DRAPER — By the time he wakes up it's still too dark for Andy Phillips to see the mountains surrounding the quaint neighborhood in which he lives.
It’s 5:30 a.m.
The sky is jet black, and there’s just a brief silhouette outlining the ridges of the Wasatch Front. However, there’s no time to spare, even this early in the morning, as he rushes out the door to his car, tunes to local sports radio and whisks off into the dark abyss. It’s not a short commute, either, but for the University of Utah kicker, it’s time to think in the moment. It’s time alone, and that’s valuable to anyone with a busy schedule.
For Phillips, this was the recurring theme of his spring semester. It may have been the offseason for the football team, but it was hard to notice with his schedule. His day is filled with mandatory and not-so voluntary workouts and meetings, all while balancing 18 credits in school and trying to provide for his wife, Megan, and young son, Max.
It means waking up early and going to bed late, and at times, it seems kicking might be the easiest part of the day. However, there is no letting up to meet the demand of a Division I athlete.
“It’s stressful, but as an athlete you’re kind of shaped to be able to balance and to kind of handle those types of pressures,” Phillips says, on a brisk January afternoon. It has only been a couple of weeks with his hefty schedule, but he’s already groggy from it. “I wouldn’t say I’m your prototypical football player in a sense that a lot of them aren’t double-majoring and have a wife and kid."
Phillips’ story is unique in that sense. He’s one of only a handful of married Division I athletes across the country, even if it seems less rare in Utah.
The long hours, however, aren’t so different.
In a study conducted by an independent research firm for the Pac-12 Conference during the spring semester, it was found athletes spent an average of 50 hours per week on their sport. It concluded the majority of athletes were “too exhausted to study effectively” and a little more than half of the athletes surveyed said they didn’t have enough time to study for tests.
The study focused on 409 athletes from nine of the conference’s institutions, not including Utah and two other conference schools. But for Phillips and other Utah athletes, there is perhaps only a little disparity to what the conference found.
“You’re at dinner and people are falling asleep at the table,” says Jessica Sams, a member of Utah’s cross country and track teams. In fact, the junior said she often becomes drained from her strenuous workouts to a point where she is forced to nap just to keep her brain functioning for her evening homework. She, too, begins her day around 6 a.m., when the team starts training.
She’d like to take up an internship in the medical field, but her schedule as an athlete holds her back.
“There’s no way,” she says, immediately laughing at any possibility. “There’s no way.”
She’s taking courses this summer of her most critical classes because it’s easier to pack a full semester’s load of those credits into one summer than attempt to catch up during the cross country, as well as the indoor and outdoor track seasons, where she travels from meet to meet nearly each weekend. Plus, for long-distance runners, there is only a small window of an offseason with all three seasons overlapping.
“I learned the hard way my freshman year,” says the Pac-12 all-academic honorable mention honoree. “My freshman year, I was like ‘oh, I can take all these hard classes. They can’t be that hard. The season is not that bad.’ I learned after I did very poorly in those classes that I have to give them more attention when I’m traveling all the time.”
Don’t get her wrong, though. She’s not willing to sacrifice running and doing all she can to succeed as a runner, which includes training on her own in the summer either before or after classes. Failing to train in the competitive field of athletics means not participating on race day or, worse, no scholarship.
Outside of the Pac-12, there isn’t much difference in being a Division I athlete. The demands are still there.
Roughly 250 miles south of Utah’s campus, at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, gymnast Brittney Jensen graduated in May with a 3.87 GPA, but even in her final semester she estimated she spent somewhere in the range of 80 hours per week either in class, studying, practicing or even coaching younger gymnasts on a club level. That’s a job she started right after an official practice with the SUU gymnastics team ended in the late afternoon.
“It gets tricky,” Jensen says, of her collegiate experience. “You definitely have to prioritize, like what is more important to you. So, some nights are late. You have late nights at the library. You have some nights where you have to sacrifice the social aspect, like your friends and whatnot.”
The long hours and tough demands on athletes mentally and physically have raised questions and concerns for years.
“What we got now is, like, barely making it,” said BYU running back Williams, describing his experiences leading up to his senior year. “Some student-athletes are struggling at the end of the month just holding on and barely keeping what they need to eat on a certain level. Our nutrition and stuff is (expensive) — you have to buy a lot of stuff to eat. I think a couple more hundred (dollars) wouldn’t hurt nobody.”
Utah’s Division I schools and institutions around the country have decided that — at the very least — there is a crack in the old traditional grant-in-aid athletic scholarship system. And as the landscape vastly changes, those schools don’t want to be left in the dust.
It has nearly been a year since the big shift in college athletics, and with it came sweeping reform to a system that Utah’s athletic directors admit needed adjustments. With a break-off of the Power 5 from the other FBS schools, autonomy was granted last August to the schools that could afford enhancing a system that demanded long hours with little benefits outside of an education.
