or II schools and go to Division III athletics are not eligible to receive scholarships for athletics, and practice time is reduced under NCAA sanctions.
“The quality of our universities speak for themselves. If you’re going to play and study at one of the 56 members of USPORTS, you’re going to get an outstanding education, and the benefit is that there’s 56 schools instead of hundreds and hundreds, so there’s a quality assurance there as far as the academics of it,” said David Goldstein, the chief operating officer of USPORTS.
“We’re also not under the same commercial pressures in the sense that our student athletes in all sports are truly student athletes — getting real degrees, they’re getting great educations, they’re having a real university experience and aren’t isolated from the rest of the student body which can be an issue in some of the revenue sports at some of the major schools. Now that’s an outstanding experience in it’s own right, but you get a special experience here in Canada.”
In America, the NCAA generates over $8 billion in profit a year from college football alone, with some schools making over $100 million a year in income.
The highest paid coach in Division I football makes $10 million a year, and though much of the income goes back into the school for scholarships, facility upgrades and other necessities, many employees make six figure salaries when some athletes seem to be struggling to stay afloat, the source of the amateurism argument.
“The NCAA has the amateurism concept which essentially means if you get paid a single dollar by virtue of playing your sport, you can’t play a college sport because you’re no longer an amateur, you’re no longer eligible — we don’t have that. There are rules and regulations for each sport tailored by what the coaches and athletic directors have wanted and preferred over years and decades,” Goldstein said.
“Generally, until you turn 20, we allow you to play pro sports without it impacting your eligibility, and even afterwards, you might play a professional sport and you might have to sit out a year, and you might lose a year of eligibility, but you can still play some university sport. I think it’s important because the idea underlying is that when you’re 15, 16, 17, our philosophical view is that you shouldn’t be forced to make a decision that might hinder your academic career in pursuit of your athletic career.”
Many athletes in America who are Olympic hopefuls at young ages that can be as young as 15 struggle with the decision to pursue these dreams or attempt to go to school, as many fear that when they become Olympians, if they accept any sort of sponsorship deal or make any amount of income from their athletics, they won’t be able to attend college and still play their sport three years down the road.
“You should be able to get both. Our rules allow someone to try to pursue professional sports, and if for whatever reason it isn’t working for them, that avenue where they can play university sports is still available to them, and that’s fundamentally different,” Goldstein said.
“We have some athletes who have been Olympians and they’ve had the opportunity to earn endorsement money, and we as of now don’t have any rules that prohibit that. It’s never been a big enough issue – and that could always change – but you don’t have to choose to benefit from your Olympic success or to play university sports, you get to do both.”
Though many may argue that those in revenue generating sports are only there for the avenue to professionalism, the opportunity to get a degree at an accredited university is still available to them. The fact of the matter is, a lot of them don’t take it seriously. In 2014, is was reported that the University of North Carolina had been committing academic dishonesty and fraud for 18 years in order to keep their student-athletes in good academic standing, especially in their basketball program.
“When I tell an academic our athlete graduation rate compared to a non-athlete, they’re floored, because the stereotype would be the LSU football factory and you do football and your courses are whatever and they have no academic integrity,” Baxter said.
“Our student-athletes have to time manage their academics, that’s why we do the student athlete development side because they’ve got that, and they have to have their social life; we have our three pillars of academic success, athletic success like nutrition, sports psychology and all that, and the third part, which speaks to what Laurier is all about, is community service.”
Regardless of whether one is on the side of paying athletes who make money for their school from their performance, or can agree that the opportunity to learn and play a sport is a gift, many can agree that the value of education is more important that sport may ever be.
“We encourage them to get away from those who are the same-thinking, because when you leave here, you have to get along with the rest of the world, some people won’t be the same type of thinking as you are, and that’s ok,” Baxter said.
“For an athlete, when they get their degree — and they have to get their degree — the transcript might not say “student athlete” on it, but I know all the things they learned in a team environment, in training, all the grit and perseverance they have to go though, the values they learn on their teams, that will carry them a lot further.”