Student-athletes need a degree, not a paycheck

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. says paying college athletes is asking for trouble

May 06, 2012|Robert L. Ehrlich Jr

Many of you know I was fortunate to play high school football at Gilman and college football at Princeton. What most of you do not know is that I worked as a graduate assistant on the Wake Forest football staff to pay for my room and board during law school. These experiences instilled in me a strong sense of the appropriate role of academics and athletics in our secondary schools and colleges. So it should come as no surprise that I have a strong opinion as to the increasingly aggressive calls to pay college athletes in revenue-producing sports.

The rationale is familiar: Big-time athletic programs (particularly football and basketball) produce in excess of $6 billion in annual income for our Division 1 colleges and universities. These institutions are constantly jumping at new revenue-producing opportunities. Indeed, the sports pages are full of reports about conference switching, new post-season tournaments, new media networks, and the extension of the regular season to unheard of lengths. (Remember when college football was played in the fall and basketball in the winter?) The money grab may have grown perverse, but the dollars keep coming in. And now advocates are asking the NCAA to cut the players in on the revenue pie.

On the common-sense side is a proposal to increase grant-in-aid scholarships to reflect the full annual cost of attending college. This is the one new proposal that makes sense to me. Some recent studies have concluded that the average scholarship package (including educational expenses) is approximately $3,500 below what it should be. So, just increase the package to reflect the actual cost of the educational and related expenses and be done with it.

Numerous other ideas floated to date are rife with problems. One would have college athletes contract out their marketing rights to sponsors, while another would have schools create a trust fund to be held in escrow until such time as a student athlete graduates. South Carolina Coach Steve Spurrier, a former Heisman Trophy winner, advocates a lump sum payment per season.

A brief review of recent pay-for-play proposals (mostly applicable to football and basketball) brings to light a multitude of potential issues: minimum salaries, Title IX, antitrust protection, unionization, workers' compensation, and endorsement revenue are but a sampling of the potential problems attendant to a college athlete wage scale.

Reportedly, some major college athletes are angry at what they perceive as unfair treatment. They feel as though they are being cheated out of their fair share of an ever-growing revenue stream. Leigh Steinberg, a top-drawer agent, shares this sense of disparate treatment: "The dominant attitude among players is that there is no moral or ethical reason not to take money, because the system is ripping them off."

Wow. I understand my athletic experience was not at the Division 1 level, but we're still talking about an expenses-paid college education — that ticket to success in post-industrial America. In this respect, it is appropriate that folks remember the consideration given in exchange for the athletic talent on display: a four-year free ride at many of America's leading universities. That brief sentence must sound pretty good indeed to the millions of American families presently struggling to pay for their non-athlete child to live the college dream.

It is not unusual for many scholarship athletes to drop out of school once their eligibility is complete. The resulting unacceptable graduation rates are more a reflection on the individual institutions than the student-athlete. And herein lies the real problem with revenue-driven college athletics: Too often, the young athlete fails to receive what he has been promised — a real education.

This is not a problem of dollars. It is a problem of moral responsibility too often forfeited in the glitter of big-time athletics. As the commercial says, most "D-1" kids will be going pro in a field other than professional athletics. Many gave their energy, talent and bodies to play in the big time. Their obligation is to attend class, learn and graduate. The university's obligation is to ensure that just such a result occurs, even if it takes five or six years to get it done. Anything less is simply immoral. That so many athletes fail to ever attain a degree means the immoral often wins in today's athletic arena.

Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.'s column appears Sundays. The former Maryland governor and member of Congress is a partner at the law firm King & Spalding and the author of "Turn this Car Around," a book about national politics. His email is

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