The topic of financial compensation for collegiate student-athletes has been sweeping the nation in recent years, and on Friday, Ohio State, home to one of the country’s most profitable athletic departments, was at the forefront of that discussion.
Two separate panel discussions — the first featuring sports policy analysts and writers, and the second consisting of seven former Buckeye athletes — were held on campus in an event organized by the university’s Sports and Society Initiative.
The three-hour conversation, titled “Paying College Athletes,” encompassed nearly all sides of the debate, from legal and political angles, to methods and realities of implementation, and to athlete testimonies and alternatives.
Dialogue among the panel members was passionate, insightful and respectful, although it jumped around frequently. Yet, that is inherent with any conversation about financial compensation for student-athletes. The issue is so complex, like splitting the atom, that any discussion on it could seem scattered because there are myriad factors to consider and understand.
Kristin Watt, an attorney and former OSU basketball player in the 1980s, does not support a pay-to-play model, but she, like the few other panelists with a similar position, completely acknowledged the inequities in the current system. Although she said there likely will be inequities no matter what, there are “absolutely” problems that can be fixed.
“Forums like this, I really want to congratulate Ohio State for putting this on,” said Watt, who was on the second panel. “The more we talk about it, the more issues get out and the more people get educated … That’s what helps spur changes.”
A high point during the event was when former OSU running back Maurice Clarett delivered his opening statement. Despite his dominant freshman season for the Buckeyes in 2002, Clarett is infamous for his off-the-field tribulations, which included accepting improper benefits that played a role in his dismissal from the university and spending more than three years in prison on multiple charges.
When Clarett spoke, the some hundred people in the audience were captivated, clinging to his every word. Clarett said he “absolutely” supports a pay-for-play model for collegiate athletes, citing his personal story as evidence. Growing up in the poverty in Youngstown, Ohio, Clarett said he took money under the table to help him pay personal expenses, namely fixing his car’s transmission.
“My spiral of events wouldn’t have happen if I had money,” Clarett said passionately.
Clarett said his situation — coming from poverty and needing support beyond just an academic scholarship — is no anomaly. Clarett also spoke poignantly about the lack of emphasis that some programs place on education. Clarett said he was nowhere near the education level needed at OSU and that he was shuffled through classes just to stay eligible. This is common, Clarett said, with those coming from inner city schools.
At one point, amid the Youngstown native’s emotional soliloquy on academics, Lawrence Funderburke, a panelist and former OSU basketball player, interpreted.
“Preach it,” he said. “Keep preaching.”
As Clarett’s opening statement wrapped up, a few members of the audience stood up, applauding.
Vince Doria, former Senior Vice President and Director of News at ESPN, started the discussion on the first panel. Doria, an OSU graduate, acknowledged his past employer’s role in the growth of big-time college athletics through massive television deals, yet he said he supports a pay-to-play system.
His proposal contains different tiers of payment for players in revenue sports based mostly on playing time. It might not be perfect, Doria said, but at the very least, it “begins to address the unfairness of the current system.”
A key portion of Doria’s rationale for supporting additional compensation beyond academic scholarship is that the notion of providing education is misleading, he said.
“A scholarship is really the opportunity to achieve an education,” he said.
Doria said with the vigorious schedule that athletes have because of games and training, they don’t get the same chance to work outside of the classroom to really take full advantage of the scholarship and obtain a comprehensive education.
Joe Nocera, a sports business columnist at The New York Times and co-author of “Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA,” is outspoken about the reforms he feels are necessary. Nocera left no room for where he stood on the issue, enunciating his clear support for paying student-athletes. In fact, Nocera said he even believes that the term “student-athlete” is incorrect.
“(The NCAA) shouldn’t call them student-athletes, but rather athlete-students or employee students, because that’s what they really are,” he said. “Let’s be honest about what the NCAA is. … it’s a cartel.”
When Nocera first began writing about the injustices he believes college athletes face, he said he got emails from readers asking why he was spending his time writing about it. His explanation, delivered passionately on Friday, pierced the crowd.
“This is not a sports issue. This is a human rights issue and civil rights issue,” said Nocera, who also brought up the NCAA’s transfer policy, which he denounced. “I came at this through the prism of rights, not pay.”
Watt, the former OSU basketball player, was not alone in her opposition to a pay-to-play model. Joining her in dissent was a Marscilla Packer, a fellow former OSU basketball player, Funderburke and Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.
“I think there are meaningful reforms that can address the economic injustices without going for the pay-for-play model,” said Zimbalist, who cited concerns over growing television revenue and the complicated tax-exempt status donations to athletic departments have.
Some of the most common agreed upon reforms that did not involve a direct cash payment included guaranteed scholarships lasting at least four years. Currently, they are for one year, with the option to be renewed.
Lifetime health insurance was another proposal that seemed to be agreed upon by all 11 panelists. Nocera said it’s clear that if an athlete sustains injuries while playing sports in college for a university, it’s the school’s duty to make sure the individual has the proper care he or she needs during his or her lifetime.
Funderburke, who founded a youth organization after retiring from the NBA, said he has a five-point plan to help student-athletes that does not involve a pay-for-play system. It included mentoring arrangements, life-skills courses for athletes, a deferred-savings stipend and a family emergency fund.
“We’re never going to be fair or equitable, but we can at least be sensible,” he said.
If there is one thing the panel illustrated, it’s that there is a lot to consider when looking to address injustices in college athletics. Change isn’t going to happen overnight, but having open forums like the panel can prove to be instrumental, said Kelly Trent, a former OSU golfer who is “on the fence” on specifics but agrees collegiate sports are littered with inequity.
“For this thing to advance, it’s going to take some giving on both sides,” said Doria, the former executive at ESPN. “And the history of the NCAA in that area hasn’t been good.”