NCAA eased off restrictions to the amount of food athletes could be provided and, in January, allowed schools to grant cost of attendance (COA) stipends to its athletes among other reforms. The traditional grant-in-aid scholarship only provided the sticker cost of an education, but COA stipends allows athletes to cover additional costs that come with being a student, such as daily travel to school, phone bills and clothes.
Each Division I institution in Utah voted in favor of the Power 5 autonomy, and only 27 institutions across the country voted to maintain the status quo. Utah is slightly different than many states when it comes to collegiate athletics because it houses six Division I schools that fall under five separate situations, ranging from a Power 5 conference holder like the University of Utah to a Division I-AAA (a Division I school that doesn’t sponsor football) institution like Utah Valley University.
Of course, the biggest difference of each category is money. Weber State, an FCS school, voted in favor of the move because officials at the smaller schools felt it would allow those institutions to continue to flow with business as usual without getting tangled into expensive messes bigger schools could afford. That was a key reasoning behind those outside of the Power 5 that voted for autonomy.
“There’s a general feeling within our department every day that (what) we do fits the collegiate model — that we’ve never strayed from that focus,” said Jerry Bovee, athletic director at Weber State, back in February. “It has nothing to do with resources or revenues or how much money you spend on them. It’s about the time and effort that you put into helping them come in as freshmen, matriculate through their academic cycle, and head toward a degree — and play a sport while doing all that.”
Others, like former Utah State University athletic director Scott Barnes, voted in favor because those FBS schools outside the Power 5 were able to retain access to the NCAA basketball tournament and playoff revenues, among other benefits.
As a Power 5, Utah was almost instantly prepared to foot the bill. The university made the decision as its upcoming budget was being prepared back in February to add a $3,500 stipend to each of its athletes.
Surprisingly, FBS schools outside of the Power 5 — often referred to as the “have-nots” — began to follow suit. Boise State, one of those institutions, quickly jumped on board. Colorado State used money it had received from its football head coach’s contract buyout to afford the extra stipends. COAs even reached the FCS level when Liberty University in Virginia announced it planned on giving out the extra stipends.
Within the state, BYU and USU opted for it. BYU plans on dishing out around $4,500 per athlete this upcoming academic year, which is among the top in the nation. Tom Holmoe, the school’s athletic director, declined an interview request for this story, but football head coach Bronco Mendenhall implied during the team’s media day that BYU planned on offering the extra stipend in preparation for the vote in January that made COAs legal.
“We had conversations leading up to it that I think an institution's choice has to be, do you want the highest level of care allowable for the players in your program? And if you do, then you do that,” Mendenhall said. “While the Power 5 conference dollars aren’t there, we certainly can then adopt the highest level of care we can within the rules that we can provide. That’s BYU’s commitment. That’s a really clear sign to what the intent is.”
USU, on the other hand, received roughly $1.5 million from the state legislature to cover the cost of COA stipends. The move garnered national reaction both positively and negatively, but the intent was to help out its athletes in any way possible, according to Barnes.
“That’s specifically what it’s for,” said Barnes, who has since taken over as the athletic director at Pittsburgh. “It’s a student-athlete wellness package that will directly benefit the student-athlete in both full cost of attendance and meals legislation. Those two items are being funded through that. Every dollar will go to the student-athlete.”
The school’s ability to secure the funds to support COA stipends may have also opened the door for the state’s non-FBS institutions.
For example, UVU athletic director Vince Otoupal said the Wolverines are now looking at the possibility at adding COAs for their athletes.
“We’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to do it and get it done,” Otoupal said. “It’s fascinating to watch (USU) as they have done that because it’s a real unique model. So yeah, we’re looking at it and seeing how they did it, and what we’re going to have to do is figure out what works best for us and then go out and get it done that way. I don’t know if we’ll do it exactly the way they did it, but it’s a good model to have out there and see, that’s for sure.”
He adds he has talked with officials from SUU and WSU and each has discussed COA situations that would work best for their respective schools. Even Bovee, who said in February that WSU would likely not venture into the stipends, has since flipped his stance as the Wildcats look at the possibility of adding COAs.
“Certainly the door is wide open,” Bovee said. “As to what the tenure of the legislature and how far they want to go with it is going to be a different discussion. I would be remiss if I didn’t (say) that we’re looking at every avenue to keep ourselves in that conversation that Utah State’s in, in regards to cost of attendance and the legislative support they’ve received for it.
“From a financial standpoint, we’re going to be responsible to our budget and what we think we need to provide to give our student athletes a good experience. If it gets to a point where we feel like we need to get into that game in some sports, strategically, we will.”
