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Geno Auriemma weighs in on debate of paying student-athletes

Last week, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma made a comment that concerns the likelihood of student-athletes being paid. Would the college sports landscape change if they were?

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NCAA Womens Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Albany Regional-UCLA vs Connecticut
Geno Auriemma seems to be supportive in paying student-athletes but, as a whole, is it a practical idea for the entire NCAA to pursue?
Photo by: Rich Barnes/USA TODAY Sports

Can you picture yourself in a world of five-star basketball recruits, turning into one of the many faces of a multi-billion dollar industry? And, in addition to your full ride scholarship, you get other benefits, too?

As a legal issue, that thought is safe in one’s imagination. But it’s a tug-of-war that U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken is in the middle of with the NCAA.

In modern terms, figuring out whether student-athletes deserve paychecks of their own dates back to Ed O’Bannon vs. NCAA. This particular legal action focused on O’Bannon’s unhappiness in discovering that an EA Sports video game had used the former UCLA basketball player’s exact physical likeness and jersey without his consent.

As a result, O’Bannon — 14 years removed from UCLA at the time — demanded payment for being in the video game. And so, in a 2014 decision, O’Bannon received $15,000 from a $60 million settlement that involved countless others in the same situation.

Ten years later, the idea of paying student-athletes for appearances in more ways than O’Bannon’s is heating up. Chris Murphy, a senator from Connecticut, recently published Madness Inc., which details that, despite generating $14 billion in revenue across all sports, the NCAA isn’t rewarding its players properly — according to Senator Murphy.

Now, UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma is getting himself involved in the conversation, telling the Hartford Courant: “I think players should get paid.” Auriemma then pointed at “free education” and “an opportunity [for athletes] to build their brand” — as if he thinks players are already getting enough in return for playing sports at the collegiate level.

But how should Auriemma’s comments be interpreted given that he reportedly may fear his own players?

Where’s the line exactly? Do players deserve to be paid? If so, then how will they be paid and how will that amount be determined? If not, then what other publicity and legal actions, as in O’Bannon’s case, could the NCAA expect?

Support for paying student-athletes

Allen Sack, who played football at Notre Dame back in the 1960s, argues that student-athletes could use the extra money for good and not evil. If offered a $5,000 stipend, for example, Sack believes the funds would serve as a financial cushion and used towards something like graduate school or studying abroad.

In 2011, Taylor Branch presented a different narrative for The Atlantic. Branch, a figure in civil rights, went as far as calling the NCAA a “classic cartel” because of the millions of dollars that are pumped into television deals to cover college sports (mostly football), yet none of that money reaches the athletes.

Furthermore, LeBron James, who skipped playing college ball in lieu of starting in the NBA, voiced his opinion on the matter in his own HBO documentary, Student Athlete. In a separate incident, James called the NCAA corrupt for not sharing a piece of the pie with players, especially during peak times, like March Madness. His Lakers’ teammate, Lonzo Ball, also believes the NCAA is doing an injustice to its players: “Everybody’s getting paid, so you might as well make it legal.”

Other advocates of paying student-athletes include Fox Sports’ Colin Cowherd, former president Barack Obama and business thought leader Gary Vaynerchuk.

Argument against paying student-athletes

“ ... Among the roughly 350 athletic departments in the NCAA’s Division I, only about 24 schools have generated more revenue than expenses,” reported New York Times contributor Cody McDavis. That factoid alone questions the affordability of paying student-athletes. McDavis noted that North Dakota State, for example, fell into a financial pit because of the $600,000 hit it took from spreading out stipends across 16 sports.

If, as McDavis suggested, the NCAA decides to rule on paying its athletes, it will be a nationwide arrangement and not based on just a few recruits and standouts on the active roster. There are other naysayers that express a fright that money could “erode” the association and connection between regular college-goers and their respective athletics departments.

Others in opposition to paying student-athletes include NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Syracuse men’s basketball head coach Jim Boeheim and ESPN’s Doug Gottlieb.

Two landmark examples of money’s deviant role in college sports

College football is the poster child of schemes, scandals and controversy.

Johnny Manziel and Maurice Clarett are prime examples of student-athletes who promoted their brand, albeit, tailored in a different direction than what Auriemma meant. Speaking of basketball, though, the sport’s not too far from the crime scene. Most of it seems to originate on the recruiting side of things, but there are other loopholes.

Trouble finds the Miami Hurricanes twice in seven years

The year was 1995 and The U was suffering major setbacks after the NCAA found out about the university and academic advisor Tony Russell helping out 85 of the school’s athletes in forging Pell Grant applications.

Several years later, Hurricanes’ booster Nevin Shapiro put Coral Gables back on the radar. Victims of his $930 million scam included football players Kellen Winslow and Vince Wilfork who, himself, became $50,000 richer. In a letter he jotted down in federal prison, Shapiro admitted in blind rage that 124 people in total were affected by the scandal.

Corruption in NCAA basketball catches attention of FBI

Sports agency ASM Sports is the center of attention in this basketball scandal that involved both high school and college players. At the top of the list is Dennis Smith, who allegedly received $73,500 in loans from ASM. Another appearance on the laundry list of players was Markelle Fultz, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, who was owed $10,000, despite not being a client of Andy Miller’s.

What’s the bottom line?

The question should be: “If the NCAA paid its athletes, would it change college sports for better or worse?”

As a business model, it would be all fun and fair for the distribution of wealth to reach college players. But what effect would that have on competition? Would that change impact the fan experience? To the NCAA, the agenda of paying players would revolve around its own reputation and not the individual athletes.

Needless to say, there will always be corruption — no matter who’s paid and who isn’t. Even when players are under contract in professional sports, where money goes, trouble is never too far behind. For the collegiate players, they’re putting a price tag on their self-worth — whether it’s to make ends meet or to avoid being overlooked by the coaches and schools that reap the benefits from the bank of the NCAA.

Isn’t it about time they did so?