When I found out that Governor Mike Johanns was pushing to compensate athletes at Nebraska, my inclination was to ask, what's in it for him. After all, this is a politician we are talking about and seldom do any of them lift a finger unless someone is making sure it's worth their while. But, for the sake of naively assuming that Governor Johanns actually cares about these players and their future, we'll just take it from there.
Why pay players? The answer to that one is easy. I don't have the figures in front of me, but I am willing to be that the University has made plenty of money off jerseys with the numbers, 15, 7, 30, 98 and 55 just to name a few. With the success of any Husker football player, there are a ton of authentic jerseys going for around $200.00 a pop flying off the rack in allegiance.
The names Wistrom, Frazier, Crouch, Rozier, Gill, Fryar and so on have not just helped the record for Nebraska, but the pocket book as well. In fact, Nebraska apparel has to be one of if not the hottest selling clothing item in the entire state. And, it's almost completely due to those players.
So, while the University banks plenty off of their success, the NCAA athlete benefits exactly nothing. Yes, the facilities are great, the amenities of being successful are nice, but while some of these players are living off of their scholarships, the University finds itself fat off of that very athlete's efforts.
That's always been the issue. Why does a player that contributes to the success of this team find themselves penniless for their efforts? They helped sell 1,000 jerseys with their name and number on it, helped to put people in the stands by their fantastic play and maybe, because of them, Nebraska might have gotten a couple more wins instead of losses. It's not fair and in an idealistic world, this would have been a non-issue a long time ago.
The problem is, paying players is a nice concept, but it goes much farther than that. In fact, simply to suggest it, well, that open's a pandora's box that can't be shut with a simple rebuttal or excuse. If it was this simple, it would have been done long ago, but the biggest problem isn't paying them, it's how.
If you pay one, you have to pay them all. If you pay them all, you have to pay them all equally. If you pay football players, the women's rifle team is going to deserve some compensation out of that as well. Is Nebraska willing to do that? Can they afford to do that?
One might argue that only the football players need paid, because it's the football program paying all the bills. In a world hamstrung by Title IX that doesn't exclude the football program like it should, it's the football program that has to pick up the tab of all those other sports that can't support themselves, but still must exist to keep the power-happy NCAA elite grinning with satisfaction.
That logic might apply at Nebraska, where the football program does indeed make almost all of the other programs possible, but Nebraska's situation much like it's success over the last forty years is unique. At North Carolina, they would say it's the basketball players that should be paid, while at Syracuse, let's compensate the LaCrosse team for what they have done over the years. At Iowa, wrestling, at LSU - baseball and basically, pick the most successful sport at every major University and that's who you should be paying, even if they don't pay all the bills.
Another question besides the obvious one of why you do it is not where the money goes, but how it's distributed amongst the athletes. The first inclination is to find a flat-based amount, commensurate with their grade, similar to how financial aid is constructed, the higher the grade you are, the more money you are allotted. That would certainly motivate some players to stay in school more.
The second way would be a percentage, spread out the following way:
For starters, each player could receive such and such percentage of a certain amount dubbed the "athlete pool". That way, their success acts much like an incentive in that the more success the team as a whole brings, the more money that usually translates to, hence the more money they get in the end.
For players not officially starting, their percentage is less, but the motivation for success no less significant, in fact the drive to be a starter wouldn't be just about pride anymore, it would be about making more money and sometimes, that works better than pride ever could.
You can regulate what sport receives what percentage based on the financial records of that sport, using a proportionate comparison, instead of a flat comparison, because in that case, football would always win. Plus, you would have to do what the NCAA refuses to do and leave football entirely out of the equation entirely. Football pays the bills, even at schools that simply don't have great football traditions. The capacity potential, ticket prices, all make football the bread winner for schools that find their major success in sports not nearly as economically viable.