That’s the catch to WSU’s plan. If WSU does implement the stipend, it would likely start with the men’s and women’s basketball programs first and eventually, perhaps one day, work its way out to other athletes within the program. It follows closely with a model at North Dakota, a fellow member of the Big Sky Conference, which plans on handing out COA stipends to members of its nationally recognized hockey program as well as an equal amount to women’s athletes to maintain Title IX quota. For every dollar spent on COAs in men’s sports, it must be matched equally in women’s sports.
WSU’s potential plan makes sense for a program that has found its success on the basketball court. The Wildcats posted 73rd on the list of 351 Division I programs in men’s basketball attendance this past season, ahead of more than a dozen Power 5 programs. They’re also one year removed from an NCAA Tournament bid and lay claim to producing one of NBA’s hottest rising stars.
“I would say men’s and women’s basketball would probably be one that is on that discussion line just from the sense of ‘do we need to keep our recruiting advantages?’” Bovee said. “We don’t want to be at a disadvantage with people we recruit against, for sure.”
It hasn’t even been a full year since autonomy was granted, but some of its goals have seeped into other Division I programs and appear to be implemented for the long run.
“Cost of attendance is a real live issue now,” Otoupal says. “A year ago or 18 months ago, it was still just kind of a thought to try to make it better for the student-athlete financially. Now it’s a real live part of our world, it’s a real live part of college athletics. It’s going to continue to be important. It’s going to continue to be kind of an arms race.”
As that arms race continues and each school across the country figures out what it is willing to hand to its athletes, Barnes wants to make one thing clear.
“We’re not paying student-athletes. We revised the grant-in-aid program. There’s an important distinction between that and pay-for-play and all the things going on out there,” he said. “We’ve had a scholarship model, a grant-in-aid scholarship model, in place for decades. It needed to be revised, and it’s been revised.”
A loud roar erupted from the couple thousand fans huddled inside the Centrum Arena as Jensen’s score swirled around near the vault apparatus where she had just completed her routine on a cold February night: It read 9.925. The SUU gymnast just matched her personal-best on the event. Swarmed by her teammates, she cracked an immense smile, brighter than the lights illuminating from the ceiling overhead. It's a moment she will cherish for years to come.
But behind that smile she was enervated, and this was her moment of pure catharsis from a one of the busiest days of her life.
Jensen began Feb. 27 in cold, snow-covered Salt Lake City, interviewing for a spot in a graduate program at the University of Utah. She had flown there the night before after completing one last practice before the upcoming meet. After completing the interview, which ended just before noon, she rode the long trip down to Cedar City with her family — making it just in time to compete for the Thunderbirds, who wound up putting together their second-highest score in program history that night. She added a 9.875 on the floor exercise to complete a long, whirlwind, but rewarding day.
“It just felt good,” she said. “I mean I was busy all week; I was stressed out for my interview because that’s determining my future. It just never ended until I finally got back for the meet. Once I got there, I wasn’t stressed anymore. I was just there to have fun. I was just happy to survive the week.”
Those types of days aren’t anything new to her. Travel during the season, and even home meets, take a toll. As a four-year competitor, Jensen became accustomed to the difficulties that come from balancing athletics with school. In fact, she would be the first to admit she became best friends with SUU’s library — a place where it’s not uncommon to find students like her feverishly working on classwork late into the night. In addition to school, practice and working as a youth gymnastics coach, she served as the president of the school’s student-athlete advisory committee.
However, her view of college athletics is a little different than most. Since her career began, the now-graduated senior from Layton experienced both ends of the college athletic spectrum. She started at SUU as a walk-on, before earning a scholarship after her freshman season. She began coaching as a way to ease the burden of paying for college on her owe by helping out her former summer camp coach. Though she earned a scholarship after her freshman season, she continued to coach because she had a passion for it. She also found ways to maintain a 3.87 GPA, graduating with a degree in exercise science in May, despite the rigorous schedule to balance.
“Once I got that scholarship, it was a big relief,” she said, with a sense of alleviation still dangling in her voice. “I didn’t have to coach in the gym anymore. I didn’t have to do all these extra little things or, over the summer, do as much.”
For her and many other student-athletes, the long days — and nights — can be taxing, but as Jensen puts it, it sure beats the alternative.
Where would Williams be without football? That’s a thought that sends the jovial running back into a brief standstill as he sips on a glass of orange juice at a table during BYU football’s media day on a warm June morning. “I’d probably be,” he says, peering down at his cup as he contemplates the question. “I don’t even want to think about it. That’s just a scary sight to think about.”
The senior, who hails from Fontana, California, has made the most of his opportunity on the gridiron. He enters the 2015 season with a shot at breaking BYU’s all-time rushing record. His accomplishments on the field, however, are in some ways moot to the opportunity football has given him in the classroom. Williams says he’s seen plenty of those in around him back in California struggle to further their education. Athletic scholarships, though, give student-athletes in even the poorest conditions a shot at a college degree.
