Friday, October 10, 2014

Todd Gurley is a paid athlete

The University of Georgia suspended their star player this week: Todd Gurley, who had been considered a Heisman Trophy candidate at one point, was suspended indefinitely, which means he likely will never play college football again.

What did Todd Gurley do? Was he caught robbing a local store? Did he get drunk and drive under the influence of alcohol? Was he accused of sexual assault? No, those kinds of offenses won’t get you an indefinite suspension in college football—at least, not one mandated by the NCAA.

No, Gurley apparently autographed 80 different items, in exchange for $400. Now, apart from the offense that comes from valuing a star player’s autograph at only $5—because let’s face it, this guy will likely go on to play NFL and has all the makings of a star—why is that so bad?

Because, according to the NCAA, college athletes are strictly defined as “amateurs” and cannot profit from their athletic careers. Gurley’s $5 signature violates this definition in a manner that makes the NCAA indignant like little else will.

There is another side of the debate that thinks the NCAA can shove it, that college athletes—especially football players—should be paid a cash salary for all of the income that they generate for their schools, and let’s forget about this façade of “amateur” status. I’m not exactly there, but I am sympathetic to the argument that declaring them “amateurs” is, indeed, a façade.

Why? Because most college football players receive scholarships. So do most basketball players. And baseball, soccer, and other sports have their share of scholarships as well. And scholarships are a form of payment.

The Bleacher Report, another of the growing number of sports news websites, put together a nice summary a couple of years ago entitled, “So What’s a College Football Scholarship Worth Anyway?” In summary terms, here’s what they declared it to be worth (in 2011 dollars):

  • Non-resident college tuition: $29,671
  • Room and board: $9,067
  • Books/school supplies: $1,009
  • Personal/misc. expenses: $1,939
  • Total: $41,686
  • Non-quantifiable benefits: tutoring; special study facilities; medical, disability, and catastrophic injury insurance; possible financial help for the students and/or their families (via the NCAA Student Assistance Fund); equipment, uniforms, athletic equipment; access to trainers, coaches, and facilities for health and athletic conditioning.

And those are not to mention the benefits that being a high-profile athlete inevitably has for the player’s long-term career. Look at how athletes like John Elway, Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, and Peyton Manning have parlayed their images into commercial success. These advantages are not available to just any college student.

By comparison: I got out of college with relatively few student loans (only about $15K), mostly because I went to a pretty affordable state school and my mother was generous with her support. Still, I left college with $15K in student debt, and I was in my 30s and on the THIRD job in my chosen profession (and, at the time, had also completed graduate school, thereby incurring some further debt) before my annual salary exceeded the cash value The Bleacher Report claims a college freshman will receive if he is a full-ride scholarship football player.

I was very active in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in college, and I had a number of friends who were scholarship athletes (including a number of football players). I’ve seen the differences in the dorms, the cafeteria food, the study areas. I knew then, and remember well, how much these students were taken care of by our university. I don’t begrudge them that; they worked hard to earn their scholarships, and I was never an athlete in any sport at a level required to earn one myself. But don’t think for a second that their college experience was pretty much the same as mine.

Let me repeat: These are not advantages available to just any college student.

The only reason why they are available to the students who receive them is this: those students have signed a contract, agreeing to play football for the college in exchange for all of these benefits. (Often these contract signings are accompanied by press conferences. Covering 18-year-old kids. Whose claim to the media attention is that they play a game well.) Does that not strike you as surprisingly corporate, for something that is supposedly an “amateur” activity?

There is no conclusion that we can reach other than this: college football players who are scholarshipped are paid athletes. They are already professionals. They should be treated like professionals. They do not need to be paid additional salaries; they are being well-paid already, and if they perform well in these “entry-level” positions they will have opportunities for huge advancement. Plus they are being given the privilege of a college education, on top of all of the rest—which, for as much as we take it for granted in the U.S., is nothing to be glib about.

Todd Gurley should not have been suspended. He should have been counseled that his signature is probably worth more than $5.

Come on, NCAA: if you really want to crack down on something important, how about addressing the rape culture that is way too common in college athletics? How about focusing on other truly dangerous activities, like assault, drunkenness, and drug use? 

Or is it time to finally stop taking the NCAA seriously as an organization that is “dedicated to safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes”?

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