The Bradsher Beat
Wednesday, April 9, 2014

By Bethany Bradsher

Pay-for-play arrives at crossroads




By Bethany Bradsher
All Rights Reserved.

Shabazz Napier grabs the microphone, just seconds before being named the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player, and chastises the NCAA. Northwestern University's football players fight for – and win – the right to be called university employees.

Every day, athletes of every stripe criss-cross the country, hopefully with makeup work in tow from the classes they miss, traveling to venues where they will compete for personal satisfaction and the glory of the university whose name they wear.

Some of those men and women will make money for their university – through apparel and TV contracts, through lucrative guarantees or bowl bids and increased ticket sales when they garner an unexpected postseason triumph – but many won’t.

The identity crisis of these athletes rages on, and with every conflict, every outspoken assertion that collegiate players should draw a paycheck and each court decision, the pretty picture of the ‘student-athlete’ seems to unravel just a little bit more.

Who are they to the university? What is the university to them?

On a national level, there is absolutely nothing simple about the answers to those questions, and the picture is made even murkier by the vastly different financial landscapes between a sport like football and one like women’s golf. The conversation about ‘student-athletes’ encompasses both that quarterback and that golfer, but no one pretends that the issues under the surface are the same.

Paying athletes might sound like a simple solution to the talk radio caller du jour, but such a policy would be subjective and impossible to regulate. There might be more merit to the notion that collegiate athletes should, like amateur athletes in the Olympics, be allowed to sign endorsement contracts if their name alone would help sell a product. In that scenario, corporate demand would dictate which athletes would benefit, and the money wouldn’t have to come from the university at all.

Here in the Pirate Nation, we see and hear stories like Napier’s – who considered the Huskies’ 2013 postseason ban due to academic failings unfair and also recently told reporters that “there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving” – and our own collegiate sports world seems somewhat removed from the controversy.

East Carolina athletic director Jeff Compher, in a March 27 interview with Greenville radio host Henry Hinton, said that even though the Northwestern ruling would only technically affect private universities, the handwriting is on the wall for the NCAA and Division I programs. He anticipates plenty of debate and conversation this summer and possibly policy changes that would allow for more compensation for athletes.

“We will do what’s best for ECU in the long run,” Compher said. “We want to play and be at the highest level so we need to figure out a way to keep up with them and understand what that means for us financially. We’re in the process of looking at some of those things if indeed that happens, and I believe it will at some level. There are costs associated with it, and if our fans want us to be playing at the highest level then I’m sure they’ll step up and help us do that.”

That is the realistic approach, and any college sports fan who has been paying attention knows that success in the big-time world of intercollegiate athletics is not getting any cheaper. Even Cinderella needs a bank account, and schools with more shallow coffers will be the ones with the most to lose if any form of ‘pay for play’ becomes reality. But as Compher and his predecessor Terry Holland know well, this focus on the bottom line must have its limits.

Holland told me in August 2012 that from his vantage point – more than half a century as a player, coach or administrator on college campuses – he would advocate for measures that would stem the tide of excess. He put forth the idea of adopting a policy that would keep freshman from competing and constrain the long road trips that require athletes to miss class. He said, “Hopefully, we can all come to our senses before we follow the dollars to disaster.”

More perspective like that is needed in this mire, where everyone is an expert on what can fix college athletics but the issues are, in fact, more complex than any fan can see from the stands. Compher is committed to creating equal opportunities for excellence for athletes in every sport at East Carolina, and he seems unafraid to lead the university into what will surely be a chapter of change in an era where even the moniker “student-athlete” is starting to seem antiquated.

Some of the athletes enrolled in American universities are undoubtedly embroiled in an identity crisis. It’s up to those universities to determine what they stand for and drop the anchors of those non-negotiables firmly into the turbulent waters ahead.

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