A Ph.D., paying college athletes and changing my mind

This is a post about the future. This is a post about what’s next for me and how I got to the point I’m at. This is also a post about paying college athletes. And, it’s also a post about changing your mind.

I always opposed paying college athletes. I wrote columns about it when I worked in Olean and got into Twitter arguments with prominent sportswriters about it. I was one of the people, like my good friend and journalism mentor Mike Vaccaro, who believed that a full scholarship to a very good school was payment enough. I struggled to pay for college, struggled to pay student loans throughout my low-paying journalism career, so why should athletes who got the same education I did and didn’t have to worry about paying for it also get extra? They were already getting paid, with a full scholarship.

Part of my opposition was also what I believed was an issue of fairness. Let’s be honest – when we talk about “paying college athletes,” we don’t mean the women’s tennis team. We don’t even mean women’s basketball. We don’t even mean low and mid-major basketball teams. We’re talking Division I men’s basketball and football. I never thought that was fair. Why should these guys get all the benefits? Don’t athletes for the others sports work just as hard, put in as many hours? Why should they be, in effect, penalized simply for playing a different sport?

As I said, that was something I believed. Past tense. I now think college athletes should get paid. I don’t have a fully formed system in my mind, but I generally think that individual schools should choose what athletes get paid and how much.

What made me change my mind? Not the tidal wave of coverage against Reggie Bush when his story blew up in November. Not the recent Jim Tressel stories.

Nope.

I decided to get my Ph.D.

The plan wasn’t always for me to get a doctorate. When I first started looking at grad school back in 2008, I was toying with the idea of going back part time to a local school, slowly get a masters. But the way the play broke down, I began to realize that a doctorate is what I wanted to get. I want to teach journalism, to be a college professor teaching professional schools, and you need a Ph.D. to do that. As I kept moving through the media studies program at Syracuse, I began to realize how much I loved doing research, solodfying my decision.

Which leads me to the announcement that’s not an announcement, because it’s been out there on Twitter for months. I will be starting my doctoral studies in Mass Communication at Syracuse in the fall, continuing my research into journalists’ routines.

What does this have to do with paying college athletes?

Well … after I started getting accepted into programs, for about a two-month period I was, for lack of a better word, recruited. I visited three schools (the University of North Carolina; Syracuse; Penn State) on their dime, meeting with students and faculty, getting taken out to breakfast, lunch and dinner, staying in nice hotels. It was the equivalent of an official visit. I got offers from five schools – and they all included information on stipends. Of the six schools I applied to, I got into five. Four of them offered me full funding. That means, basically, a salary on top of my tuition being paid for. I’m getting paid to get my Ph.D.

Like an athlete, I received offers from the schools. I spoke with faculty at each school. I got a number of emails from schools, upping their offers, trying to get me to pick them. There were days of confusion, of stress, as I tried to make sure the decision I made was the right one. It was, at a very small level I image, like a high-school athlete being recruited. And, it’s worth noting, I’m a 33-year old man with a wife and a daughter and a mortgage and a decade of work experience and a clear picture of what I want to do in the future. Not an 18-year-old whose future is tied to his ability to throw a pass or get to the rim and who has the admirable cockiness, tunnel vision and indestructible attitude that all great young athletes have.

In the end, I picked Syracuse – because in every aspect, it’s home. The fact that it had the highest financial offer? I can’t say it was irrelevant, because it wasn’t. But of the three schools I considered finalist, they all had very competitive packages. In other words, money was just about equal across the board, so it wasn’t a deciding factor.

My mind on paying college athletes changed when I read a column on ESPN.com. I believe it was Tuesday Morning Quarterback, but I was unable to find the specific reference in an archive search. A reader suggested that college athletes be treated like doctoral students.

And it made so much sense to me, that instantly, my mind changed.

Doctoral students and athletes have more in common than you may think. An athlete’s value to a school is a specialized skill in a specified area. My value to the Newhouse school is my specialized skill in a specific area. We both work long hours honing our craft. Our work is judged publicly (while there probably won’t be 100,000 people attending the poster session I’m presenting at at AEJMC’s national conference in July, in my academic world, that’s public). If we don’t live up to certain rules and standards, we’ll be forced to leave our schools.

Because of my perceived specialized skill in a specific area, I’m being paid to further my education and prepare me for my career – on top of the having my tuition paid for.

Despite his specialized skill in a specific area, Brandon Triche at the same school is not getting paid.

The issue of fairness comes up here a lot. Advocates for paying college athletes argue that it’s not fair that schools, coaches and administrators make millions while the athletes, the ones the fans come to see, don’t get a piece of that pie.*

(* – Two asides here. 1. It’s inescapable to note the fact that this is a largely black work force not being paid while a largely white administration is. 2. Interesting study to be done – are people coming to see the players, or the school? Are college players more anonymous than pros, because people cheer for their school?)

On the other side, opponents argue that athletes are already getting a free college education (at my school, that’s $50,000 a year) and that that is more than fair.

I’m always leery about the fairness argument. Because life isn’t fair. If life was fair, the phrase “pediatric cancer ward” would not exist.

But going through the doctoral recruiting process changed my mind on this. It does seem like players are getting the short end of the stick here. If I can be paid for my specialized skill in a specific area, why can’t an athlete?

Because it would create a caste system? Because the rich programs would get richer and the poor programs would disappear? That’s a fair concern. But then again, it’s not fair that Newhouse has such a well-funded doctoral program and other schools do not. It wasn’t fair to the one program that accepted me but offered me no money that I immediately dismissed them. Life isn’t fair. It’s hard to ignore the fact that 100,000 people aren’t paying to campus to see a sophomore present a biology paper, but they are to see a sophomore running back plunge right through that line.

