We all know about Stanford’s 34 varsity sports, 101 NCAA championships and 17 Directors’ Cups. But maybe the most impressive way to describe Cardinal athletics is with a big fat zero.
According to a Wall Street Journal (WSJ) report late last month, Stanford is one of only four schools in an Automatic Qualifying Conference—and the only one west of the Mississippi—that has never recorded a major NCAA rules violation.
That’s something to be proud of, especially in an athletic environment that’s hearing increasing calls for an end to collegiate amateurism. In early June, South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, with the backing of several other big-name SEC coaches, introduced a pay-for-play proposal for football players that would include a moderate $300 stipend per game. It would also break NCAA rules.
But let’s not kid ourselves. Benefits are already being doled out—albeit improperly—to star players nationwide; just ask USC or Ohio State, or 62 of the 66 AQ teams for that matter.
So what’s the point of stemming the Tide (Alabama: five infractions)? Is paying college athletes something that should have happened Sooner (Oklahoma: seven infractions)? If almost everyone’s breaking the rules, shouldn’t we join in the fun too, and just grin and Bear (Cal: seven infractions) the immorality of it all?
Or is pay-for-play even immoral in the first place?
Advocates for plans such as Spurrier’s claim that players aren’t getting their fair share of the profits they help create. A six-figure scholarship over four years is nice, yet it pales in comparison to the $70 million that a school like Texas makes on football alone each season.
Let’s clear up one thing, right off the bat. Rule-breaking institutions have always had their own interests in mind, not those of the recruits. USC didn’t want to improve the financial situation of Reggie Bush’s family; it wanted to win football games.
But even from an altruistic, give-players-what-they-deserve standpoint, what about the athletes that aren’t pulling in any money? It’s well documented that the overwhelming majority of NCAA revenue comes from football and men’s basketball; other sports are lucky to profit at all. And if the goal is to align player pay with the revenues they generate, then athletes in the so-called “country-club” or “Olympic” sports—which are much harder to make a living in post-graduation—would be hung out to dry. In a way, the problem has already manifested itself in major NCAA violations, which surround football 55 percent of the time, according to the WSJ report.
What’s more, paying players would present a host of logistical issues. One of the best things about college athletics is that it’s completely devoid of all of the revenue-sharing drama that’s commonplace in professional leagues. But if they paid players, schools would have to decide how big a slice of the revenue pie they would be willing to give up. And the possibility of—dare I say it—an NCAA lockout just isn’t fair to young players looking to develop their skills.
With the players under contract and open bidding wars breaking out for top recruits, the NCAA would be forced to again mimic professional leagues with a salary cap. Though it would sure be fun to watch certain cash-strapped, Division-I state schools (particularly one in the East Bay) struggle to keep up with the growing financial burdens that would be placed on legitimate big-sport contenders, a salary cap would be the only hope of maintaining any parity in college athletics. But then, athletes would be turned away from schools which had so many other things going for them just because their payroll exceeded NCAA limits. By leveling the playing field, the necessary salary-cap step would neglect the one thing that truly separates college and pro sports: the college part.
And that’s where Stanford comes in. Coaches and administrators here always talk about how Stanford sells itself, how recruits are drawn to the school by its world-class education. Learning would have no value in a system that sold 18-year-old athletes to the school that writes the biggest check. So if you’re concerned by stories of top-tier athletes failing classes, abandoning their education after two years or ending up on the wrong side of the law, then pay-for-play is not for you.
Stanford’s clean record doesn’t just indicate that the athletic department can follow rules. It’s also a reflection of the value we place on a wide variety of sports and the important role we give education, even for student-athletes.
There’s no need to institute pay-for-play to legitimize the misbehavior of all but four major institutions in this country. There’s a right way to play—and win—the game of college sports, and Stanford knows just how.
Joseph Beyda wants a $300 stipend to go watch football games. Offer him some fundraising tips at jbeyda “at” stanford.edu.