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If We’re Still Arguing About College Athletes Being Paid, the Answer Is Still No

Any illusions I had about the sanctity or the blue-sky world of college athletics had gone out the door long before I arrived in Ann Arbor, Mich., in the winter of 1996 to begin covering the University of Michigan basketball and football programs.

By then, I had already witnessed the Boston College point-shaving scandal and seen the photos of UNLV basketball players in a hot tub with Richard “The Fixer” Perry, among other transgressions.

So by the time I began writing about a retired Ford employee named Ed Martin who was allegedly paying members of Michigan’s famed Fab Five, it wasn’t even a surprise anymore. It was a long, drawn our affair with breaking stories nearly every week in the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, Ann Arbor News, and Oakland Press, until it cost basketball coach Steve Fisher his job and it came out in federal court that Martin had paid several players more than half-a-million dollars, including more than $250,000 alone to Chris Webber.

Ironically, it was the same Chris Webber bemoaned to Detroit Free Press columnist Mitch Albom, who was writing a book on the Fab Five, that the university could sell his jersey for $75 but he didn’t have pocket money for gas or pizza. Except, he did have money to buy a pizzeria.

Money.

These things always revolved around money, and it begat the argument of whether or not college athletes should be paid a stipend. To this day we’re still having that argument and, well, call me impractical or call me old-school or call me what you will, but the answer is still no.

Why?

I stick to my guns and hold fast to the basic reasons. It costs a little over $23,000 in tuition for an out-of-state student to attend the University of Alabama. It’s $35,000 at UCLA; $41,000 at Michigan. Any way you slice it, it’s a minimum $100,000 investment on behalf of the university.

That also doesn’t take into account free room and board, a training table that is second to none, and access to some of the finest healthcare in the country.

Now, some will bring up a very valid argument – there are just as many students on campus, if not more, who receive scholarships that don’t gain the university back a dime. Academic scholarships, band scholarships, etc.

I would argue that the gain for the university is there, it’s just not as immediate as the rewards that come from athletic achievements. The gains come delayed – a medical breakthrough, a Nobel prize, gigantic contributions to alumni funds.

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Others will argue that someone receiving an academic scholarship can work to make extra money, where athletes can’t. A student receiving a music scholarship can certainly play music on the side, for money, where an athlete can’t utilize his or her similar talent while on scholarship.

Again, a valid point.

And again, I say to you – sure, universities are likely bringing in double, triple, maybe even ten-fold what it lays out per athletic scholarship in TV rights, jersey sales and more. But when’s the last time you watched a medical student dissect a human brain on national television?

What do I mean? The amount of media exposure for athletes is an unbelievable benefit not shared by anyone else on scholarship. What’s it worth? Well, here’s a great example. I live in the Hudson Valley region of New York, about 75-90 minutes north of New York City. Several years ago, Chelsea Clinton, daughter of former President Bill Clinton and current Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, decided to get married up in our neck of the woods in a very quaint little town called Rhinebeck.

When it was over, I asked some friends at Joyce Julius & Associates, which tracks media mentions and exposure, what it was worth. The town of Rhinebeck got $14 million worth of advertising/marketing from print, radio and television exposure — $14 million it didn’t spend a single penny on.

Look, I don’t want to get all Pollyanna on everybody. There clearly are flaws in the NCAA system and there are some rules that could stand to be changed. But as far as I’m concerned, college athletes are already paid – in goods and services.

Besides, I already see a version of where athletes are paid for their services.

It’s called pro sports.

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