Yes, Money Belongs in College Sports — in Student-Athletes' Hands

A monster Sports Illustrated investigative report alleges that Oklahoma State football coaches gave their players under-the-table cash bonuses for their play. So what?

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Over the past few weeks, the bandwagon of critics calling for paying college football players has rapidly grown, ranging from a column in The New York Times (part of a longstanding campaign by columnist Joe Nocera on the issue) to a Time magazine cover story, even to college coaches themselves. These were mostly spurred by the plight of Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Johnny Manziel, who allegedly sold his signature for money, an act wholly accepted by all parts of the world except NCAA rules.

But as much as these folks call for collegiate cash payments, a new special report investigating such action from Sports Illustrated shows that most sports figures still view paying college players as deeply problematic, suggesting that national sentiment remains against compensating college athletes.

SI's investigative reporters George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans spent 10 months looking at allegations that Oklahoma State University coaches gave its players under-the-table cash bonuses for on-field performance, pay independent of that performance, and even pay for showing up to sham jobs. The resulting five-part (!) story is titled "The Dirty Game," and it "reveals the measures that a program will take to become elite — and the collateral damage that follows." A dark, ominous tone appears throughout the report — money in college players hands is dangerous, it seems to strongly suggest. The NCAA will surely launch an investigation using this story in the coming weeks and punish Oklahoma State harshly.

Sounds pretty scandalous, right? Well, a lenient take might suggest that colleges like Oklahoma State only resort to underhanded means because legal routes to pay student-athletes do not exist. Consider this quote from one player who accepted money back in 2002-04: "It was just like in life when you work ... The better the job you do, the more money you make." Makes sense, right? Success at your job should result in a pay raise, and good work should be rewarded. "Your stats definitely dictated how much you were getting," another player said. Makes a little too much sense, actually. So why should we be so outraged?

The amount of money being made isn't even all that dramatic. Most players received payments in the four-digits annually for their play, while a few star players allegedly received $25,000 annually. Compare that to the NFL minimum salary of $405,000 this year. Most college players, of course, don't make it to the NFL, and are left to their own devices to make a living after their football careers end. Heck, compare those "illicit" cash payouts to the U.S. per capita personal income of $42,693. Do we really think star players at a major college program — one that made almost $100 million back in 2008 — should be compensated so meekly?

And unlike for Manziel, who comes from a wealthy family, many Oklahoma State players actually needed this money for regular items:

One or two standouts bought a new car or expensive jewelry, team members say, but the vast majority of the players used the extra cash to purchase everyday items -- food, clothing, tickets to a movie. "There were some athletes who were almost starving," says Carter. "Wherever the money came from, they were like, Yeah, I'll take that."

Sadly, that illuminating quote is buried at the last line of the story, far below the "Dirty Game" headline and the scandalous presentation. Time was wrong when it said "It's Time to Pay College Athletes." That time was ten years ago, as the SI story shows. Now, it's finally time to pay college athletes and accept it. Not as a dirty gamble, but as the right thing to do.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.