For many, the alternative is racking up student loan debt, or not getting an opportunity at a four-year education after high school.
“A lot of people where I’m from, all they need is a free education,” Williams says. “This is like our gateway in getting one, by playing sports. This is how mostly everybody who’s in poor circumstances — this is how they make their way to getting into school and getting a free education. It’s by working hard in the sport they love to play.”
Despite the long hours in practice, traveling, stress and maintaining a full semester’s workload, a study completed for the Pac-12 yielded another common thread among student-athletes: They are satisfied with their collegiate experience. According to the report, 93 percent of the 409 student-athletes in the study considered their college experiences either very or somewhat satisfying. That doesn’t just translate to the Pac-12. The results in the examination back up a 2011 NCAA study that determined 94 percent of student-athletes were satisfied with their overall college experiences.
Reflecting on a career that came and went eerily fast, Jensen summarizes her collegiate career as one where she created lifelong bonds with teammates while receiving an education to boot. It makes the long nights and sacrifices over the last four years all the more rewarding. Now, instead of finally taking a summer off and enjoying life as a postgraduate, she enrolled at Touro University in Henderson, Nevada, where she currently is a graduate student in the occupational therapy program. She hopes one day to help individuals with crippling injuries learn to become independent again.
“Athletics has definitely driven a lot of my strive for excellence because, especially as a gymnast, we’re striving for perfection in everything that we do,” she says. “I think that transfers in a lot of aspects in my life — academics being a major one. I think it’s because of gymnastics, but I’ve always had the desire to do the best that I can.”
Even the student-athletes that strive to push the current athletic model are quick to defend most of the experiences. “My experience was great,” says Westlee Tonga, a now-graduated member of the Utah football team. Tonga contends changes should be made and more resources should be given to student-athletes, but also has no regrets in his college football career. “I loved my experience, especially here at Utah," he said. "It was an absolute blessing, so I don’t want to sound bitter about anything because I loved my time here.”
Why is the satisfaction rate so high among college student-athletes so high with demands as daunting as they are?
“I think as a student-athlete, it’s important to prioritize your life and kind of remember what you’re really doing your schooling for,” Jensen said. “I think some athletes forget that, but some don’t. It’s definitely good to be passionate about your sport and whatnot, but they’re investing a lot of time, money and effort into you with your education. It’s benefitted me a lot — just being involved in athletics and gymnastics and the people I’ve met through that have gone a long ways for me.”
Phillips’ mind drifts to money.
It’s hard not to. He’s a husband and a father. His time spent preparing for football and working in the classroom as a double-major makes it practically impossible to find spare time for a job to help with funds around the house. Megan teaches dance but also spends plenty of her time caring for Max, who is nearly 1-year-old.
It means Phillips is essentially making ends meet on the $1,100 per month stipend already allotted from his scholarship. The upcoming cost of attendance (COA) stipend will help, but as he calculates his cost of living, he knows it’s not enough.
“I’m lucky because I’m in the business school and understand finances a little bit better than maybe your average football player,” he says, chuckling. “Budgeting and knowing where you are each month has been really important. My wife and I are on the same level in knowing where we can’t spend and where we can spend. But a lot of things come up like car repairs and property taxes. It’s hard, just really, really hard.
“The (Las Vegas Bowl) was awesome to us,” he adds, referencing the gifts players receive for reaching a bowl game. “We received some gifts, and the gift from the school was some cash, so that helped. But $1,100 — there’s no way that can cover the cost of living, especially for someone in my situation.”
Phillips said he’s also fortunate to have saved up as much as possible before Max was born, but other unexpected costs can and have popped up along the way. He has a budget specifically set aside for diapers, of course. Then, in likely a bout of Murphy’s Law, Megan’s car was totaled in an accident early in the semester. Phillips is thankful Megan and young Max were OK after the crash. As for the cost: “Just drained the savings,” he sheepishly laughs.
Given his state, he’s handled it well.
"Maybe that’s just the competitive side of me, but if I can get through this, if I can handle this, then nothing can really phase me out on the football field or in the classroom," he says.
The former walk-on attests he's grateful for the opportunity he's been given as a scholarship athlete. He's made the most of it too. Last season, his first as a scholarship athlete, Phillips became a first-team Pac-12 member on the field and an academic honorable mention in the classroom.
However, he also reflects into his past. Before football, Phillips, 26, competed as an alpine racer on the U.S. Ski Team until 2011. The world of competitive skiing is much different from college athletics. There he could use his likeness and promote himself as a brand for any extra profit. He cites those around him then as an influence to changes he’d like to see in college athletics one day.
