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Pack Your Bags, We're Going On A Tourney Guilt Trip!!

(Ed. Note: Ken here. With Frontline's episode on the NCAA and Jason Whitlock's Twitter revolution on Indianapolis, I thought we should put this back up on the front page. Discuss in the comments.)

Voodoo is coming up with some commandments for what we believe, but here's a missive from my personal collection to get started because it's tournament time, which kicks off the best three weekends of the year to be a college sports fan.  But this tournament is also a living, breathing example of everything that's wrong with the NCAA model.  Because the kids you watch generating over half a billion dollars per year to keep the plush offices in Indianapolis going are also systematically being slighted on the "free" education they receive. 

It's time to pay student-athletes, especially in the revenue sports.  Don't give me that crap about "amateurism," as that was an appropriate virtue when high school football and basketball didn't get better ratings than the NHL.  I've seen too many kids on "full" grants-in-aid that can't even afford Ramen Noodles much less movie tickets, and since I was a staff member and am still a booster, I wouldn't even be allowed to open my pantry to help them.  It's even worse now for many foreign kids, as they now have taxes taken out of their scholarship checks, and some can barely afford to feed themselves even with a 100% scholarship. 

Something that gets overlooked by fans is that a "full" scholarship is actually not full.  NCAA full grants-in-aid do not cover the full cost of attendance for a student.  GIA's cover tuition, room, board, and books.  That's it.  Whereas a full academic scholarship covers all of the above, as well as transportation and other expenses related to attendance at an institution (parking passes, lab fees, walking around money, etc).  The last numbers I could find (2005) showed nationally that the median full athletics grant-in-aid was $2,905 under the cost of attendance for an in-state student, and $3,114 for an out-of-state student.  Also keep in mind most athletic departments require their student-athletes to carry their own health insurance for issues that happen which aren't related to injuries that take place from practice or play.  So the argument that you're getting a "free ride" is a joke, because it's not free at all.  You're losing money every day you have a full grant-in-aid as an NCAA Division I athlete. 

I understand you're also getting a world-class education at a tremendous discount, and that has a ridiculous amount value to you over a lifetime.  But the reality is you'd probably do better supporting yourself financially working your way through college at a menial job than as a student-athlete with a full scholarship.  I'm not arguing that playing a game you love, being with teammates, and traveling the country competing isn't better than dropping fries and papering trays, I'm talking strictly from a monetary perspective. 

Student-athletes have an athletically related hours limit of 20 hours a week, including no more than four per day, with one day off a week mandatory.  That sounds reasonable on paper, but is an absolute joke in practice.  This includ es the insane rule that a game day counts as three hours no matter how long it takes to complete.  Yes, that means a doubleheader in baseball, including warmup, post-game, getting dressed and undressed, is only three hours against the practice limit.  Travel time is also not counted.  And if you think a football team only spends 20 hours a week on their sport during the season, you must be bitter about your playing time in maize and blue.

I understand that you're supposed to be broke in college, and stories of the salad days are part of the charm.  But generally that's because you're drinking and partying all the time when you're not in class.  Student-athlete's don't have the time to really enjoy college life the same way a typical undergraduate does.  For the most part they don't have the time to join clubs or organizations or fraternities and sororities.  They're so physically tired from the routine of class, workout, study, sleep, that anything beyond that bubble seems ridiculous in season.  Sure, they might hit the town one night a week, but daytime activity outside of class and team is basically nil when your body is craving sleep ad nauseam.  It would be nice if they could order a pizza and hit a movie that one night a week without having to worry even more than they do.

To be fair, most departments do what they can to help student-athlete's find jobs.  You'll see a volleyball setter working the scoreboards at baseball games, then she'll go shag foul balls at softball during the offseason.  You'll see baseball players ripping tickets at basketball games to earn a few bucks.  You might even get a phone call asking you for money from a student-athlete working the alumni fundraising drive.  But those campus jobs are few and far between, and can often be tough to obtain because they're open to all students on campus as well. 

You'd be amazed at the things I've seen, like kids bringing Power Bars on the road so they can keep their per diem money for later.  Not exactly the best way to be nutritionally prepared to compete.  I know athletes that sold meals on their meal plan to students that don't have one so they can have some walking around money.  Is this so they have drinking money?  Sure, sometimes it is.  But sometimes it's so they have cash so they can make copies at the library, or can afford a campus parking permit.  As most students can tell you, that's part of the college experience as well. 

For 2008-09, USF Football took in $14.1 million, and spent $10.3 million.  Men's basketball made $3.1 million, but spent $2.9 million (I'm sure we could cut out a charter flight if we needed).  For $470,000 a year you could give each athlete in a revenue sport $400 a month to use how they see fit (85 football, 13 men's basketball).  For $537,000, you could do it for each athlete in a headcount sport (add 15 for women's basketball and 12 for volleyball).  And for well under $2 million per annum, you could do the same for every single student-athlete, including walk-ons.  It would be a significant expense, but one that is needed to take care of the kids that put their bodies on the line for their institution and our entertainment.  When your overall budget is $37.8 million, and the total athletically related aid given to the student athlete's competing and generating all that revenue is only $4.2 million, I think we can stretch the line items appropriately.  And if your school can't, you shouldn't be competing at the Division I level. 

And the futile argument that because we pay people in one sport that we have to pay them in another is ridiculous.  You know why you can only pay football and men's basketball?  Because those sports actually create a positive revenue stream for their institutions.  So that's how you write the rule.  If via the Department of Education Equity in Athletics Report your sport is profitable nationwide across all teams competing, you can stipend all kids on a full ride.  That way if women's basketball ever becomes a money-making machine outside of Knoxville or Storrs, they can get a check as well.  And Dominique Jones and Matt Grothe can afford to buy the jersey they have hanging in the bookstore with their name on it.

But the NCAA still rails against a straw man that is a false choice.   They say paying players would ruin the intercollegiate model.  Guess what?  You're paying players NOW!!  Every grant-in-aid you issue is a payment either for services rendered or services expected to be rendered.  I'm not asking you to allow schools to bid on student-athlete's on the open market.  I'm asking you to give a student-athlete the same amount of money the brainiac they sit next to in class gets that's on a full academic scholarship.  Maybe kick in a few extra bucks for pizza and beer because they're being held to a higher social standard than the brainiac too.  Remember, if the nerd gets arrested in a bar fight or for DUI, people don't start whispering about him or her when they walk down the hall. 

So when you watch the next bench reaction shot after a huge three, or Gus Johnson going Defcon 1, think about the fact that every kid you see very likely couldn't afford the shoes on his feet, and are only provided by the school because he needs them to compete.  Or that he might have skipped his last meal so he could take a girl out on the town when he gets home.  And consider the system that intentionally undercompensated him for his education by $3000 or so is the same one making $550 million per year just broadcasting what you're watching.  That's the true March Madness.