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Friday, January 7, 2011
Pay for play? No. Pay for learning? Yes!

By Carl Ehrlich
Special to ESPN.com

Mark Emmert, the president of the NCAA since last April, must hate his new holiday schedule.

While he was presiding over the profitable proliferation of 35 bowl games this year, the majority of the country was on vacation. On couches across America, Joe Sportsfan flipped on the TV to catch the bowls and take part in the great American pastime: complaining about the NCAA. There's something about the season that brings out the armchair NCAA president in all of us.

UConn? Really? When are we going to get rid of the automatic qualifier?

How do we still not have a playoff system?

Why aren't we paying our athletes?

Mark Emmert
NCAA president Mark Emmert opposes any effort to pay college athletes to play, but there might be another way to compensate players.

When it comes to the NCAA, seems everyone is a critic. Everyone except me. I'm on your side, Emmert, especially when it comes to player compensation.

Two weeks ago, in a press conference leading up to his tumultuous "holiday" season, Emmert made it abundantly clear: The NCAA will "never move to a place where [they] are paying athletes to play sports."

Nor should we. I played college football, and I would never pay a student-athlete -- even me -- to play sports. It's oxymoronic.

Instead, I want to pay them to do what they don't do enough of. I want to pay them to learn.

Paying our athletes to learn -- specifically to graduate -- makes more sense than you might think at first blush. For one, it resolves the petty profiteering to which our college athletes often fall victim. Football and basketball players in particular are working long, hard hours to create a product that generates millions of dollars. They see none of it. In any other industry, the players would've unionized faster than you can say "Norma Rae."

But we don't pay them, and unionization is unthinkable. Why? Because we're educating them, remember? Education! The basis of the NCAA's mission. The NCAA provides athletes with an education in exchange for free labor. Labor is hard, but education is important. All sorts of students work in exchange for tuition. It's a reasonable exchange.

Unfortunately, that exchange isn't happening often enough.

Too many of our big-time football and basketball athletes are playing sports and making money for their parenting institution and then leaving without diplomas. This isn't a new issue, but it continues to be an unresolved one. The most recent Graduation Success Rate (GSR) for Football Bowl Subdivision players was 69 percent. Men's basketball has a GSR of 66 percent.

The problem is racial, too. While the NCAA has made strides recently toward closing the achievement gap, African-American students still lag behind. African-American men's basketball players have a GSR of 60 percent. That's roughly the consistency of Shaquille O'Neal's free throws. Alarming, isn't it?

C.J. Spiller
Clemson's C.J. Spiller earned his diploma in sociology in December 2009, but he had to wait until he signed with the Bills to get a financial return on his college experience.

When you look those numbers in the eye, they undermine the logic behind the current system in the NCAA. Which is this: Athletes are paid with a scholarship for the money they generate.

OK, but what if the scholarship doesn't translate into an education? It's hard to argue the value of a scholarship if the player doesn't graduate.

These are major problems. But to my thinking, they have solutions.

Here's what I'd do: Create a Graduation Incentive Account (GIA) for all Division I basketball players and FBS athletes. If a program turns a profit, I'd allow the program to "sponsor" an athlete's academic progress and give these programs the right to deposit money in the GIA every time the given athlete passes a class.

And don't keep it a secret; show athletes the GIA balance sheets. Send them their bank statements. Picture how excited they'll be -- money they're earning will be in their names and accruing interest.

Here's the catch: The athlete can't touch his GIA until he graduates. Heck, you could make a game of it. Give him a GIA credit card but only print the access code on the back of his diploma.

Of course, how you dispense access codes is only one of the million logistical issues that implementing the GIA would create. Should the money come from university profits or be donated by boosters? Would you pay all players evenly or allow programs to delegate funds to their best players? Of course, there should be a limit to how much you can offer, but what is it? A hundred dollars a class? A thousand?

And if a player is on pace to graduate, maybe the system can provide for some type of good-behavior allowance. Why not cut a good student a little cash in the mean time? It might keep him from, say, selling his Big Ten championship ring for a little spending money.

Arizona State commencement
Some universities use their football stadium for commencement. It'd be nice if more of their football players used the stadium for that, too.

The logistics are uncertain but not impossible. These are issues worth resolving, despite how daunting the transition might seem. First, we need to figure out where we want to go. Then, we can figure out how to get there. A world in which players receive the money they've earned in the process of getting a diploma is a world worth working towards.

Right now, it's a world far from our own.

Most people expected the seventh-ranked Oklahoma Sooners to outscore the unranked Connecticut Huskies in the Fiesta Bowl last Saturday, but no one expected them to outscore themselves. The Sooners put more points on the scoreboard than they did in the Graduation Success Rate.

Oklahoma against UConn: 48 points.

Oklahoma's GSR: 44 percent.

This is same Oklahoma football program that made $40 million in profit in 2009, according to Forbes. If some of that money was waiting for the players on the other side of a diploma, don't you think the average Sooners player would be more likely to pick his up? Instead, most of the Sooners' seniors are walking away from their college experience empty handed. No diploma, no cash.

Some will make a bid at the NFL. Few will stick long term. When they're done playing, what are the chances they come back to school and get their diplomas? What if there was $10,000 waiting for them in a GIA? What about $100,000?

Or maybe it's just $1,000? Every school might not be able to fund their GIAs in the same amount. As I mentioned earlier, the details of this proposal aren't entirely clear yet, but the operating principles are.

Tim Tebow
Tim Tebow brought fame and fortune to Florida in his four seasons there but didn't earn a dime until after he graduated.

Roland Fryer, a very hip Harvard economist, is on top of this ball. Using public school students as his subjects, Fryer set out to study the impact that financial incentives have on student performance. At the risk of over simplifying Professor Fryer's work, the conclusion he reached is this: If you wave cash in a kid's face, he'll work harder.

People respond to incentives. That's the first rule in economics. If you want a population to change its behavior, introduce an incentive. Show our athletes their GIA statements! Let them see the big, crisp, green light at the end of the tunnel.

But do so in a way that preserves our amateur ideals. Emmert and I are still on the same page here. After all, we don't need to pay our athletes to play sports; they'll do that anyway.

What they won't always do is get an education. Not enough of them, at least.

Establishing a Graduation Incentive Account would put a lot more college athletes on the path to a degree. It would put athletes' hard-earned cash in their pockets, by keeping them in the classroom. They play, they learn, we all make money.

Everyone wins, including Emmert.

After captaining the 2009 Harvard Football team, Carl Ehrlich played professional football for the Valencia Firebats of Spain. Since hanging up his cleats, he has been filling up his passport doing humanitarian work in Southeast Asia. In addition to his travel notebooks, he has previously written for ESPNBoston.com and the New York Times.

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