The debate isn’t new, and it has lingered for years, but Phillips is determined to influence some sort of change, if not during his career, sometime down the road. He’s frustrated because while the debate isn’t new, nothing has been done about it. COA stipends are a welcomed beginning, but he hopes reform of college athletics doesn’t fizzle out there.
Phillips also has unlikely allies within the state as the fight for reform continues.
At BYU, there are plenty of student-athletes who share a similar story. For example, BYU quarterback Taysom Hill is married and prefers an opportunity to make extra money on the side but can’t with his busy lifestyle as a student-athlete. He points out even if he could find time for a job, there are NCAA regulations in place to cap the amount he could make even in the summer.
Interesting enough, in the independent study on college athletics conducted for the Pac-12, athletes were "most interested in making it easier to find part-time jobs" among other improvements. That desire trickles down to athletes outside of the conference.
“There is a lot of demands on our time. Where a lot of students can take the spring and summer off and go work and build enough money to make it through that next year, we can’t do that,” Hill says. “We’re stuck working out, and there are not a lot of opportunities.”
Hill isn’t worried as much because his collegiate career will end after the fall semester. He also is pleased with the steps that have occurred since he began, but he sees the need for change.
“I think (the COA stipend) is a step in the right direction," he says.
What comes after COA stipends? That’s where the current debate lies and likely where the Power 5 schism becomes noticeable. So far, the answer is nothing but that could change soon. Schools across the country are waiting patiently while several court cases play out before dealing with the million-dollar question.
The largest one is the Ed O’Bannon case, which began in 2009. In 2014, a federal judge ruled that NCAA broke antitrust laws by not covering COAs and other costs. While the NCAA immediately appealed, a settlement was reached in early July of this year that would pay student-athletes for their likeness being used in NCAA video games from 2003 to 2014, according to the USA Today. More than 16,000 student-athletes had filed claims to receive a portion of the settlement. Those claims could reach upward of $6,000 or more.
Though NCAA video games are no longer published, there is still plenty of name, image and likeness usage around college athletics. A recent national example focused around former Texas A&M star Johnny Manziel. Fans could type his name into an NCAA store search and find his No. 2 jersey for sale. Though the jersey didn’t bear the name of a student-athlete on the back, it’s clear it was promoted the same.
In Utah, BYU offers a No. 4 jersey, Hill’s number, on its bookstore website. In early February, Fanzz, a sports apparel store, tweeted out a photo of a No. 21 Utah basketball jersey, saying, “Newly arrived in SLC area stores today, @JordanLoveridge @Runnin_Utes jerseys!" The school asked for the tweet to be taken down, which it was within a few hours of being posted, according to Brett Eden, who helps oversee the use of Utah's trademarks.
How do players feel about having their jerseys for sale? Hill concedes he’s honored to see fans dish out money to buy No. 4 BYU football jerseys. “It’s cool to be a role model. It’s cool that someone would be willing to pay to wear your jersey around,” he said.
At the same time he adds student-athletes should receive at least a portion of the sales, if their number is being sold.
“I think that would probably be appropriate,” Hill says.
It's worth noting that athletic departments typically aren't in charge of any form of merchandising, such as jersey sales. That's handled by another department on campus. Eden said jersey sales aren't a significant source of revenue and fill in "less than half of one percent" of Utah's total sales.
In terms of using jersey numbers, Utah is now backing off from using current players numbers as it heads into the future. In an email from Utah's trademarks and licensing department to retailers obtained by the Deseret News, the school now asks retailers to use generic numbers relating to significant events in the school's past.
For example, No. 4 and No. 8 are acceptable in football because it honors Utah football's undefeated seasons in 2004 and 2008. The No. 50 will be allowed in reference to year Utah was founded in 1850, as will No. 96, mascot Swoop's number, No. 11, which is Utah's first year in the Pac-12 and the year the current calendar year, which is No. 15 this season. In basketball, retailers may use No. 44, No. 61, No. 68 and No. 98, which honors the school's championship season and three Final Four runs.
The University of Arizona, another Pac-12 institution, already institutes a similar policy. However, starting as early as August, schools could start paying student-athletes as much as an extra $5,000 for use of NILs (name, image and likeness). It all depends on if or when the NCAA gives the green light or if courts force the NCAA to do so.
While the schools outside of the Power 5 scamper looking for ways to provide COAs, those universities in the Power 5 are playing out scenarios in preparation of NILs. If these stipends spread as quickly as COAs did, the top schools have to be ready.
“At this time, we’re exploring that,” says Steve Smith, Utah Athletics' chief financial officer. “We want to make sure our student-athletes are well taken care of, so we’d probably certainly look at doing that. We want to make sure we remain competitive, and certainly a good part of recruiting is to build off of that. At this point, we haven’t made any final decisions because we’re still kind of waiting for the courts to make their final decisions on what’s going on there. But certainly it’s something that we are looking at implementing if the decision is given that it’s something we can offer.”
