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Should NCAA Student-Athletes Be Paid?


Streeter Lecka/Getty Images
It's that time of year again- Final Four weekend. As has become tradition over the years, that means it's time for everyone and their brother to start taking potshots at the NCAA for profiting so much from the hard work of student-athletes, who we're often told don't have enough money to take a date to a movie. Do you really believe that?

It's been more than 20 years since I first set foot on campus as a student-athlete and the money generated by college football and basketball, although significant at the time, has since increased dramatically. While my thoughts on the subject have vacillated somewhat over the years, my opinions may surprise you. I have a hard time believing today's student-athletes are that hard-pressed for cash and probably better off in the long run if they are not compensated monetarily while enrolled in school.

Before I get too deep into this subject, let me clarify who I am referring to- men's football and basketball players. They are the financial horses to which every other scholarship student-athlete hitches their wagon. While I may disagree with Jay Bilas on whether or how much extra compensation they should receive while enrolled, I think we both agree on how much additional compensation student-athletes in all other sports should receive. I might be paraphrasing Jay's tweet on the subject, but it was something to the effect of, "Loose change from the commons room couch should suffice."

At the time I was a freshman on the Marquette campus, my family was living on a fixed income. My dad was a 60-year old accountant, who never made the jump from paper to digital, choosing instead to retire early. He planned well, making sure my brother and I had enough money saved for college, but we always lived modestly and that was his own plan going forward. When I arrived on campus, I found room, board, books & tuition were all covered by my scholarship. 

For the room, Marquette housed us in very comfortable units on campus. At other schools, upperclassmen have the option to live off campus after their freshman year. Many student-athletes do that and in accordance with NCAA rules, the schools pay them for the cost of an apartment. In most cases, the student-athletes find roommates to split the actual cost, pocketing the difference. Depending on the campus location and the cost of living, this can put an extra $1,000 or more into a student-athlete's pocket each month. While I didn't have that extra resource, I didn't find I really needed it or wanted it.

For the food portion, we opted as a team to receive a split between per diem (cash) for food and a partial meal plan. That meant we didn't get three meal plan meals per day, but it also meant we had about $300 in cash each month for food. When we had a team training table, I almost always took home leftovers and I also went through school-supplied protein shakes by the case. When we went on the road, we received per diem, but we always ate as a team, so I didn't need to spend that money on food either.

Not surprisingly, by the end of my freshman year, I realized I hadn't used up all of my meal plan allowance and ended up spending quite a bit of the surplus on frozen sandwiches, which I ate throughout the summer. Periodically while in school, one of the coaches would come to me late in the semester & ask me if I could share some of my meal plan money with a teammate, which I later found out was because they were buying meals for their friends or girlfriends. Initially I helped out, but when it became obvious why the same guy was always running out of money, I made sure I surplused my frozen sandwiches throughout the school year, so my balance wasn't quite so large. Incidentally, whenever I offered that teammate one of my frozen sandwiches that I ate throughout the summer, he laughed and declined, saying he was going to buy a burger or pizza somewhere instead.

When summer rolled around, I stayed enrolled in summer classes, which allowed Marquette to continue covering my basic expenses. I also took on a summer job, which allowed me to earn several thousand dollars over the course of the summer. I did use some of my college savings to buy a new truck and pay for gas, insurance and parking, but the rest of the money that came in from my summer work could be spent however I saw fit. I was never hurting for cash, as long as I planned well and that experience taught me valuable lessons in budgeting, planning and saving- I still bring home extra soap and shampoo from hotels.

In addition to those resources available to many student-athletes, some of my teammates qualified for Pell Grants, which these days are worth about $5,500 per year. When I asked about Pell Grants as a student-athlete, I was told it was based on their family's income level. When I mentioned my dad was retired and living on a fixed retirement income, it was suggested that I still wouldn't qualify. Looking back on it and knowing the current income level requirements, I probably would've qualified, but I knew someone's tax dollars were paying for that grant, so I didn't push the issue.

When the Pell Grant money did come in, I often heard some (not all) teammates who were receiving it talking not about the food they were going to buy, the money they were sending home to their family or the special date they were planning with their girlfriend, but the CDs they were going to buy or the new tennis shoes, even though we were already supplied with all the free sneakers we could ever need. Those guys didn't seem to be hurting much either.

The bottom line is that I didn't need extra money in college. It is true that if my parents hadn't saved money for my college tuition, I probably wouldn't have been able to buy a new truck. Instead, I might've had to try and get by with a $500 beater. With the extra cost of gas and insurance, I might've decided the extra expense of owning a car just wasn't worth it at the time. I think I still would've found a way to survive, as many college students do today.

So do I think football and basketball players should be paid? Well, I think they should be compensated above and beyond what is currently covered and I'll give you an example. After spending two years at Georgia Tech, Kenny Anderson left school early for the NBA, where he subsequently earned and spent more than $60 million. He retired broke and without a degree, like too many former football and basketball players. While he obviously made poor decisions in life, I think Georgia Tech benefited greatly from making the Final Four while Anderson played for the Yellow Jackets. I'm not saying they should've offered him a job for life, but I wonder why when Anderson finally did earn his degree, it was not from Georgia Tech, but from the Institute for Professional Studies at St. Thomas?

Maybe there's more to that story than I'm aware of, although Kenny's tweets on the subject didn't suggest that. Having spent the time I have around many former student-athletes, I know there are a lot out there who never earned their degrees and the schools they attended are doing little, if anything to help them reach that goal. I think at a minimum, these former student-athletes should be provided with the opportunity to earn their degree from the schools they attended or a comparable Division 1 university, if they don't live near their previous school. Not just tuition expenses, but provide these former student-athletes with the same opportunities they had when they wore a jersey for their schools, including room and board, if needed.

The NCAA had a long time to address this issue and many others, but they failed to do so. Now they are facing the possibility of unionized student-athletes and a bevy of lawsuits from former student-athletes, which could take the decision out of their hands.

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