Again, there’s a difference. I’m a 33-year-old married man with a daughter, a mortgage and decade of professional experience. I’m able to make what I like to think are rational, mature decisions. I’m not an 18-year-old cocky athlete who would look at dollar signs and potentially nothing else.

Like I said, I don’t have a plan in my mind for how to pay college athletes. I don’t know how to break it down by sport, school or gender. (and this doesn’t even get into the Division II, Division III and NAIA aspect of this). I don’t know how any system of payment would work, or how it would stand in court when the inevitable litigation comes.

But conceptually, I don’t see the difference between me getting paid to get my doctorate and a college athlete getting paid to play his or her sport.

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12 thoughts on “A Ph.D., paying college athletes and changing my mind

  1. You have to ask yourself, “WHY do we want to pay players?”

    Is it so that we take boosters out of the picture and eliminate cheating? If so, only a handful of schools (probably less than ten) can really afford to pay all of their football players enough to stomp out cheating. Get ready for Texas vs Ohio State 5 to 6 times a decade.

    Is it in the name of fairness because they bring in so much $ for the University? You’ll have to play star players more than schleps and you’ll need bonuses tied to objectives like BCS bowls and National Titles to be truly fair. The University gets more $ if they make a BCS bowl so it is only FAIR that the players share in this.

    In theory, paying players sounds nice but it is impossible to realistically attain any tangible objective by paying them.

    • Bill, thanks for visiting and for the insightful comment. You ask an incredibly important question – why do we want to pay players? What is the end result of this? What does a college football or college basketball landscape with paid players look like?

      To be honest, I don’t have a lot of answers. As I said in the post, I don’t have a system in mind for paying players. It’s more of a conceptual change, where I support the idea that players should be played. One by-product would be less “cheating” (although there would still be teams that bend the rules). But what that looks like – is there an NCAA-mandated salary cap? Is that fair to players? – I’m not sure.

      I think the answer does lie in that nebulous concept of fairness. There’s so much money being made by schools, by networks, by apparel companies off of college sports, that it just feels unfair that the players get an education but nothing else. It doesn’t seem like a fair trade. As far as playing star players more – I can use my Ph.D. recruiting experience to answer that. At some schools, everyone in a Ph.D. cohort (class) gets the same amount of money. That’s the way it works at Newhouse. At others, the “better” students can get more funding. Is that fair? Depends on who you ask and how you define fair. And again, life isn’t fair.

      I’ll say this: I like the “everyone gets the same amount” model. In my case, it cuts down on competition among classmates. There’s not that constant hustle for money or bad feelings because the person two desks down is getting a fellowship and you’re TA’ing freshman comp. Could that model translate to sports? I think it could. But I also acknowledge that it could be problematic.

      • One problem I see here is that the volume of money that inevitably will be talked about is antithetical to college sports. If players should get a piece of the pie, why shouldn’t they get the majority of it? After all, people tuned in to see Vince Young, not Mack Brown, in that championship game years ago. Something about college quarterbacks getting million-dollar contracts bothers me. I don’t care so much about the fairness of the women’s varsity squash team not making the same money; if we really cared that much about fairness then WNBA players would make as much as their NBA counterparts.

        If we treat it like a job, then why restrict the terms so severely? I mean, do we really care whether or not a point guard graduates? The real question we have to struggle with here is whether or not we want to have colleges become de-facto minor leagues of sports. And a better question is – why on Earth would that be the job of colleges? If we come to the point where the starting quarterback of the University of Florida is making a million a year, wouldn’t the actual residents of Florida start wondering why they pay tax dollars to a school that pushes so much of it to athlete salaries?

        I’m not 100% opposed to the stipend model for varsity athletics, but the slippery-slope argument is (oddly) relevant here. If we let players get paid, do we still have an argument for capping their salaries, as they are now working professionals? Are we comfortable with salary competition among schools, knowing the heights to which it would go?

        One of the most often-cited problems with the current system is that the coaches and administrators can make millions while the players are forced to “work” for free. The NCAA could, in theory, solve this problem by capping the salary of coaches at participating schools. Would it really break anyone’s heart to not allow coaches to make above, say, $300K a year? It doesn’t exactly put them in the poorhouse, but at the same time it breaks the cycle of million-dollar contracts, where a coach can sometimes make more money at the college level than in the pros. We’d also break the cycle of wasting taxpayer dollars (for public schools) on things that have nothing to do with education. Remember that the athletics departments of most schools don’t operate in the black. There are notable exceptions like Florida and Texas, but plenty of big name schools (with big money coaches) are not in that club of profitable sports franchises.

  2. [On paying college athletes, and the connection to doctoral students]

    Really interesting piece, and well worth a read. We are a family that has benefited from doctoral programs that also carried a stipend, and my sense is that he is on to something here with the comparison. The school benefits greatly from attracting the top research minds in their field to study (and publish) under their letterhead, and the student benefits greatly by not having mounds of student loan debt or cost-of-living debt pile up while studying…

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  5. It’s quite possible that, as a University employee, you may have violated Brandon Triche’s amateur status by mentioning him in this blog. Extra benefit, right? It’s not like you mentioned any of your classmates. Just feed the problem, Moritz. Feed it with a big spoon.

  6. I respectfully disagree. Universities/Colleges, including but not limited to, technical schools, are institutions of higher or specialized learning – that is their fundamental purpose. Sports is incidental to the primary object – i.e.,to better understand and expand knowledge through learning. At the end of the day, the world requires engineers, architects, great writers, physicists, doctors,lawyers, carpenters,historians, teachers, journalists and many other disciplines, but it certainly does not require a football team. That is why paying you a stipend is important, but not as important as paying “student athletes” to play collegiate sports.

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