Polls have shown the majority doesn't believe student-athletes should be paid, and NILs would be the first step in that direction. That was the finding of an NCAA study conducted in 2013, which was used during the O’Bannon case. The following year, The Washington Post concluded about the same. In a study partnered with ABC, The Washington Post discovered 64 percent of those polled opposed additional salaries to college student-athletes beyond a scholarship.
Do college student-athletes deserve more than what they’ve already been provided?
“If it’s $30,000 a year, how many students would take that and run with it?” asks Dr. Chris Hill, athletic director at the University of Utah, about rough cost a full scholarship gives a student-athlete at Utah, in an interview back in February. “If it was 40 hours a week, how many people would feel good about essentially getting $30,000? How many students would say, ‘oh, how much is that an hour?’ But people don’t want to multiply that out because that’s unpopular.”
He pauses, reaching into his pocket to whip out his phone. He calculates 40 hours per week at 50 weeks, equating to 2,000 hours. At the estimate of $30,000, he computes it to roughly $15 per hour under the current model. It’s a rate he expects most students outside of athletics would be happy with.
“If you’re going to have a scholarship to college — that’s a really valuable thing,” he adds. “The question is could you make a lot of money above and beyond that and should we let them do that? I don’t know the answer to that. Part of me says let them try it and see what it really does, but a lot of people feel that ruins the collegiate model.”
Barnes is one of those people. He said he doesn’t find the idea of paying student-athletes feasible under the current collegiate model and the values he believes it stands for.
“We’re unique in the world in that athletics at our level is at an alignment in part of the university and in many ways helps to advance the university’s mission," he says. "When you start to stray away from those core values, alignment principles, you have a very different look and it becomes corporate — in that sort a for-profit model, if you will.
“The dynamic changes completely. Now you’re running a business. And when you’re running a business, you invest in your cash cows and need to cut your dogs. It doesn’t relate to college at all because we’re about providing opportunities for student-athletes. We’re not in that other game. It doesn’t fit in any way and it doesn’t belong in the collegiate model. If it does occur, and you assess market value for say your quarterback, then we’ve lost our way and it’s a completely different animal.”
Not everyone, however, considers it as a negative issue.
"I love it," says Ed Lamb, head coach of SUU's football team and a BYU football alumnus. "I mean, if the money is there, I think it's the right thing to do to help support those athletes at the highest level possible. If the money's not there, in my mind, there's no argument (to do it).
"It may not be an advantage for SUU, but if I take the broader perspective — if the market is there in any given environment, then I think those student-athletes should be taken care of at whatever level that market will allow."
David Berri, a professor of economics at SUU and former president of the North American Association of Sports Economists, is an outspoken critic of the collegiate model. He’s written several pieces for TIME.com regarding the topic.
Universities have the funds to pay athletes, Berri argues.
“They are running a business, and the players are the employees of that business, and in the U.S. economic system, we pay our employees,” he says, bluntly over the phone from his office. “Whether or not you’re making a profit is not the defining characteristic of a business. There are lots of businesses that do not make money but still have to pay their employees. They are making money.”
But how does the state of Utah stack up in the overall national college athletic landscape? Not so well, when compared to some of the goliaths. The University of Utah dominated the public schools, reeling in around $56.4 million in revenue in the 2013-14 fiscal year, according a budget report obtained by the Deseret News.
Though it led all public schools in the state by a wide margin, Utah finished 53rd in revenue on a list of 230 Division I public schools in the nation, according to a database set up by the USA Today. The Utes slipped just ahead of Washington State, which ranked lowest of the public Power 5 schools in revenue. Meanwhile, 20 schools in the database racked up $100 million or more in revenue in the fiscal year, led by Oregon’s $196 million.
A deeper look into the numbers shows Utah is on a meteoric rise, indicating how well the Power 5 schools are thriving while others struggle.
For instance, Utah is listed behind Cincinnati — a non-Power 5 institution — in total revenue, but Utah jumped up roughly $9.62 million in revenue from its previous year, and the program has nearly an 83 percent increase in total revenue since 2010.
Cincinnati, on the other hand, reported around a $2.8 million decline in revenue from its previous year. In addition, Cincinnati received nearly 46 percent of its revenue from subsidies, such as student fees, while Utah received just 17.5 percent from institutional support.
Utah’s rise comes as it receives more from its affiliation with the Pac-12. When Utah joined in 2011, it did so not receiving a full share of league revenue, building its way up until it became a full-fledged member in the 2014-15 fiscal year. As the percentage of the share Utah received increased, Utah’s yearly revenue has skyrocketed. Smith estimates Utah’s revenue will jump to around $65 million or more after the ’14-15 fiscal year’s numbers are tabulated and sent to the NCAA. Those final numbers will not be released until 2016.
