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Is Being A Major College Football Player That Bad Of A Deal?

It will never not be weird that something called an OWL (occasionally in costume) helps you move in to the dorms at Ohio State.
It will never not be weird that something called an OWL (occasionally in costume) helps you move in to the dorms at Ohio State.

DJ's recent article on the raw deal of the student athlete is not a totally uncommon sentiment. Various other sportswriters and fans will take up the cause of the underpaid Tight End, and not without convincing argument. As conferences continue to expand and renegotiate TV deals for approximately TEXAS money, the disparity becomes even more stark. Before we get out our tents and set forth to #OCCUPYTHENCAA, perhaps a careful consideration of what exactly a student athlete receives, and what the possible implications of cash payments might be, is in order.

First, college athletes (and for the purposes of this article, lets primarily focus on football and men's basketball) are not without compensation. In return for their athletic talents, and for complying with NCAA regulations (haha), they're given a scholarship to attend a university for free. If it is a full athletic scholarship, tuition, room, board, training tables, athletic equipment, tutoring sessions and assorted student fees are all covered for free.

This is not a small award. For an out of state student, the cash value of a full athletic scholarship runs about $35,000 per year (the cost of tuition, room and board at the OSU Columbus Campus). For a pricier public school, or for an elite private school (such as Michigan or Stanford), the full value of a scholarship is over $50,000 per year.

I'm aware that those numbers aren't in cold, hard cash, but if we look at the full context, the value of these awards extends far beyond just the cost of a dorm room. According to numbers from the US Department of Labor (released today), the unemployment rate in the US is 8.2%. For Americans who have graduated HS but have not attended any college, it's around 8.1%. For Americans who have a bachelor's degree (with ANY major and from ANY accredited institution), its only 3.9%. Colleges don't publish this information, but I'm willing to bet that the unemployment rate for graduates of large Big Ten universities compares favorably to that 3.9% number.

For US minorities, the numbers look at a lot worse: Black men over 20 have an unemployment rate of 14.2% (not adjusted for educational status). For Latinos, it's 9.6%. Football and basketball programs draw heavily from US minority populations, where the benefits of getting a college degree would appear to be even more stark.

Numerous studies have shown, that even with fears of a possible higher education bubble, having a bachelor's Degree correlates strongly with higher salaries, and a lower likelihood of being unemployed. Getting that degree, for free, is a perk that you can take with you for your entire life.

Second, it's important to look at the kinds of students who are getting athletic scholarships. The data is a little old, but there is little reason to think the general trends have changed dramatically, and the numbers aren't very good. In 1997, UIC did a study that found that incoming football recruits, on average, would be in the bottom quarter of their class, and many would not meet academic requirements for regular students. From the study:

Murray Sperber, a professor of English at Indiana University and author of Shake Down the Thunder: The Creation of Notre Dame Football, says the comparisons demonstrate what colleges coaches and admissions officers have long known: that the pool of students who excel at academics and athletics is too small for Division I institutions to fill their basketball and football rosters with players who meet typical admissions criteria.

"Of the blue-chip football recruits who are out there, only about 300 each year score above 1,050 on their SAT's," he says.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution did a study on athlete test scores in the early 2000s, which included data from Ohio State. From 1999-2001, Ohio State's freshman class had an average SAT score of 1163 (which is roughly a 25 on the ACT). Their football team during that same period had an SAT average of 955 (or a 20 on the ACT). At Florida, athletes as whole scored nearly 350 points worse on the SAT than their non-athlete peers.Only Georgia Tech had an athlete pool average over a 1,000 on their SAT.

Ohio State has become a much more academically competitive institution over the past decade or so (the average ACT score of a typical Buckeye freshman is now around 28), and I'm unaware of any reason to suggest that athlete test scores or GPAs have risen considerably during that same time period. When I taught in Louisiana, the state told us that any graduating senior with an ACT score below 20 would not be considered ready to do college level work at any university. A regular student with a 20 or 21 on his ACT would be a long shot, at *best* to get into OSU's main campus. Without doing remedial coursework or attending a community college, it would appear that an athletic scholarship may be one of the few ways to gain affordable admission to a non-open enrollment campus, if you had a substandard academic record.

It's also worth mentioning that academic benefits aside, going to college provides invaluable training for football and basketball players. If your goal is to seek employment as a professional athlete, you will have access to better training facilities, coaching, and competition should you chose to attend college. Think of it as a giant internship with excellent perks. Students entering a host of other occupations, from teaching to social work to journalism, have to work for free at first as well.

Finally, lets not forget that for those who graduate in four years under a full athletic scholarship do not have student loan debt. Even if they do not quickly find gainful employment, they will be in a far superior financial position to their fellow recent-grad peers. Average student loan debt in the class of 2010 was over 25,000 bucks. Not having that millstone around their necks will allow students greater freedom to pursue graduate education, travel, work a lower-paying job that interests them, or buy a house.

It looks pretty clear that getting a chance to go to college for free, especially since you may not be able to get in otherwise, can be fairly valuable. Others are correct in pointing out little of the staggering amounts of revenue generated from major college sports makes its way to the players. A % payout directly to the students, unless paid out from the NCAA equally, would divide the haves from the have-nots more than any other plan in college football. Programs that do not run profits (i.e the MAC) could never afford to cut checks to their players and basically eliminating football from all but 30 or so institutions isn't something that we should want, as fans.

Plus, if the individual player share from football is in the hundreds of thousands, like DJ and others have suggested, do we really think it's a good idea to cut those checks to undergrads? Be honest. If you were getting a hundred grand when you were 21, would you even try at school anymore?

I worked my way through Ohio State. I'd go to class in the morning, take the COTA bus downtown to do document review for the Ohio Attorney General's office, and then spent my Friday nights covering HS football or basketball for whatever paper would hire me. School often took a backseat to work, and I was barely making enough for ramen and books (I used to steal toilet paper from my church. I hope God will forgive me). In October of my senior year, I got a formal job offer from Teach for America. I got a small cash advance, and was told all I had to do was graduate, and I'd have a job. I gave exactly zero fucks about my gen-ed classes after that. If somebody was paying me fifty grand, there is NO way I would have graduated and ultimately, I would have been poorer for that.

I think those who point out that football and basketball players are being exploited are right about a lot of things. Athletic scholarships should absolutely not be one year contracts that could be ended at any time. I also think it would be totally fair for the NCAA to establish a fund for each football or basketball player, filled with monies from video game and jersey sales, along with a % of TV money. That fund should be released upon graduation, and pay out a significantly less sum if the student fails to complete their academic obligations.

College Sports is clearly an imperfect system, and we can debate the best ways to tweak it to better serve academic priorities all offseason. There may be ways to better distribute revenues from athlete competitions, either to serve the actual student bodies, or to the athletes themselves. Simply cutting checks is probably not the best way to do it though, and may have lots of unintended consequences.

Student Athletes may not have the best deal right now, but they aren't exactly playing for free. As debt loads continue to rise, playing football in front of 100,000 plus adoring fans in return for a free degree may not be the worst thing in the world.