Earlier this week, behind the closed doors of a hotel conference room outside Cincinnati, Mississippi State linebacker Leo Lewis explained to NCAA officials what he said a booster offered a few years ago to try to get him to attend the University of Mississippi: $10,000 cash.
Last week in Clemson, S.C., recruits toured the football team's new $55 million complex, which features an 18-hole miniature golf course, an arcade and a nap room. Over in Alabama, Nick Saban's $11.1 million in compensation this year would make him the highest-paid coach in the NFL, even though Alabama football only generates about $100 million in revenue, compared with $300 million to $700 million by NFL teams.
To some economists and labor lawyers, these stories of boosters waving bags of cash, luxury recruiting palaces and disproportionately large coach salaries are all manifestations of what they believe is a critical problem with college sports in America: The schools are barred from paying the valuable top recruits in lucrative football and men's basketball. A slight majority of American adults — 52 percent — still believe a full scholarship is adequate compensation for college athlete. But the racial divide on the issue is significant, according to a nationwide poll conducted in August by The Washington Post and the University of Massachusetts Lowell.
More than half of black Americans, 54 percent, support paying college athletes based on revenue they generate, the poll finds. Among white Americans, however, a far smaller 31 percent support paying athletes, while 59 percent are opposed. Hispanics split more evenly: 41 percent say athletes should be paid, while 47 percent say scholarships are adequate.
Dawson Gaymon and Theresa Melki represent opposing viewpoints. Gaymon, a 54-year-old water department employee in Summerton, S.C., thinks athletes should be paid.
"The schools are making an awful lot of money, and the coaches are making millions and millions of dollars, and [the players are] the ones bringing in the money, really," said Gaymon, who is black.
Melki, a 38-year-old nurse from Boston, disagreed.
"The whole reason they go to college is to get an education, and a scholarship should be enough," said Melki, who is white. "They shouldn't be paid to play football."
The idea of allowing players to earn money if their image or likeness is used through the sale of merchandise has more broad-based support than revenue-based pay, with 66 percent of Americans in favor. A sizable racial gap exists on this issue as well, however. Nearly 9 in 10 blacks (89 percent) say athletes should be paid for the use of their name or likeness, while 60 percent of whites are in favor.
Rhonda Sortullu, 65, a registered nurse from Cincinnati whose son played college football at Miami of Ohio, was among those who opposed pay based on team revenue but supported athletes earning money through the use of their name or image on merchandise.
"I know firsthand how hard it is for these athletes to keep up their grades and compete. It is grueling," Sortullu said. "I don't think they need to make millions of dollars like the pros, but I do feel like they deserve something."
This week, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany co-wrote an op-ed for the Chicago Tribune defending the current benefits offered to college athletes.
"Despite the claims of critics and plaintiff's lawyers who want to dismantle college athletics as we know it, our students who play sports are not exploited. They are educated," Delany wrote. "College students who play sports are supported at the highest level with strong academic and counseling resources, outstanding facilities, high-quality medical care, unlimited meals and basic benefits the critics take for granted, including scholarships covering tuition, room and board to stipends for living expenses."
As a longtime commissioner, Delany has been a beneficiary of the soaring revenue and controlled labor costs in college sports. The Big Ten's most recent financial disclosures, for 2016, showed Delany's total compensation had risen to nearly $2.4 million — up from $1.1 million a decade earlier, adjusted for inflation — and he's owed more than $20 million in future bonus payments.
"Jim Delany's op-ed is a good example of the noblesse oblige conservative view: 'Look, pay no attention to my $20 million bonus. We are giving these athletes an education,' " said Andy Schwarz, an economist who has consulted for plaintiffs in class-action lawsuits against the NCAA and college conferences over restricted benefits for college athletes.
As Schwarz has discussed his beliefs in public over the years, he said he has typically found blacks more supportive of the idea of paying college athletes and whites more uneasy.
"Whenever you get down to the core of it, they'll say it just doesn't feel right for these young people to have so much money when they're so young. And I say, well, how do you feel about Emma Watson, Hermione Granger, having so much money?" Schwarz said. (Watson, the British actress, reportedly earned more than $20 million by the time she turned 18 from her turns in the "Harry Potter" films.)
According to NCAA data, 48 percent of Football Bowl Subdivision players are black, compared with 38 percent who are white. In men's basketball, the other major money-making sport, 58 percent of Division I athletes are black, while 25 percent are white.
When it comes to political leaning, Republicans (62 percent) are more likely to say scholarships are enough for athletes than Democrats (51 percent), the Post-UMass Lowell poll finds. Other groups who express support for paying athletes based on revenue include nonwhite men more broadly (53 percent) and people who have experienced a sports concussion (51 percent).
This Post-UMass Lowell poll was conducted Aug. 14-21 among a random national sample of 1,000 adults reached on cellular and landline phones, with overall results carrying a 3.7-point margin of sampling error.
Disagreement on reform
Among the more prominent economists and academics who criticize the current structure of college sports, there remains significant disagreement over whether allowing schools to pay players would provide reform.
Schwarz believes a free market would reallocate the money flowing into larger raises for coaches and more frivolous facilities upgrades to the athletes. Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of economics at Smith College, partially agrees, but he also thinks this wouldn't solve the problem of athletic departments at dozens of Division I schools relying on mandatory student fees and millions in university funds to try to keep up with wealthier athletic departments such as Alabama, Clemson and Texas.
In his new book, "Unwinding Madness" — co-authored with Donna Lopiano, former director of women's athletics at Texas, and Gerald Gurney, past president of the Drake Group, a think tank focused on ending academic corruption in college sports — Zimbalist argues for Congress to provide a limited exemption to college athletic departments from federal antitrust law. This exemption would allow schools to impose universal caps on coach pay and other athletic spending in exchange for the schools agreeing to a series of measures, such as balanced athletic department budgets and expanded postgraduate health care for athletes. Zimbalist's proposal also would allow athletes to earn money through sponsorship agreements and the sale of merchandise.
"If they're students and amateurs, then it doesn't make sense, ethically, to pay the coaches millions and millions," Zimbalist said. "This would tend to promote more competitive balance across the schools, which, presumably, is a good thing . . . and it would save tens of millions for schools in their budgets."
Schwarz and Zimbalist agree, however, that absent a court ruling or legislation, the conference commissioners and university presidents who oversee the current system are unlikely to advocate an overhaul. As more money flows into the top tier of college athletics, coach salaries will continue to rise and new, previously unimaginable facilities upgrades will appear.
Late last month, Alabama football spokesman Josh Maxson led a reporter through the Crimson Tide's football complex. There's a players' lounge with pop-a-shot basketball games and a barber shop, as well as a hydrotherapy room with several waterfalls.
Last upgraded in 2013, Alabama's building in some ways seems quaint compared with what other schools have built since. This year, Texas unveiled a new locker room that featured, instead of old-fashioned nameplates, 37-inch television screens glowing with the face and name of each Longhorns player atop each $8,700 locker.
As he walked down a hallway lined with the NFL jerseys of former Alabama stars — a common feature in college football complexes aimed at showing recruits the promise of professional paychecks to come — Maxson remarked that many NFL teams don't have facilities quite as luxurious as the Crimson Tide's.
"That's because [NFL teams] can recruit their players with this," Maxson said as he rubbed his thumb and two fingers together, the universal sign for cash.
Scott Clement contributed to this report.
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