If it does reach that high, it’s a far cry from the $30.8 million in revenue accounted for just five years ago, but that comes with costs. As officials at Utah look to potentially double its revenue in just five years, the school’s expenses will likely do the same. Berri said schools often spend money as quickly as they bring it in.
“The thing with universities that you have to remember is that they’re nonprofit organizations and as nonprofit organizations, there is no one to claim differences between revenues and costs," he says. "So what these organizations have decided to do is spend the money."
For Utah, joining the Pac-12 meant higher revenues, but also meant catching up with the other Pac-12 schools in coaches salaries and buildings, and officials countered that as the reason for the steep increase in costs. The university is dishing out $11.3 million in coaching salaries and another $10.3 million in other staff pay to keep up with competitive rates. Once a new basketball practice facility is complete, Smith said the university will pay around $4 million a year on that and its recent football practice facility combined, which too, is to keep up with a Pac-12 Conference that features five public schools that created $85 million or more in revenue during the ’13-14 fiscal year.
“Operational wise, we’re looking at about another $800,000 or so just to maintain operations and maintenance of those two buildings,” Smith said. “Then we have our cafeteria that we feed our athletes and that’s about another $1.2 million or so a year. It’s pretty significant. Those buildings aren’t going to be cheap to maintain. That’s a pretty significant part of our budget.”
Overall, the university claimed a little more than $55 million in expenses during the ’13-14 fiscal year, leaving a $1.4 million revenue, and that went straight into paying back the university for a loan taken out at the beginning of the Pac-12 era. That deficit, according to Smith, once hovered around $7 million, but is now under $5 million. “We’re just slowly paying it back,” Smith said. “We’re certainly anxious to get that paid off. (Chris Hill) is a big advocate of making sure we’re financially solvent. In all of his years until we entered the Pac-12, we had positive fund balance and moving in, we just knew were going to need to invest early as we moved into this transition in this league knowing there was going to be a pretty good payoff in the next couple of years. Our revenues have jumped substantially when we became zero to 50 percent share members, 75, and this will be our first year as full share members.”
Utah still has plenty of catching up to do within the Power 5, but it’s certainly in a suitable spot.
“We try to look forward rather than behind us,” Smith says. “I’m certainly glad to know where we are now.”
Behind Utah is a completely different picture in the state. In addition to seeking legislative help for COAs, USU signed a 22-year deal worth $6.3 million with Maverik, Inc. for the school’s football stadium naming rights. For Barnes, any help was welcomed in the hunt to remain competitive with other schools. USU claimed $25.1 million in revenue during the ’13-14 fiscal year and $25.7 million in expenses.
“It’s certainly not a new concept, and it’s not easy to align your priorities,” Barnes said of the school’s deal with Maverik during an interview in May. “We felt like our values and Maverik’s leadership and values were an alignment. The timing was perfect for both of us, and we are continually relying more and more on private funding. That comes in a many number of ways. It comes in outright gifts, donations to the scholarship fund, multimedia rights and corporate sponsorship all play a vital role in stabilizing the growing our budget. In return, creating a positive experience for our athletes. At the end of the day, that’s our top priority.”
For Utah’s four public Division I institutions not in a Power 5 conference, there are bigger financial burdens. The majority of those school’s revenues come from subsidies. UVU received the most percentage-wise with 85 percent of its revenue coming from institutional aid. These funds come from a mix of student fees, funds allocated to athletics by the university or even Federal Work Study support. The 85 percent isn’t just tops in the state, it’s 12th-highest in the nation. The majority of schools near the top of that list are non-football schools like UVU. However, UVU athletic director Vince Otoupal said the school has no intention to adding the sport and will continue to rely on men’s basketball as its top revenue sport.
Some states, such as Virginia, have passed laws capping the amount of subsidies athletic programs can take.
“It’s just a matter of using that money correctly and having a good plan for it and then executing that plan in the right way,” Otoupal says. “We need to do a good job of scholarship management, those scholarship dollars that come in and then other things, we need to look seriously at in the very, very near future is the COA issue.”
The USA Today database doesn’t provide numbers on private schools such as BYU. However, BYU’s total revenue numbers closely mirror that of Utah’s in the school’s most recent NCAA Equity report, filed after the school’s 2013 reporting year. In that document, BYU claimed roughly $60.1 million in total revenue, with $43.7 million generated from its teams. Officials at BYU, an FBS independent, have made it clear that joining a Power 5 conference remains a goal of the near future, as do most Division I schools looking on the outside of a massive league annual revenue.
“The minimum right now for a Power 5 conference team is $20 million per year,” Mendenhall says. “It doesn’t take long to think about what advantages that could give a player in your program, and financial support leads to stability.”
