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Amy Donaldson: NCAA and college administrations should explore compensating college athletes

Published: Sunday, March 30 2014 10:55 p.m. MDT

FILE - In this Nov. 5, 2011 file photo, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter (2) celebrates a touchdown with teammates, including Ben Burkett, left, during an NCAA college football game against Nebraska in Lincoln, Neb. Colter has become the face of a movement to give college athletes the right to form unions and bargain. After a decision this week by a regional director of the National Labor Relations board, he also could leave a legacy as the athlete who formed the foundation of a dramatic overhaul of college sports that could potentially give athletes a chance to fight for a piece of an industry that generates billions based on their performance. (AP Photo/Dave Weaver, File)

Dave Weaver, AP

College athletics are big business.

Even a high school dropout knows that.

In 2012, ad revenue from television alone netted $1 billion, while that same year, the NCAA men’s basketball tournament earned $991 million, according to Kantar Media. The revenue generated by March Madness alone exceeded the playoff revenue earned by the NBA, MLB and NHL in 2012. In the bigger conferences, football programs generate hundreds of millions of dollars for universities.

Just about everybody associated with those two collegiate sports seems to be getting rich. Everybody, that is, except the student-athletes.

That’s because they can’t.

To preserve their amateur status, they are not allowed to accept any kind of compensation — not even a free meal from a fan or booster who owns a restaurant. In fact, Ohio State football players were punished because they sold or traded things they’d earned or been given as players. They were essentially punished for selling their own property.

Recent cases like the one at OSU have resulted in a push to compensate college athletes — especially those whose athletic performances make millions for their colleges, the NCAA and even private companies. The athletes have been increasingly vocal and active in asking for compensation, even turning to litigation in some cases.

That effort gained momentum last week when a ruling from a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board found that college athletes at Northwestern University were employees of the university. As such, they’re allowed to form a union and engage in collective bargaining.

The university plans to appeal to the national body of the NLRB, and right now the decision only applies to Northwestern, which is a private school. And it may not have implications for any Utah school other than BYU, which is also a private school, because collective bargaining is governed by state law for public colleges and universities.

Still, the obvious question that persists is whether or not it’s fair, or even ethical, for universities to make millions of dollars off of collegiate athletics while the student-athletes receive only a free education.

No one has a better understanding of what college athletics offer, require and cost than those who compete on behalf of the universities. Two NFL players with local college ties just happened to be in Utah last week participating in events at their alma maters.

Baltimore Ravens wide receiver Steve Smith was speaking at a high school coaches clinic at the University of Utah, while his Ravens teammate, tight end Dennis Pitta, was running a skills camp with some of his former BYU teammates on Saturday.

Neither player said they thought college athletes should be paid a salary to play sports for universities. But Smith said he’d like to see college athletes have the ability to make money in ways similar to how other college students are able to capitalize on their skills.

“When you look at the game now, what it brings and how much money it brings in, and some of the limitations you have as an athlete,” Smith said in an interview with the Deseret News a few hours before his speaking engagement, “I agree to a certain extent that when you’re a college student, whatever college you’re at, you should have the ability to work. You’re not limited on the amount of money you can bring in.”

For example, if a music student on scholarship at a school wants to give private lessons or perform for money, he or she is allowed to do so. But athletes cannot use their skills — or their popularity with fans — to make any extra income.

“I think the (money) part is overblown,” Smith said. ‘You don’t go to college to make $50,000. You go to college to get an education. You go to college to help you figure out what profession do you want to be in.”

Pitta said in an interview with 1320 KFAN that he doesn’t think players should be compensated for playing either.

“I think when you come to college you should be a student first and foremost,” Pitta said. “And you should be treated as such. A college education has a ton of value. It may not be immediate monetary value when they’re going to school, but it sets them up for the rest of their lives. I certainly think that’s payment enough.”

Part of the problem, Pitta said, is that this is not a situation that’s black and white.

“How do you compensate players fairly?” he said. “I just think there are too many gray areas. ... I just think we’re devaluing the power of a good education, a college education.”

Both professional football players see the free education as a valuable trade for athletic services offered by college players.

What about players who don’t make it to the professional ranks of a sport? What about players whose careers end in college because of injury? What about players who are great college athletes but just don’t have the body or skills to make it as professional athletes? If a player brings in millions of dollars and represents a university in a positive light, why shouldn’t they be compensated in some way?

Why should a coach or an athletic director make millions when the players can’t even accept free meals?

Last week’s decision, which follows a federal court ruling in November that said extremely popular football and basketball players should be compensated for the use of their likeness and names, illustrates the complexity of this situation.

It is not going away.

And while most of us regular folk would love a free education as compensation for playing a game, the reality is that it’s no longer enough for college football and basketball players. For football players, there is really no other way to the NFL than through college.

So we often ask athletes who have no intention of earning a degree to spend a couple of years in college before we allow them to be paid for their talents. I’m not sure if salaries are the answer, but I know the present system isn’t fair.

In football, there are huge physical risks to student-athletes, and it seems there should be some way to earn money during that time that doesn’t encourage unethical or illegal behavior. Sometimes the best years of an athlete's career come in college. Sometimes an injury ends what could be a promising pro career.

School administrators, NCAA officials and some form of athlete representation should at least discuss the problem before a court mandates an answer that may not be the best solution for anyone.

The answers to these issues will come only when the NCAA acknowledges that players deserve a piece of the pie because, frankly, it’s a pie that doesn’t exist without the players.

Twitter: adonsports EMAIL: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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