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Beyda: Student-athlete pay is not the way

Last week, Stanford runner and Daily sports editor Cameron Miller wrote that collegiate athletes are being “used by an unjust NCAA system,” adding his voice to the growing clamor that NCAA administrators are stuffing their pockets while student-athletes remain unable to profit in the increasingly lucrative world of college sports.

“Finally, at long last, the unfairness and inherent contradictions of the NCAA’s ‘student-athlete’ system may slowly be starting to change,” he wrote, referencing the National Labor Relations Board’s decision in March that Northwestern football players have the right to unionize.

Cameron’s point that student-athletes are often hung out to dry in the modern-day NCAA holds water; as he aptly mentioned, UConn basketball star Shabazz Napier said recently that he doesn’t have enough food to eat some nights. But even though those disturbing implications of our current system give us reason to rethink the ideals of amateurism to which the NCAA has always clung so tightly, the answer isn’t to treat student-athletes as employees, allow them to make money off their likenesses or pay them salaries.

From what I’ve seen, most proponents of that approach argue that NCAA administrators, especially president Mark Emmert, are raking in huge sums of cash from TV deals, money that should instead be given to the athletes whose abilities make those deals possible.

Let’s get this straight. Emmert makes $1.7 million a year, and if we were to dissolve his position tomorrow and split that money equally amongst the 420,000 NCAA student-athletes for whom he is responsible, it wouldn’t be enough to buy Cameron — or Napier, for that matter — a Five Dollar Footlong for lunch.

My co-editor was right to point out the NCAA’s staggering revenues from rights agreements; the $433 million that entails (according to 2012 statistics) is more than $1,000 per student-athlete. But at the same time, 60 percent of the $10.6 billion in total revenue that the NCAA took in that year — that’s $15,000 per student-athlete — went straight back to the schools.

There, it funded the facilities that allow for athletic training, the sports information departments that make TV broadcasts possible and many of the scholarships that put student-athletes on college campuses in the first place. And even including help from the NCAA and its conferences — totaling $7 million for the median FBS school — the median total revenues of those schools’ athletic programs fell $700,000 short of their median total expenses.

My point is that the image of some giant pot of gold sitting around at NCAA headquarters or in athletic departments, being hidden from the student-athletes that truly generated it, is as misguided as the countervailing belief that everything is currently okay with college athletics.

In the case that there isn’t money just floating around in the system, the argument becomes, “Why not let student-athletes take to the free market, profiting from their skills, likenesses and autographs as they wish?”

The reason “why not” is simple. Under such a system, the same income inequality that plagues our country today would play out on a smaller scale in collegiate athletics, with the athletically rich institutions and sports becoming richer and the athletically poor ones becoming poorer.

If I’m a high school football player from poor roots but with a 2350 SAT score, and I’m being recruited by Stanford and Oklahoma, much of my incentive to receive an elite college education — intended as the pinnacle of the NCAA’s education-first model — goes out the window when I know I’ll be able to feed my family with the money I make signing autographs after choosing the option that increases my short-term exposure. How can you blame me?

The problem is that I’ll miss out on the necessary life and job skills I could’ve gained along the way at an elite academic institution, and when my football career likely flames out after a brief NFL stint (if I’m lucky enough to get that far), I’ll be right back where I started financially.

Meanwhile, a whole host of schools — those with smaller fan bases, fewer sponsorship opportunities or less ability to pay players directly — will be essentially crowded out from competing at a high level. As bidding wars emerge between a select few teams for top recruits, the parity that makes college football interesting in the first place will disappear.

And perhaps more disturbingly, funneling more money into the “money sports” (i.e. football and basketball) will only further marginalize other programs, limiting the opportunities for hundreds of thousands of other athletes to even compete.

Again, the NCAA’s current flavor of amateurism does leave Napier and others in dire financial straits. But there are solutions that don’t overhaul everything that is good about college athletics.

Are some student-athletes, unable to seek employment due to their busy school-sports schedules, struggling to feed themselves? Divert a bit more of those ballooning TV revenues and cut into the salaries of coaches — in 40 states, a football or basketball coach is the highest-paid public employee — and allow a universal, capped cost-of-living stipend that can be provided equally across schools (and, to some degree, sports).

Are others, sidelined with a torn ACL or a broken ankle, having the rug pulled out from under them when a coach decides they are no longer of use? Once a scholarship been granted, require that it lasts four years, contingent on academic achievement and good behavior, not on athletic ability.

At its core, this issue isn’t about student-athletes being “exploited” by being denied a cash salary. FBS athletic programs spent $105,000 per student-athlete in 2012, and as Stanford football head coach David Shaw put it a couple weeks ago, “to insinuate that there’s anything we’re doing to harm these young men, I think is just not correct.” Yes, we know that far too many student-athletes slip through the cracks, but by treating them as employees, we’ll only widen the gaps that already exist in college athletics.

The goal shouldn’t be to make “student-athlete” a profession. It should be to make “student-athlete” a viable lifestyle.

Joseph Beyda asserts that a universal, capped cost-of-living stipend would be sufficient to provide all student-athletes with a lifetime supply of Five Dollar Footlongs. Subway, you have a new spokesman. Contact him at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu (but don’t tell Jared).

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the Football Editor at The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.