Without football being considered, you are going to have a great number of these program that will be as they say, "in the red". That's where you figure football back into the mix. Yes, I know, it's pretty one-sided, money being taken away from the football program, but that's how it is anyway, so why pretend to try something that in the end, simply won't work. Once you have figured out the other programs, derived a ratio that makes up for the programs not making money, you then have a percentage each program is paid that is proportionate to the one keeping everyone else afloat.
There are a variety of other ways to compensate players, one being that you actually allow these athletes to have jobs. You know what would happen though, don't you? The starting QB for such and such team would be working at a car wash for $125.00 an hour just because the owner thinks he does such a marvelous job drying them off and the walk-on kid that earned a scholarship as a senior would be making minimum wage working at the local convenience store. No, you don't allow the jobs, because if you think booster involvement is bad now, it would landslide if this were to happen.
Again, the issue of players being paid isn't really an issue so much as it is an on-going debate that most wonder when it will find it's conclusion. It's going to happen. You know it will. Schools that have been busted for paying players or even paying recruits to become their players, well, each instance is that much more pressure put on the NCAA to either lay down the law (something they don't have the guts to do) or do something that everyone says will make it better and that is, make it legal.
I think back to the debates on making marijuana legal and the biggest argument to that is that if it's legal, it can be regulated. Same argument that is being flung about in this case. If you pay players, all of a sudden, schools or boosters being accused of paying these kids under the table will cease to exist or go down. Yeah, okay. Whatever.
If players were to get paid above-board, that's only going to raise the prices schools or boosters will have to pay for kids underneath the table. It's not going to give the NCAA anymore grip on the problem than it ever has, so that's a ridiculous argument.
That's the last thing that should motivate this to happen when it eventually does. That's a political reason, not a realistic one. Throw money at a problem and expect it to go away, while the problem itself remains and in some cases, gets exponentially worse. The only way to do this is to forget about what you can do to fight the problems with corruption, rather concentrate on the issue that this is supposed to be about, the players.
Long has the collegiate ranks been perceived as the last haven of "pure" competitiveness. Because players aren't being paid, that's said to keep the traditions alive, that purity intact that the idea that people are playing this game, simply because they love it. The thought of paying players sullies that very idealistic belief and "purists" have a powerful lobby.
The bowls, the bands, the student sections and the atmosphere, it's what each sport is supposed to be about, but what everyone forgot or neglected to notice, the reason why it is what it is are those players that go uncompensated if not unappreciated.
Should players be compensated? Yes. They are the lifeblood of the success each school potentially enjoys. Long have they been denied something they paid one heck of a price to help achieve. How you do it, well, I am sure that someone at M.I.T. could outline a much better way than the haphazard examples I just gave, but let me reiterate, that will not eliminate the problem.
If you are paying players to help curb illegal payments to players or recruits, you are dreaming. If you pay players so that players around the country benefit from your so-called foresight, think again. Some schools won't be able to afford to pay what others can either because they are not big enough or not good enough in enough sports. That will result in that old saying of "rich getting richer and poor getting poorer".
You pay the players, because they are paying a lot more when it's all said and done. They go to school, they go to practice, they try to study and in some cases, also try to hold down a part time job, because that's all they are allowed. You pay them, because they deserve it.
How you do it while taking every other athlete into account, every other sport and think about the precedent this will have on the school and the entire country, well, you would hope that Governor Mike Johanns has thought about that as well.
The idea of paying amateur athletes isn't new. The wherewithal to make it happen, that's what has been missing. I find it ironic that in a state with the reputation for being behind in the times has put itself into a position of changing the very times we live in, at least from a collegiate perspective.
This movement may have seen it's strongest momentum start in Nebraska, but it's hardly Nebraska that this is about. It's about the players and someone deciding or at least trying to decide on just how much they are worth. I guess you could equate it to that MasterCard commercial if so inclined.
Authentic football helmet: $279.00
Authentic Jersey: $179.00
Authentic football with autographs of entire team: $250.00
The football players that made all the above mean something: Well, that's the question, isn't it?
Steve Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 402-730-5619