Mendenhall is quick to add he doesn’t see a similar future as an independent.
“Not with the way the current television contracts are going,” he says. “If you look at the (non-Power 5) and what their television revenue per team is — let’s say that’s $2 million to $4 million per year — compare that to $20 million. Put two years together, that’s $4 (million) versus $40 (million). Which team do you want to be on? ... The financial part of it is the primary motive in terms of providing best opportunities for student-athletes — if you’re a Power 5 member.”
The argument Power 5 student-athletes — at least in revenue sports — make is that they’re behind these large numbers. Phillips, as a major in marketing and information systems, spends plenty of time dealing with his personal finances, but also knows Utah football’s worth very well.
Utah’s football team brought in $11.1 million in ticket sales during the ’13-14 fiscal year, while men’s basketball tallied another $2 million and the gymnastics program raked in nearly $500,000 more. The football team generated $37 million altogether, which surpassed the other state schools in total revenue. He then looks at his personal finances and those around him, and it’s a totally different story.
He insists his passion has nothing to do with greed, but lessening financial strains in collegiate athletics.
“I’m not saying we should make anything like the pros make. I’m not saying we should be making millions of dollars, but scraping by each month while giving everything I can to school, giving everything I can to my family, to my church and then to football puts me in a very difficult situation,” Phillips says. “So when I’m asked to perform my best on Saturdays, and demanded to perform my best in the classroom, and to be the best husband, the best father I can be, not being financially stable is very stressful and very difficult.”
Wallace Gonzalez, the one of team’s tight ends, has experienced the lows that come with professional athletic life. A former 29th round of the MLB Draft, Gonzalez spent three seasons in minor league baseball, busing small town to small town, living in cheap-rate motels and making $250 per week.
“Pro sports isn’t what everybody thinks it is,” Gonzalez says. He’s happy with the education and the scholarship and improved benefits at the college level, but quick to turn down the notion that student-athletes shouldn’t receive more for the same reason it’s debated about.
“I’d say universities make a lot of money, especially off of football teams. When you look at the big schools in the SEC, Pac-12, I think players should be compensated for their time and stuff," he says.
Other student-athletes at Utah, which would equally benefit from anything the revenue teams make through federal law, are ambivalent on the issue.
“I’m not totally for it or against it,” said former Utah gymnast Georgia Dabritz. “I don’t have too much of a strong opinion either way.” That is the view of many athletes.
Phillips knows he holds an unfavorable view on plenty of public scales. Had it not been for cases succeeding in the courts, it would be an uphill battle. Still, he looks at his schedule and a negative perception of student-athletes and strives for change. He insists he’s just looking for something that can improve his situation and the lives of the student-athletes around him.
“These fans — they just see us on Saturday. They see us show up on Saturday, perform, get all this attention and they’re like, ‘what you’re getting isn’t enough?’ What they don’t see is behind the scene,” Phillips says. “You don’t see me waking up at 5:30 a.m. every day and going to bed at 11 p.m. because I have to find some time to do my homework. You don’t see all the hours I put in in the weight room on my own, perfecting my craft as a kicker. People may say ‘well, oh yeah, you’re a kicker. There’s not a whole lot of demand. Well yeah, there’s a lot of pressure in games.’ But there’s a mental side of kicking that you cannot be a good kicker unless you push yourself to your very limits physically in morning runs and in the weight room. “I try to kill myself in the weight room. I try to kill myself when I’m conditioning. I try to beat as many people as I can. I try to lift as heavy as I can and compete. These people don’t see this side of student-athletes. They just see the glory or fame side of it and assume the other six days of the week we’re going to practice, missing school, missing class, sleeping in. There’s this stereotype that just isn’t right.” He believes the current model leads to unintended problems, such as driving student-athletes from sports like football and basketball to opt out of school early without finishing a degree. In the most recent NBA draft, 47 underclassmen declared early for a draft that only has 60 selections. There has also been a spike in players leaving early for the NFL draft.
“A lot of guys, while they’re getting these scholarships, a lot of these guys leave and try to go to the league without a degree in hand — and a lot of them don’t make it,” Phillips says, with concern. Another related problem he’s seen is the rise of student-athletes switching to easier majors to speed up the graduation process to transfer anywhere to get playing time and noticed by pro scouts. For plenty in high-revenue sports, at least, it’s make it or bust, and the education falls victim, he says.
It’s possible that the pay-for-play debate could finally come to an end if NIL stipends are passed, but Chris Hill isn't sure it will resolve a seemingly never-ending debate in college athletics.
“It’s going to be ongoing, I think, because of the high-profile nature of coaches salaries and the money involved," he says.
Like the schools waiting for the court decisions to be finalized, it’s just a matter of time until the debate can finally be put to rest.