Wednesday, October 09, 2013

A student-athlete's choice: can the money wait?

There is a particular Big 10 Conference public service ad, running on the Big Ten Network and elsewhere when a conference school is featured on a football telecast, featuring Michigan All-American offensive tackle Taylor Lewan. In 30 seconds, it tries to explain why Lewan, a bona fide first round NFL draft choice (probably high lottery pick), chose to return to the Ann Arbor campus for his senior year instead of following the advice of the Steve Miller Band (“take the money and run”).
His statement was basically the same as when he announced his non-departure last spring; he really, really, REALLY liked being a student at the University of Michigan and loved playing for Brady Hoke. He felt confident he would perform well in the 2013 season and all those financial rewards would still be waiting for him.
But for the present, he is where he WANTS to be.
In other words, God bless Taylor Lewan; not just for his athletic ability being a potential Wolverine great, but as a student-athlete who enjoys both aspects of that title. He’s at Michigan because he wants to be there and it will only happen once in his lifetime.
Lewan will become a very wealthy young man in his early 20s in about eight months’ time. If his knees hold up, and if he can avoid any major injury (not really within his control), he will be paid handsomely.
There is only ONE Taylor Lewan on the Michigan football team, whose future is SO certain. There are more than 100 other players, most of them on some sort of scholarship plan, whose future is not as set in concrete; they possess different degrees of talent and opportunity, yet work just as hard as Lewan and enjoy the same collegiate experience.
But most of them struggle to make ends meet when it comes to living conditions. Within the entire athletic department, there are almost 1,000 such “scholarship” athletes, employing their talents in various sports to secure an education. The question bouncing around the NCAA at the moment is whether these athletes should be “paid;” especially within the four possible revenue-producing sports (football, basketball, hockey, baseball).
One of these days, the legality of institutions, such as the NCAA and the University of Michigan, using images, names and the sweat equity of these “amateur” athletes to enrich their bank accounts, will be decided by the Supreme Court. Former athletes who have taken the NCAA and companies like EA Sports to civil court have emerge with some victories to prove their premise – if you use our images, you need to pay us!
Hollywood stars and recording artists have their images and talents protected by law from unauthorized use, but college athletes do not, and the market keeps growing from contract to contract making someone a whole steamer trunk load of money.
When Denard Robinson was chosen to grace the EA Sports ’13 College Football game, he had already turned professional through the NFL Draft and signing with an agent. He could accept any remuneration without penalty to himself or the school.
But what if it was Texas A&M star/Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manzell, who is only a sophomore? If his likeness is selling EA Sports’ product, why should he enjoy the fruits of his labor, instead of the NCAA through some “licensing agreement.”
Manzell allegedly collected money for signing memorabilia over the summer and was suspended all of two quarters for whatever he did wrong. While he might be a jerk-wad as a human being, such activities (autograph shows, etc.) are considered a legitimate method for earnings. And at last glance, he was considered to be an adult, free to make his own choices.
There are books written on the archaic nature of the NCAA rules and the entire system (controlled not by athletic personnel but by school presidents, who probably make a LOT less than the university’s football coach). Opening paying an athlete to play at a certain school is clearly the wrong thing to do (just ask Southern Methodist), but too many of the “rules” are just plain stupid and unfair to the student-athlete.
One example (from a thousand): it is illegal for a coach or “booster” to buy a meal from Taco Bell on a Sunday night (a non-training table day) for a player (even if that player’s stomach is grumbling in Dolby stereo). However, no such restriction exists for a speech professor to do the same thing for a member of the school’s debate team.
A regular student can gladly accept any money given to him or her from anyone within their lives, but for an athlete, it is considered an illegal gift from a booster.
So what’s the difference? That thing called a scholarship, which covers tuition, room, board and … probably nothing else. It does NOT cover things like laundry expenses, the cost of going to see a movie on campus, or eating burgers at Wendy’s, or what you would consider to be normal everyday happenings. Unless the athlete’s parents can front that extra spending cash, the player goes without.
One of the saddest and most cruel rules violations is for anyone to pay the price of a plane ticket is an athlete must return home on a moment’s notice if, let’s say, there’s a death in the immediate family. What is that person to do? Yet it is considered an egregious violation of some sacred rule book.
The rules were established to keep student-athletes from being held above the regular university student – to maintain an even footing in terms of the pecking order. But those rules have one the opposite; it punishes the athletes in SO many more ways than any other scholarshiped student.
Those on math scholarships do NOT have to perform before 111,000 fans, with 222,000 eyes watching, and scrutinizing (in print, on TV, on the radio), their every move. They do NOT have to go to class, then go through practice on non-game days and study playbooks in addition to their regular requirements to meet the academic class schedule.
An NCAA scholarship, depending on the school, has very decent monetary value (for these young adults), but it has not kept up with inflation, higher cost of living and other financial pressures. It is there where some kind of solution can be found.
I do not agree with open compensation of collegiate athletes. For one thing, it would be hard to justify why football players get more than the gymnast, who works at his craft with as much dedication and fortitude as the running back or … offensive lineman. An athlete is an athlete … and if a university selects to complete on the highest NCAA level in swimming, volleyball or ANY sport, each person should be treated equally – regardless of gender and the number of fans in the seats watching.
Each scholarship awarded to a student-athlete, regardless of the sport (revenue-producer or non-revenue) should include a monthly stipend, explicitly dedicated to those expenses require to live outside of tuition, room and board. The figure agreed upon should be reasonable and help relieve that pressure that often forces the athlete to break the rules.
A stipend can be deposited by the NCAA in that athlete’s student account either in a lump sum or monthly basis. It should be like the J.G. Wentworth ad states, “It’s your money; use it when YOU want to.”
If that athlete’s likeness or name is used to sell video games, replica uniforms or anything where the money goes to enrich someone else, a negotiated percentage should be placed in a trust account for each athlete affected, to be collected upon leaving that school.
And … it means the NCAA has to take a little bit less for its greedy-ass self, so be it. It’s stepped on enough carcasses to get to where it stands now – powerful and wealthier than hell.
And something unusual would be introduced into the sports equation on the collegiate level – fairness.

No comments: