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Bryce Miller: Time to rethink conversation about college athletes, compensation

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NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert speaks to the media during the Final Four news conference in Atlanta on April 4, 2013.

NCAA president Dr. Mark Emmert speaks to the media during the Final Four news conference in Atlanta on April 4, 2013. (Johnny Crawford/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Every telethon-sized paycheck sparks the debate anew, from Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney's $93 million windfall to USA Today's recent report that NCAA President Mark Emmert scooped up $2.9 million in 2017.

The blizzard of bucks stuns at each turn.

The conversation, though, frustratingly fails to evolve. It's not an all-or-nothing proposition. It's not simply a matter of paying Swinney and Emmert less to re-establish reason. It's not solely about finding a way to redirect some of that widening wealth to athletes, the ones who actually produce the product.

It's both. And until college sports at the highest levels recognizes and acknowledges it's something far more than amateurs playing games, the exasperating hypocrisy of it all will stew.

Think of the nutty logic here: What about middle ground? We could use that in our politics, as well as our locker rooms. We've lost or abandoned the ability to consider the other side, to give and take, to fairly judge - your viewpoint and mine.

Go ahead and pay Swinney or Emmert millions, as long as the numbers line up with the company's ledger and provide more benefit to all those pseudo-employees. Both men are fairly paid CEOs, according to those books. Truly. If this was Ford Motor Co. or Starbucks, we'd hardly blink. That's business, right? If they weren't worth the money when weighed against the bottom line, no company would pay it.

Yet there can be creative ways to assist others. Though we vow that each new, zany compensation package must be the breaking point, another head-shaker peeks over the horizon. What if it was balanced with ways to steer some of that piling cash to prop up athletes in responsible ways?

No one should hand college students thousands of dollars. I know what I would have done with money like that at that age ... and little of it amounted to long-term good. As maturity rounds out its ragged edges, the situation remains wrought with rightful concern.

What about deferred compensation from the NCAA itself, a bloated double-talker that passed $1 billion in revenue, USA Today reported, two years ago? What about rainy-day funds, accessible post-career? What about post-graduate incentives for those not headed to a professional broadcast near you?

Yes, athletes receive scholarships. And that's hardly a small thing. Yet it's not enough. Not when front-office roamers are cashing seven-digit paychecks and building multimillion-dollar palaces on college campuses. The University of Texas, alone, is exceeding $200 million annually in both revenue and expenses.

That's not an athletic program. That's a company.

In the shadows, athletes toil over strength training, study film and fight dietary discipline daily. There are hours caps on what can be asked, but does anyone think the bulk of elite programs abide by those?

The blue bloods, at Texas and well beyond, create higher and higher expenses to justify the money raining down. They pour as much as possible into new stadiums and facilities. That attracts more athletes you don't truly pay. Those brick-and-mortar investments and those recruits, in turn, generate even more millions.

The cycle continues unabated. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Middle ground ... because you can't have one conversation without the other. The disingenuous dance reeks and lingers.

Potential models for this come with real entanglements. How much compensation and in what form? How do you handle a college gymnast in a non-revenue sport versus a starting quarterback in the SEC?

Trust in this, though: If the complicated situation was about whether one of the suits in one of those offices was going to get a raise, they would find solutions faster than an Ohio State receiver cutting the corner on a jet sweep. Why does the NCAA suddenly find fairness and morality when Ed O'Bannon or Northwestern football causes the corporate lawyers' boxers to bunch up?

Plus, it's about to become even tougher to table or ignore. With sports betting on a broader scale en route, there will be even more money to sift and sort. Higher revenues, higher stakes.

The stale argument from astronomically compensated coaches remains, "it's what the market bears." That, in its most embarrassing form, is the NCAA's ultimate argument of convenience. That only holds water if the athletes making it possible are considered, too.

Create a group comprised of administrators and athletes, outsiders and others, to responsibly share the wealth in more equitable ways. Deferred compensation and educationally-inspired incentives make the most sense. Scale it to the amount of time spent in college, so the one-and-done crowd uninterested in an education can go make money somewhere else.

It's admittedly complex.

That's no excuse to protect the one-sided status quo, though.


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