Open mouth insert football: Paying them to play them, part 2

Ben Morrow
Sports columnist

Last week I asked the question “Should a college athlete be compensated for performance?” I then directed you to the report “The Price of Poverty in Big Time College Sport,” which was co-authored by a professor from the University of Drexel and the president of the National College Players Association.
The report, found at, explains the argument why universities that rake in tens of millions of dollars through athletic programs every year should be allowed to pay the athletes who create the demand in the first place. The report details how the so-called compensation of academic scholarships fails to cover basic monetary needs for the athletes, and in many cases, even fails to meet the NCAA’s own definition of a “full scholarship”. It reminds the reader that the athletes who create the market often don’t have the spending money that even most poor college students enjoy.
But where does this leave schools like Murray State? If doomsday for amateurism ever occurs and athletes are permitted to receive compensation (real money) based on athletic revenue of their universities, how would it affect athletes at schools like ours?
First things first. Let’s see how the NCAA could get to the point of compensating athletes before we look at whether the Racers could enjoy those benefits.
First, we need to understand this might not happen for years despite the national push toward fairness for these student workers. The NCAA is a monolithic institution and doesn’t embrace change quickly. Issues like fair revenue for mostly black, underprivileged young people are embraced in the university marketplace of ideas and ignored when those same university officials are asked to open their wallets.
University presidents and athletic directors, who make up a large number of the NCAA elite, rarely take a definitive public stand for the little man. So don’t hold your breath that the NCAA will soon cave on the romantic but archaic idea of athletes “who will turn pro in something other than sports.”åç
Second, if the NCAA ever does compromise in a theoretical sense, officials will then hide behind the impracticality argument. They will say because the NCAA is so large, and because individual athletic conferences have so much individual freedom, it would be a near impossibility to organize one system of compensation.
That’s a lazy argument.
There have been many good alternatives proposed by groups and individuals alike that could work. The NCAA could allow athletes to be compensated from outside advertising. Think Isaiah Canaan shooting baskets from his knees in Toyota of Murray’s parking lot for spending money. Other ideas include a revenue sharing system like the ones the NFL and NBA use. Others have suggested a method of paying coaches and athletic directors that is capped and based on a tiered structure, with a percentage of funds going into a separate account for students to be used for educational purposes or spending allowances. Perhaps schools that fall under a certain working budget amount can get a discount for annual NCAA fees. (It currently costs Murray State more than $300,000 per year to be an NCAA member.)
The ideas go on and on. The argument that a compensation program couldn’t be figured out is a shortsighted one.
Third, could Murray State athletes ever get in on such a program? The short answer is probably not. Unless the NCAA employs a socialistic type of revenue sharing among its hundreds of schools and drastically changes how NCAA officials, coaches and athletic departments are paid, the dollars will probably always be directed toward the “big time college” teams.
This should not be unexpected. After all, the argument of compensation originates from the premise that these athletes are making a ton of money for their universities. Pay the players who bring in the dough. At Florida and Texas this assertion is true. At Murray State, it simply isn’t.
There is a certain cutoff where universities stop making money through athletics and start funding them at a loss. That cutoff is somewhere near the bottom of FBS (“big time college”) schools. FCS (not “big time college”) schools like Murray State are just happy to be in the conversation. At this level, a scholarship truly is closer to the average athlete’s worth as the report would define it, assuming that scholarship actually covers the student’s cost of living.
Murray State’s financial difficulties are often hard to see. University officials direct a large amount of budgeted funds toward putting a good face on the university for the sake of drawing in more students. Like the federal government, Murray State often pays for projects and programs it cannot afford in hopes of creating revenue that doesn’t yet exist. Like the federal government, it is an economic system that is crumbling and totally unsustainable in the long term.
This is why when teachers finally get a pay raise they suddenly have no money for chalk in the classrooms or, more importantly, research funds for the school. Faculty raises or new groundskeeping projects are not indicative of a growing bank account; officials are simply moving the university’s limited funds around like a shell game. This explains why the University’s approach toward alumni is simply to beg for funds instead of developing a truly efficient alumni base to aid graduates. This is why you as a student are encouraged to go study abroad even while departments are defunding their scholarships for such programs. Explore your world; just don’t ask us for assistance.
What do these financial issues have to do with athletics? As one of the smaller schools not raking in the dough from TV contracts and nationwide merchandise sales, Murray State upholds its athletic department by supplementing it through the annual budget with tuition dollars and state tax dollars and with revenue from the men’s basketball program.
Case in point: when the RSEC (ahem, I mean the CFSB Center) was renamed, who got the sponsorship money? The men’s basketball team? Nope. The athletic department at large. In other words, $3 million went to sports that were not sustaining themselves financially instead of the one team that keeps itself (and other teams) afloat. Title IX and its requirements are a huge reason for this, but keeping women’s sports alive is not the only financial issue. The football team costs the University more than $1 million per year alone according to the University budget.
Since Murray State will never realistically reach an income of the larger schools, our athletes should hope for the day when the NCAA allows local advertising compensation or small spending accounts. Athletes who bring dollars into the University deserve more compensation than the average student. Frankly, it may be a long time before Racer athletes see any more than a “full” scholarship for their work.
Contact Morrow.