Midmorning: Should college athletes be compensated more?

We're what make you big time. So pay us some respect.

Here’s a rough summary of the main points discussed in this week’s Midmorning program on whether colleges should pay their athletes beyond just giving them scholarships.

The host is MPR’s Kerri Miller. She’s joined by Taylor Branch, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of “America in the King Years,” contributor to The Atlantic and author of the e-book “The Cartel: Inside the Rise and Imminent Fall of the NCAA.”

Also joining her is Amy Perko, executive director of The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.

You can access the audio here. And you can get more background on the guests here.

These are my notes, so the quotes aren’t verbatim:

Kerri Miller: You say you catch the  unmistakable whiff of the plantation when you look at college sports.

Taylor Branch: The analogy is there because college athletes have no voice in the system that depends on them and profoundly affects them. I can see no justification for treating them like colonial dependents. The essential reform is that they need to be treated with greater respect because we’re expecting them to pursue two difficult goals of both classroom and athletic access. The vast majority of colleges couldn’t afford to pay athletes. But some could. To argue that scholarships are enough in big-time sports like basketball land football is akin to telling you and me that health insurance is enough, and that we don’t need a salary. That’s ridiculous.

Miller: A nonprofit group’s study found that players at 10 of the largest football programs were worth an average of $345,000  to $514,000 — which is much more than the scholarships they receive.

Amy Perko: Paying athletes would clearly change the basic model of college sports. Only 22 athletic programs finished in the black last year. The majority required significant institutional support to balance their budgets. The median amount even among the 120 schools with big-time football programs was $11 million.  The Knight Commission has longstanding concerns about rising coaches’ salaries and their effect on the business model. Duke research shows 44 big-time public sports schools compensation of coaches grew 750 percent compared to growth of professors salaries at 32 percent. The commission’s conclusion is the same as Branch’s: We believe the model is broken. We’ve recommended a number of major policy changes.

Perko: The commission’s conclusion is different from Branch’s. We’re not ready to throw in the towel. But in the treatment of athletes, we recommended basic changes – from one-year scholarships to multiyear grants, and that change may come next month. We suggested a change in the value of scholarships to allow schools to give an additional  $2,000 to $4,000 for additional expenses – but those don’t address the core issue. We have been concerned about growing commercialization, and strongly opposed NCAA rules that would have allowed more use of athletes’ images in commercial marketing.

Caller: I was a University of Vermont lacrosse athlete on a 40 percent scholarship. In my junior and senior years, I started noticing kids around town wearing my image on some clothing. And I was on billboard. I was still paying off student loan. Will colleges ever start compensating athletes for using their images?

Branch: That’s not on table right now. If the amateurism rules change on sponsorship. the system could develop along the Olympic model, a la 1978. Olympic athletes could then be part of discussion of endorsements. And the world didn’t fall apart.

Perko: The issue needs to be addressed. The commission had a hearing on this in 2008.  We heard from sports lawyers and athletes. We had colleges put revenues into trust funds for players to help them with more education. But these are complicated issues and need open debate.

Miller: I was surprised by a Knight report that said spending on high-profile sports is growing at double or triple the pace of academics at many schools.

Perko: From 2005-2009 at major colleges playing football, athletic spending grew 50 percent while academic spending grew 22 percent — and that’s at the median. The commission’s main thrust is to preserve the collegiate model, and put it into proper perspective. We want to keep the focus on the core academic mission. We’ve recommended major changes to take the focus away from winning in the distribution of NCAA and BCA (Bowl Championship Series) revenues. Just this year, the NCAA and BCA will award $350 million for winning in football and basketball. Zero money is awarded for educating the athlete and ensuring that they’re achieving at least some minimum graduation rates that the NCAA has said are important. So the commission has recommended that those revenue models be changed.

Caller: I was a gymnast at the University of Illinois on a 5-year, full-ride scholarship – with the extra year in case I got hurt. I thought it was a good deal, and after the first year of living in the dorms, you were just cut a check and allowed to go find your living situation. So there was some direct financial compensation for living situations. We weren’t money generating, so we were subsidized by the big revenue-generating sports. Once a week we were allowed to eat at the other cafeteria where the basketball players ate. They all were there in very big, nice cars. It did seem like something was going on there behind the scenes.

Branch: There’s a whole underground economy in college sports. These scandals only emerge by quirks. As a matter of practice, the NCAA can’t really enforce amateurism. The penalties are really just symbolic. They used to knock programs off the air for a year. My question is: When you all got together, were you all conscious of the fact that your scholarship was dependent on the revenue they were generating? That is one benefit of the current system. Right now that whole relationship is not addressed. It’s not spoken about. I’m not sure what the athletes would say, but at least they’d be operatiing in an honest and straightforward manner instead of behind the scenes.

