By Bob Hertzel
For the Times West Virginian
This past week, Kelly Folger, a West Virginia University student, headed home to New Jersey for the holidays and literally leaped for joy when upon her arrival she found awaiting her an envelope containing seven tickets to the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium on Dec. 29.
Printed on each ticket was the price — $90.
She is in college, about to graduate, and works while she goes to school.
That she can give herself and her family a gift like this is a wonderful thing because there are any number of players on this same West Virginia football team that will face Syracuse who cannot afford the price of tickets to the game in which they are playing.
This brings us to one of the burning questions in college athletics, one magnified in recent years by the realignment of conferences based solely on finances, on the creation of a national championship game in football to go along with the long-popular NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament and its Final Four and the ever-escalating amount of money paid to head coaches.
That question is, put in its simplest terms, should college athletes be paid?
Shawne Alston is senior running back at WVU, a player who might have been a star this season were it not for injury, a player who still may find his way into the NFL but who faces long odds against it, just as do most college football and basketball players.
An insightful, caring player, Alston tweeted this past week about the situation.
He did not back down from his belief that players should be paid when asked to expound upon it face-to-face.
“It would be a huge difference,” Alston began.” I don’t think people realize how many people come from low-income areas to play college football in different places.”
Far too many college athletes come from difficult economic situations, single-parent children out of a household that is scrambling just to get by.
The most recent example of this to be made public came in 2008, when Bill Koch of the Cincinnati Enquirer disclosed that receiver Mardy Gilyard spent time living in his car when he lost his scholarship at the school because of low grades.
While a unique case such as that is so extreme, it illustrates a problem that does exist.
“We have freshmen on this team that have to come and talk to people to get a couple of dollars to eat until the next check comes around,” Alston said. “I think that’s wrong.”
Alston admits that he was in the situation himself.
“I had times when I was hungry. You’ve just got to go to people you are close to. I had my Mom send a little bit of money. Sometimes me and Tavon (Austin), back then, we’d look after each other. Usually you have a teammate you can talk to and go out to eat together,” he said.
It is a humbling experience, especially occurring in the surroundings in which it occurs.
The trappings around these kids are the best. They practice and meet in a building devoted exclusively to their sport, be it basketball or football.
Each coach has his own office. The head coach makes about $3 million a year. The assistants half a million or so, some more, some less.
They make this money, yet don’t have to purchase their own cars or tickets to the football games, those being written into their contracts.
And the gap is widening, and Alston, along with other student-athletes know this, making it almost inevitable that some kind of challenge in court is going to be forthcoming without adjusting the system.
“College football definitely makes a lot of money,” Alston said. “They are out there making millions. Why can’t we eat what we want at nighttime? Why do we have to be out there eating noodles or having to borrow money from someone to eat?
“They could have taken care of it a long time ago,” Alston continued. “With all the things going on with agents or boosters paying people to play (which is against the NCAA rules), you can settle a lot of that.
“If you have a player whose parents can’t afford to give them any money and they are hungry and a really good player, an agent or someone is going to give them $100. The noodles bore for you after a while. You want steak. Everyone else is eating steak.
“They can figure out a million ways to make them some money, so I guess they can figure out a way for us, too. They figured out a way to put a playoff in and make them some money. I guess they can get us some, too.”
There have been any number of heated debates over the years about this topic, and there are valid points against paying athletes, although they seem to be losing steam.
They note that if it were just men’s football and basketball it would be challenged in court because of Title IX requirements, which is a difficult matter to get around.
Over the years, too, they have argued that most athletic departments operate in the red rather than in the black and could not afford it. These, it is pointed out, are athletic departments that pay coaches more than $1 million a year, that jump from conference to conference for a better payout, who build luxury suites and sell jerseys made popular by players without those players getting so much as a nickel of it.
The other argument is that non-revenue sports would have to be cut because of insufficient funds, funds that wouldn’t really exist if the main sports didn’t take in so much revenue.
Should one football player who sells out the stadium and his body go hungry so someone can row on the rowing team on what is, essentially, an extra-curricular activity not different from band or the WVU rugby team.
Over the years these arguments against have been elegantly made and distributed by public relations professionals hired by the institutions which can’t pay the players.
“The NCAA historically has been against pay for play. I couldn’t agree more with that position,” former NCAA President Myles Brand said. “If you start paying student-athletes (other than assisting them through financial aid), you essentially ruin the integrity of the college game.”
“Even if born of the best of intentions, pay for play is the worst of ideas, ranking right up there with the Edsel, Enron accounting and the notorious Vietnam rationale, ‘We must destroy the village to save it.’ ... If we begin to equate a student-athlete’s play with the recompense pocketed every month, we have skidded to the bottom of a very slippery slope,” NCAA Division I board of directors chairman Robert Hemenway, chancellor at the University of Kansas, said to the NCAA News last year.
But the fact of the matter is that the money is there, the need is there and to give college men’s football and basketball, and perhaps women’s basketball, although they don’t pay their own way in nearly every school, a say $5,000 a year stipend would be doable, even if the coaches might have to give up their country club memberships or the media has to pay for the meals it is served at games.
Email Bob Hertzel at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @bhertzel.