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November 07, 2011
The mission of our universities is to educate, but college sports is big business, and no one wants young athletes exploited.
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November 07, 2011

Pay For Play

The mission of our universities is to educate, but college sports is big business, and no one wants young athletes exploited.

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There's a growing movement to pay Division I players. How would that actually work? How painful might it be for nonrevenue sports? In the interest of advancing the conversation SI developed a feasibility model. See what you think ...

The realization that the business model for NCAA Division I athletics is flawed has struck different people at different times for different reasons. It struck Stephen Ross, a law professor at Penn State, after a couple of trips to the airport.

Three years ago Ross was waiting with his mother for a flight from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles. The plane was delayed, and Ross sat for several hours, people watching. "I noticed all these nonrevenue sports teams—men's lacrosse, tennis and other teams from the Big East—that were catching flights," he recalls. "One of them was the Seton Hall tennis team, which was flying back from playing Marquette. It occurred to me how little sense that made. Why was Seton Hall paying to fly tennis players to Milwaukee? Why didn't they just take a bus to a school that's close by?"

Last spring Ross was traveling again, and while waiting for a return flight to State College he was seated next to a member of the Penn State women's rugby team. "She described how wonderful her experience had been playing rugby," he says, "which is a club sport and not a varsity team that the school pays to fly all over the country."

The two trips intrigued Ross about the costs and the benefits of college athletic programs, so he did extensive research on the NCAA business model. His conclusion: It is in dire need of a dramatic overhaul. So many people have reached that verdict since the NCAA was founded in 1906 that Ross could be chided for being late to the party. Yet he became the rare critic to sit down and map out a plan to fix it, writing an academic paper and preparing a lecture for his students. The principles of Ross's analysis helped SPORTS ILLUSTRATED address one of the most hotly debated issues surrounding college sports today: Is there a viable way to compensate all Division I athletes—from the second-doubles player at Seton Hall to the quarterback at Penn State? And if so, how much money could they receive in addition to their scholarships?

The movement among athletes to gain an economic stake is stronger than ever: Last month more than 300 current football and men's basketball players sent a petition to the NCAA demanding a cut of the millions in annual TV revenue from those sports. At the same time, the NCAA and its members assert that mandating such payments is not fiscally possible. The NCAA approved a measure last week to allow conferences to give schools the option to boost scholarships by $2,000 to cover the full cost of attendance. However, several schools said that they either could not afford such stipends or that they would face a backlash from their faculty if they awarded them.

In determining the feasibility of pay-for-play, SI looked at some of the many radical reimaginings of college sports (page 59) while consulting with Ross and other experts. Finding the money and the methods to pay athletes required the expertise of a tax lawyer, two Title IX experts, an antitrust lawyer, an accountant familiar with the creative methods of athletic department financial filings, current and former college athletes, a sports agent and others. It also required rethinking how athletic departments do business.

SI is not advocating paying college players; that's a decision best left to college administrators. It's merely showing that it can be done. Ross never intended to contribute to a model for paying college athletes. Told that some of his ideas were being used to that end, he asked that it be made clear he believes the educational opportunities athletes receive are more than fair compensation. Still, he understood the need for such an exercise.

"I may not agree with paying athletes," he says, "but I recognize that plenty of people do."


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