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Big-Time College Athletics, A Tale of Two Cities

by on May 08, 2014 6:15 AM

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times....

Those lines from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities were written about the violent era of the French revolution. That novel highlighted the dramatic differences between European aristocracy and the underclass of late 1700s Paris.

Today those parallels may exist in big-time college Athletics.

On the top end, the money grows exponentially. NCAA and conference television deals are worth BILLIONS of dollars. Within three years each Big Ten conference school will receive nearly $45 million annually from television rights. That's before they sell a single ticket, hot dog or jersey featuring the number of the team's most popular player.

Salaries for coaches are rising dramatically. In 1994 the top public football coaching salary reached $1 million. In 2014 the top salary is around $6 million; far outpacing the rate of inflation which would put that salary at about $1.6 million.

Not much has changed in the student-athlete's world in those twenty years. Just about all college student-athletes have gained is a few dollars in a needy student fund for clothes to supplement their room, board, books and tuition. But in football now they play Thursday night games, Friday night games and at any time on Saturday — all to fulfill television contracts.

Most would argue that those college scholarships are a pretty good deal, and I agree. What has changed is the money that is being made and publicly disclosed on the top end. That is drawing the attention of student-athletes who now ask for medical coverage, or four-year scholarships, or more food money.

What student-athletes see are the differences in pay scale. In 2013 Penn State spent roughly $3.8 million on the student aid for all of the football student-athletes on the team. Today many head coaching salaries exceed of the value of their entire team's "payroll" of 85 scholarships.

While schools, athletic directors, conference commissioners, coaches and staff in big-time college sports are living the best of times, student-athletes coming from the lower rungs of our socio-economic ladder are living in tough times.

The NCAA has tried to put out a message that a scholarship should be enough. A recent Washington Post-ABC News poll published March 23rd showed a majority of people in the public opposed to paying student-athletes but found the support for unionization is evenly spilt.

But those numbers can change behind a steady drumbeat in the media and the NCAA is losing on that front with more vocal critics emerging. Big money has a way of attracting attention and criticism. The NCAA is finding it hard to stem that tide.

On his recent media tour NCAA President Mark Emmert stated if he were a student-athlete he'd be content with a scholarship. That is an older man, with the perspective of age, making that statement. If he was an eighteen year-old he'd take the money; we all would.

I'm no different. As a 21 year-old columnist for The Daily Collegian, I supported athletes getting paid. In a June 2011 StateCollege.com column I explained the benefits and the financial value of the scholarship that student-athletes already get. Age and perspective change your views.

When that column ran I received a call from the NCAA on behalf of the NCAA President seeking permission to post the column to the front page of their web site.

But in the three years since that column there have been dramatic changes in the money being made. The NCAA faces a potential student-athlete union at Northwestern.

There is real reason for concern. Basketball players are pulled out of school for most of March for conference and NCAA Basketball tournaments but are still expected to succeed in the classroom. They see the huge windfalls for the coaches, schools and the NCAA.

The fans love college sports and unknowingly add to the problem. We watch the games and buy tickets, t-shirts and hats. We pour money into the system, even getting tax deductible donations to these "non-profit" athletic programs.

In the meantime the gulf between the system and student-athletes in big-time college athletics is widening and is creating resentment. There is momentum and social media will provide the ability to organize and coordinate student-athletes nationally in ways they never could before.

What if student-athletes presented demands for basic fairness and, having been told no, coordinated a walk out for next year's opening NCAA basketball tournament weekend? Four television networks would have nothing to show for four days. The NCAA would have to refund money to ticket-holders, sponsors and companies who bought ads. It would hit them hardest — the basketball tournament provides the vast majority of the NCAA's income.

Big-time college sports is at a crossroads. It is the best of times and it is the worst of times. This can go either way. Above all it's time for everyone to understand big money gets a lot of attention — including from a generation of student-athletes that can access more information, see widening disparity and the vast wealth being amassed because of their talents.

Nothing fosters anger more than a sense that your labors are benefitting a corrupt system. If that anger is allowed to fester, expect action.

If nothing else these will be interesting times.

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State College native and Penn State graduate Jay Paterno is a father, husband and political volunteer. He’s a frequent guest lecturer on campus and at Penn State events and was the longtime quarterbacks coach for the Nittany Lions. His column appears every other Thursday. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/JayPaterno
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