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The High School Effect of Paying NCAA Student-Athletes

AP_Cam Newton_blog.jpg

The drumbeats have been only growing louder for the concept of a pay-for-play system for NCAA student-athletes. Two high-profile cases in college football this past year—Cam Newton of Auburn and Terrelle Pryor of Ohio State—have raised serious questions about the viability of a multimillion-dollar college-sports empire that pays student-athletes only in the form of scholarships.

The Big Ten conference discussed paying student-athletes' living expenses at its recent spring meetings, noting that athletic scholarships leave student-athletes paying roughly $3,000 out of pocket each year for transportation, clothing, and food. University of South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier also concocted a plan earlier this year wherein football coaches would pay 70 players on the team $300 each for every single game of the season.

Even NCAA President Mark Emmert plans on discussing the possibility of paying student-athletes' living expenses at a two-day retreat he'll hold with roughly 50 college and university presidents in early August. Granted, it's tough to say how open for debate Emmert will be; back in January, he said, "Student-athletes are students. They're not professionals, and we're not going to pay them and we're not going to allow other people to pay them to play." (He made similar comments in May.)

One aspect of the pay-for-play debate that's largely gone unexposed: the effect that such a system could have on high school sports. While high school student-athletes wouldn't be directly affected, there's no denying that a pay-for-play system would have a trickle-down effect at the high school level.

What's Being Discussed?

ESPN.com ran a weeklong feature on pay-for-play earlier this summer, and in one piece, had Mark Schlereth break down the different proposals circulating around, with one major exception (*see below).

Beyond the full-cost scholarship idea and the stipend idea discussed above, Schlereth examined the concept of allowing star athletes to receive royalties from the sale of their college jerseys, with the money potentially going into an escrow account until the player exhausts his/her eligibility.

As Schlereth noted, NCAA communications veep Bob Williams rained on that parade in a recent ESPN.com chat, saying, "The school name, the colors, that's really the school's and the institution's property. It's hard to say that the student-athlete "owns" that jersey or it's his jersey."

Schlereth's article last tackled the "pay players who actually make the schools money" idea—one that he openly admits won't stand a chance against Title IX, which requires schools that receive federal funding to provide equal athletic opportunities to both males and females.

One of the fundamental problems with the pay-for-play debate is that very few college-sports teams are actually profitable. In fact, only 22 programs reported profitability in 2010, according to the NCAA's 2004-2010 Revenues & Expenses report Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader.

Not a single women's program (in whole) was profitable, and a grand total of one women's college-basketball team turned a profit last season. (The report didn't name the women's team, but here's guessing it's either Geno Auriemma's dynasty at the University of Connecticut or Pat Summitt's squad at the University of Tennessee.) On the other hand, 69 football teams (58 percent of the 120 teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision) and 67 men's basketball teams (56 percent) reported profitability last season. Over the past seven seasons, between 50 and 60 percent of the football and men's basketball teams have been profitable, according to the report.

Long story short, colleges can't only pay the stars who make the schools money, because Title IX would require those same opportunities be afforded to females. Seeing as not a single women's program in Division I was profitable last season, it's hard to imagine schools jumping for this plan.

*The one proposal that hasn't yet been mentioned, but has been championed by ESPN analyst Jay Bilas frequently in recent months: the Olympic model. In other words, not having schools directly pay student-athletes, but allowing them to sign endorsement deals and profit off their likenesses (which they're currently prohibited from doing).

Sports Illustrated's Michael Rosenberg summed up the Olympic model proposal well earlier this week:

The simple fact is that college athletes want to get paid (who wouldn't?) and there are literally thousands of people out there who would like to pay them. Why are we stopping this? What is the big deal? What do you think would happen if your starting quarterback was allowed to take $100,000 from somebody who enjoyed watching him play? Would the Earth crash into the sun?

The High School Impact

Hypothetically, if the NCAA were to establish a pay-for-play system for collegiate athletes tomorrow, it wouldn't directly affect high school student-athletes (at least, not until they went to college). The high school players still wouldn't receive money for competing while in high school. But, in this scenario, they would have the opportunity to turn their athletic talents into some hard-earned cash if they decided to continue playing sports at the collegiate level.

What does that mean for high school sports? No one can say for certain. Let's examine a few possibilities:

An increase in competitiveness: This, of all the possibilities presented, would appear most likely to happen. If student-athletes knew they could make money off their athletic talents in college, high school competitions could become that much more cutthroat.

That, in turn, could cause student-athletes to focus more on displaying their own talents—"getting theirs" on the field or on the court—instead of learning solid fundamentals and the importance of team play.

Many basketball experts lament that the AAU basketball circuit has already led to the degradation of skills in young players, as too many are trying to prove that they're the next Michael Jordan. Players attempt to shine to impress college scouts, but sacrifice the ideals of teamwork in the process.

This could apply to parents, too. We've already heard countless horror stories of soccer moms gone wild when something doesn't go their kid's way; what happens when Little Johnny isn't just competing for an athletic scholarship, but some extra cash on the side?

More agent "runners" around high school sports: While NCAA rules strictly prohibit agents from contacting high school and college prospects, it's no secret that those rules aren't being enforced 100 percent of the time. As a workaround, agents often send so-called "runners"—third parties directly tied to the agent, who push the agent's agenda to a student-athlete.

Say the NCAA enacted the "pay-the-superstars" proposal, or allowed players to profit off their likenesses. Like it or not, either of those proposals would likely attract more agents to the high school players likely to make money in college, as the agents would stand to profit from the players' newfound freedom.

An emphasis on athletics over academics: You already don't have to look far to find someone lamenting how schools overemphasize athletic success in comparison to academics. Now, what happens when you add future financial gains for student-athletes into the equation?

Chances are, the student-athletes who plan on playing at the next level would only focus harder on their athletics, knowing the new financial stakes. And who could blame them?

That said, it's worth remembering that very few high school athletes end up receiving athletic scholarships in college, and even fewer go on to play sports professionally. Of the 400,000+ student-athletesRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader participating in collegiate sports in the 2009-10 school year, roughly 126,000 of them held athletic scholarships, according to the NCAA. More than 7.5 million student-athletes participated in high school sports in the 2009-10 school year, according to the National Federation of State High School Associations.Requires Adobe Acrobat Reader

Say even half of those 7.5 million student-athletes start focusing primarily on athletics instead of academics, given the lure of cashing in on their talent at the collegiate level. That'd be roughly 4 million student-athletes aiming to fill roughly 125,000 athletic scholarships. Suffice it to say, those numbers don't exactly add up well.

Potential decrease in dropouts: For student-athletes whose families are in poor financial shape, a collegiate pay-for-play system could be motivation for them to remain in school. Not only could they receive an athletic scholarship to cover most of the costs of college; the pay-for-play system would likely cover most additional student-athlete expenses. The parents of said student-athletes could then be absolved of major financial responsibility for their kids while in college.

Some student-athletes may end up prioritizing their athletic development over their academic growth, but wouldn't it ultimately be better for a student-athlete to remain in school, no matter what?

Keep in mind, we're likely many months away from a pay-for-play system being installed in college sports, assuming it even happens. That said, here's hoping the NCAA considers the impact a pay-for-play system could have on youth sports before diving right in.

Photo: Cam Newton, the Carolina Panthers' No. 1 overall draft pick, arrives at Bank of America stadium in Charlotte, N.C., the day after the NFL lockout ended. Newton's father, Cecil, was involved in a pay-for-play controversy late in 2010. (Chuck Burton/AP)

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