Pay for college athletes is hot item, but the money isn't there

March 31, 1991|By Ed Sherman | Ed Sherman,Chicago Tribune

Even if universities wanted to pay their student-athletes, they couldn't. Or at least that's their claim.

Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany says the new seven-year, $1 billion television contract for the NCAA basketball tournament is a case in point. It's not the financial windfall it seems.

"As an experiment, we said, 'OK, everyone is saying the athletes should be paid. Let's give every athlete $100 month,' " said Delany, who is chairman of this year's NCAA tournament. "It would cost the schools $770 million, leaving only $230 million for the 293 Division I schools to share over seven years. That formula [for paying all male and female athletes] would have left the NCAA bankrupt.

"So, where's all the money?"

Indeed, it's a sad commentary that $1 billion can come off sounding like pocket change these days. But that's the harsh reality facing intercollegiate sports, which even with the NCAA's TV deal will see 70 percent of the big-time athletic programs operate in the red this year, and many others carrying huge deficits.

To pay $100 a month to all of the University of Illinois' scholarship athletes (approximately 250), it would cost the school nearly $250,000. Illinois is trying to dig out from a $1.6 million deficit.

When asked if he could pay all his athletes $100 a month, Notre Dame Athletic Director Dick Rosenthal said, "It would put us in quite a bind." And his program is making money.

Yet the pleas of poverty haven't stopped the critics who continue to demand that intercollegiate sports do what they feel is the right thing: pay the athletes who are putting millions of people in the stands and bring in millions of dollars from television.

This week's Final Four in Indianapolis will only serve to rekindle the seemingly endless debate. The players will generate considerable revenue for their universities and the NCAA. For their efforts, they will be rewarded with a handshake and championship ring.

Nary a paycheck will be seen for the players. Only the coaches with their shoe contracts will get checks for the shoes worn by those players.

Currently, a student-athlete on scholarship receives only tuition, books and room and board. NCAA rules even prohibit a student-athlete from holding a job during the school year, because in the past, athletic programs found some players employment that paid better salaries than their professors earned. "It was abused," said NCAA Executive Director Dick Schultz.

To many administrators in the college community, the value of a scholarship, namely a free education, is payment enough.

"The student is getting a tremendous deal," said Atlantic Coast Conference Commissioner Gene Corrigan. "How do you put a price on a free education, and all the support services we provide?"

"If a student stays at our school four years, he'll receive an education worth $80,000 (in tuition and room and board)," said Notre Dame's Rosenthal. "That's not chopped liver."

Rosenthal also thinks paying the athletes means they would lose their amateur status. He doesn't want to see his players become pros.

However, with so much money at stake in intercollegiate sports, there are many who believe paying the athletes would eliminate some of the hypocrisy that exists. How can athletes remain amateurs in an enterprise that has become so overwhelmingly commercial?

More and more, the players want their slice of the money pie. The bios in last year's Notre Dame football press guide were particularly telling. Fullback Rodney Culver was among several players who said college sports would be better if "the athletes were paid. Then all the cheating might stop."

At the very least it might provide athletes with money for pizza and a movie. Back when Illinois coach Lou Henson was playing college ball in the early '50s, athletes legally received $15 a month in "laundry money" from the schools.

Now the only players who receive money are those who come from a financially disadvantaged background. Depending on need, they are eligible for up to $1,700 a year from the Pell Grant.

Yet the Pell money has been criticized for not being sufficient for the neediest student-athletes. And the funds aren't available for the bulk of the student-athletes, leaving them in a bind.

"I'm not calling it a pay-for-play," Henson said. "I'm calling it a stipend. Give them $150 a month. Something to pay for the necessities."

Nebraska coach Tom Osborne agrees. He's seen administrators pass reforms at NCAA conventions aimed at helping the student-athlete in the classroom and on the field. But Osborne still is waiting for them to help the athletes in their pocketbooks.

"It just seems to me a matter of right and wrong," Osborne said. "Generally speaking in our country, there has been a sense that those people who generate the wealth should share in it."

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