Caller: I’m a parent of a full-scholarship athlete. But the full scholarship doesn’t cover everything, though you’d think it would. Depending on your major, you might have lab fees that cost hundreds of dollars. And the coaches control you. You can’t come home in the spring to get a job. You need to stay around campus to go to practice, and living expenses such as apartment rent aren’t covered by the full scholarship.

Perko: Those are concerns that the commission has long put in front of the NCAA and presidents. There is a fund of $70 million now for those expenses, but we find it’s often not used by institutions the way it’s been intended. Some use it to reimburse themselves for support areas like tutoring that would otherwise come out of the budget.

Caller: Branch missed the educational point in his article. The solution is not to pay athletes but to stop paying coaches these ridiculous salaries.

Branch: The courts have consistently ruled that you can’t limit pay of coaches, because it’s subject to the free market. The NCAA tried to limit the pay of assistant coaches years ago, but 2,000 coaches won a $15 million judgment that went to the Supreme Court.

Miller: But schools themselves could bring down the salaries.

Branch: But they’re competing. If they did that, they’d lose their coaches to other schools. So they’d have to do it by collusion. Remember that the NCAA is a quirk of history and has no statutory power. It has no legal authority. Things are just done by custom.

Branch: I understand not wanting to pay athletes because this is about education. But what struck me on college campuses, is there is really no education about the structure of college sports on campuses themselves. It’s strangely verboten and taboo. They should be discussing it, as it’s a place of learning and discussion. But such discussion would expose the system for what it is – that it doesn’t have a strong foundation and exploits the athlete.

Perko: In 2010, only 69 of 120 football teams generated a profit, with the median net revenue of $9 million. Some generate much more. It’s time to address the differences between the big money sports and the rest.

Perko: Statistically, only about 1 percent of football and basketball players play professionally, and average career of NFL player is under four years. Certainly those careers can be profitable, but we need to get back to the emphasis on education. The commission recommended 10 years ago that an academic threshold be established for postseason eligibility. Teams need to be on track to graduate 50 percent of players to be eligible for postseason bowl games and NCAA championship tournaments.

Miller: That’s such a low standard.

Perko: And we’ve been criticized for that low benchmark, but to us that’s a minimum. But just that took 10 years, and the NCAA instituted that just last month.

Miller: Isn’t that a shame? They’re not getting educations? Only half graduate?

Taylor: True. If you’re really worried about this problem’s corruption of academic excellence, the problem isn’t really Division I, because only a tiny fraction of students at those schools are varsity athletes. It was a surprise to me. It’s Division III, where at some schools 40 percent of students are varsity athletes. Research shows that pressure grows over time to build two tiers of students — athletes and nonathletes – because they don’t have athletic scholarships and don’t generate a lot of revenue. But coaches are lobbying in the admissions office for lower standards for their prized recruits and also lobbying in scholarship offices for preference. So what we get are two tiers of students in these schools and a divided student body. I think athletes and nonathletes should have a seat at the table when these things are decided.

Caller: The emphasis needs to be on graduation rates. That needs to be part of the culture.

Commenter: The idea of student athletes is a joke. Most never get an education.

Branch: The NCAA is threatened on a number of fronts, including through lawsuits. And it’s so precarious in its control. It gets most of its revenue from basketball, but does most of its enforcement in football.

Kerri: About this recent lawsuit filed by a couple dozen former NCAA student athletes — how game-changing could this lawsuit (O’Bannon vs. NCAA) be?

Perko: It addresses many of the same issues that Branch writes about – licensing, royalties, share of revenue. The case is set to be heard next year.

Branch: Antitrust suits against the NCAA have been successful, but only when they’ve been filed by adults – such as coaches. If precedent holds, they should be successful, and it could fundamentally change the world of college sports.

Caller: I’m a parent of two students, both of whom are receiving academic scholarships. You’re not talking about one thing here. Sports is venerated in this society, and academic ability is not. Revenues from these big sports should be spread out throughout these colleges to benefit all students by giving out both academic and sports scholarships.

Perko: That’s the reason the Knight Commission has recommended a change in incentives and revenue distribution. You won’t see a change in the system until you see a change in the culture. A portion of the revenues should be awarded to colleges based partly on their graduation rates and achieving a balance between academic and athletic spending. But the schools are resistant to that.

Kerri – And do fans and boosters resist this?

Branch: Certainly. And to some degree, it’s the rest of us who don’t realize we have a stake in this, in the kind of society we have. And our tax policies are involved in this.