March Madness: Is John Oliver right? Should NCAA pay college athletes?

The debate continues on whether or not to pay NCAA scholarship athletes, who help to bring in millions of dollars to universities and their athletic departments. HBO's John Oliver has even weighed in on the matter.

Cliff Owen/FILE/AP
FILE PHOTO- NCAA President Mark Emmert speaks with reporters during a news conference at the NCAA Convention in Oxon Hill, Md. on Jan. 16, 2015. The NCAA pulls in billions of dollars of revenue, but by citing amateur status, the governing body of inter-colliagate athletics been able to withhold all of this money from the athlete's putting the crowd's in the seats.

This year for March Madness alone, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) stands to raise over $1 billion in advertisement revenue, which was more than the National Football League's postseason, according to 

This was on top of a highly lucrative college football season, the first year of a 12-year deal in which ESPN will pay over $450 million annually for the television rights to broadcast the college football playoff and major bowls that formerly made up the Bowl Championship Series or BCS, according to USA Today

And what has this bought universities? 

Why, lavish facilities built to woo the latest and greatest high school recruit and high salaries for administrators and coaches, of course. The latter of whom, have come to inhabit celebrity like-personas from being profiled on sidelines season after season with their programs are on display for the nation to watch every Saturday in the fall and multiple times a week during the college basketball season.

ESPN goes "All-Access" with the biggest programs during training camp to demonstrate how these leaders of student athletes cultivate them into adults through rigorous practices. This inside look gives the viewer the sense that these young men are more like professionals than they are students working to become professionals, which the NCAA is quick to point out in their own advertisement, in "something other than sports."

As of 2013, 40 coaches from the fifty largest public universities in each state were that given state's highest paid state employee after total compensation was factored in, Deadspin reports.

In all, 27 were football coaches and 13 were basketball coaches. In many instances, the coaches only receive a base salary of a few hundred thousand dollars like University of Virginia football coach Mike London, who is paid $330,750 by the state. However, London makes another $2.3 million from other sources plus a potential $700,000 bonus, according to USA Today. The rest of the massive salary is derived from media appearances, apparel contracts, endorsements, and school booster fund-raising, according to the report.

So where does this enormous revenue stream leave the athlete, whose performance and results on the field bring glory and massive amounts of money into their respective institutions? Jon Oliver took up the matter on Sunday's edition of HBO's "Last Week Tonight" and conceded, "there is something slightly troubling about a billion-dollar sports enterprise where the athletes are not paid a penny, because they aren't." 

The NCAA and universities argue that paying student athletes makes them employees of the university, and would shatter the notion and the idea of amateur athletics, according to a PBS "Frontline" examination. They contend that college athletics revolves around the spirit of competition and an athlete agreeing to participate in intercollegiate sports is exchanging the gift of a free or highly reduced cost of a college education for the privilege of competing, according to the report. 

But Mr. Oliver dug deeper and took the argument back all the way to the 1950s, where he explained Walter Byers, the then-executive director of the NCAA, put forth the amateurism/"student athlete" model as a means for universities to avoid covering athletes for workplace compensation, which was also profiled in an Atlantic Magazine story.

In the event of a serious injury, an athlete can be dismissed from his or her scholarship, and for some athletes the result is having to withdraw from college because athletics was their only means of funding an education, as was the case with both former University of Oklahoma basketball player Kyle Hardrick and former Rice University football player Joseph Agnew, according to the Daily Caller.

The Daily Caller reported, that although the NCAA has an injury insurance policy up to $20 million on each individual athlete, they rarely qualify for it, and scholarships are a year to year agreement that universities sometimes abuse when deciding sometimes whose scholarship should and should not be renewed.

“Coaches arbitrarily can withhold or withdraw scholarships, and there is very little an athlete can do to prevent that,” ESPN reporter Jeremy Schaap told the Daily Caller. 

Equally as alarming, the "education" promised in exchange for the athlete's talents has been heavily diluted with the litany of academic scandals that have rocked major college sports programs. The value of a student athlete's college education is called into question in instances like the 2007 Florida State University academic scandal. It was revealed that 61 players across 10 athletic teams had, to some degree, received impermissible assistance from a learning instructor who had typed portions of or entire papers for a handful of athletes, gave them answers to online quizzes, among other offenses, according to the NCAA infractions report. 

Recent academic scandals at institutions of higher learning are not exclusive to Florida State. Similar cases have been unearthed at other major college sports programs like the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Syracuse University. Mr. Oliver highlighted that many UNC athletes took a Swahili class, but upon leaving the school very few could speak a word of Swahili.

According to an NCAA poll, college athletes are spending more than 40 hours a week in uniform in some cases. So if they are not benefitting from the classes they are enrolled in, and devote long hours to working out and practicing for the entertainment of the masses in the arena or on the gridiron, are they not closer to an employee of the university than they are a student? After all a student working in a campus book store gets paid as a university employee. 

Change could be on the horizon, with the NCAA losing a decision in federal court where the judge ruled players could be compensated up to $5,000 for their name and likeness being portrayed on game broadcasts and in video games, according to ESPN. US District Judge Claudia Wilken thought the NCAA could have come up with a better argument to defend their model and wrote in her decision, "justifications that the NCAA offers do not justify this restraint and could be achieved through less restrictive means." The NCAA has since appealed this decision to the Supreme Court, according to CBS.

Mr. Oliver added, near the end of his report, "If it is really all about the romance of amateurism, that's fine. Give up the sponsorships and the TV deals, stop paying the coaches, and have teams run by an asthmatic anthropology professor with a whistle." 

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