A few years ago, The Texas Tribune invited me to participate in a public debate over college athlete compensation. I argued in favor of campus athletes being free to negotiate for the best deals they can land from the schools competing for their skills and services, just like everyone else in America. Meanwhile, former University of Texas women's basketball coach and athletic director Jody Conradt and Texas Tech University chancellor Kent Hance made the case for preserving the status quo.
During our discussion, Conradt and Hance asserted that college athletes shouldn't receive anything beyond the price-fixed value of scholarships because: a) paying students for campus employment would somehow compromise their educations; b) paying a starting quarterback more than a third-string guard would make coaching more difficult; c) schools such as Texas that make over $100 million annually on athletics simply can't afford higher on-field labor costs; d) military recruits have fixed salaries, too, so really, what's the problem here?
Working my way through these tired, easily refutable, sometimes laughable pro-NCAA talking points—at times, I felt like Darth Vader moving through the corridor at the end of Rogue One; is likening Duke University basketball players to United States freakin' Marines really a winning analogy?—I managed to coax an interesting admission out of Hance, a charming and seasoned academic politician. Pay-for-play was a bad idea, he said, because the idea of young athletes with lots of money in their pockets made him personally uncomfortable. He just didn't like it.
Hance isn't alone. At a 2015 meeting of college athletic administrators in New York, North Carolina State athletic director Debbie Yow reportedly said that "you try to teach student-athletes about financial literacy but know you failed when you see them on their new hoverboard."
"Or tattoos and rims," added University of Alabama athletic director Bill Battle.
Battle subsequently claimed he was just trying to be "cute." And maybe that's true. Still, his underlying sentiment—icky, self-serving, paternalistic, and more a little racially-fraught—isn't hard to suss out. College athletes shouldn't be paid because they might spend some of that money in ways that I, a responsible, righteous, and deserving person, might find distasteful.
This is absurd. Not only because no one else in America applies the same moralizing standard to their own compensation and consumption—let me know when Wall Street traders decline their bonuses because they might pay for strippers and blow—but also because it, like so many of the NCAA's doomsday arguments for maintaining amateurism, is purely hypothetical. It's easy to imagine college athletes being irresponsible with money when the only place you can find college athletes with money is in one's imagination.
Or maybe not. Earlier today, The New York Times published a story (that you should really read) detailing how college football players spend the cost-of-living stipends—meant to cover the full cost of attending school, and generally no more than a few thousand dollars per semester—that now come with their athletic scholarships. Among the expenses:
* $400 to repair the broken starter on a 1999 BMW sedan that has 300,000 miles on it;
* Puppy-sitting expenses while being away from home to play in the College Football Playoff;
* Buying Christmas presents and food for homeless people;
* Sending money home to Mom.
No rims. No tattoos. Nothing for a judgmental athletic official to wrinkle their nose at—even though, and this is important enough to say again, how someone spends the money they've earned is no one else's damn business. Turns out that when you give campus athletes more money, they use it the same way everyone else does: to buy things and do stuff, much of it pretty ordinary. Go figure! Perhaps the wealthy people who run college sports should stop pretending to be so very, very concerned about the ill-advised spending athletes might embark up with money they are prevented from actually having, and instead take a look in the mirror:
Is it too late for a Cribs reboot?