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Is the Outrageous Exploitation of College Athletes Finally Coming to an End?

A growing chorus of doubters is beginning to see through the NCAA's insistence that its athletes are amateurs.

Confetti rained on the University of Alabama football team as they stood on the makeshift stage that had been quickly assembled atop the turf of Miami's Sun Life Stadium. The team had just completed its third national championship in four years by walloping Notre Dame in the Bowl Championship Series National Championship Game, and now it was time to celebrate. The 80,000-plus crowd -- smaller now that the Notre Dame contingent had largely vacated, but still boisterous thanks to Alabama fans and those lucky enough to afford a ticket -- looked on admirably as the trophy was awarded to Nick Saban, the Tide's $5 million-a-year head coach.

To an outsider unfamiliar with American collegiate sports, or to anyone watching objectively, it would be impossible to differentiate between the scene on that balmy Miami night and the one that will commence in three weeks when the National Football League crowns its champion at Super Bowl XLVII. But there is one distinction that lies beneath the hoopla, and it is one that makes all the difference between the college spectacle and the professional one: Alabama's players, unlike their NFL counterparts, are not paid to play the game.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, college sports' governing body since 1906, does not look fondly on the idea of paying its players, even as its games have grown into a billion-dollar industry. The NCAA argues that its players are amateurs, that amateurism is the defining goal and attribute of college sports, that without amateurism, the entire system would collapse on top of itself.

There have been challenges to the NCAA’s amateurism mystique before, but it was author and civil rights historian Taylor Branch who framed it in a new way and drew new attention to the debate with "The Shame of College Sports," a tour de force against the NCAA that graced the cover of the Atlantic. The piece laid waste to the idea that the players were “student-athletes” upholding the ideals of amateurism, and as such, had no right to compensation.

Branch raised the specter that the biggest travesty in college athletics is not that the athletes are unpaid, but that they do not have a say in whether they should be paid or whether the scholarships they are provided are fair compensation for their work. He framed the issue of paying college athletes as one of fundamental rights and challenged the notion that the athletes – particularly football players – were anything less than employees operating in a big business, one that operates much like a cartel. “Rights are rights because they should come first,” Branch told me when I spoke to him about the issue last year. “Whether it’s $3,000 or $30,000 is something schools should work out, but players should have a voice.”

There are many ways players could get that voice, and action has been taken both inside and outside college sports to make it happen. The possibility that the biggest conferences could leave the NCAA and compensate their players has arisen even among the ranks of recognizable coaches. Former players have begun challenging the NCAA in court, arguing that the organization is violating their rights. College professors and labor attorneys have studied the argument that players are indeed employees and have pushed ways that they could organize to better advocate for themselves, while outside groups have attempted to help players do just that. State legislators, meanwhile, have begun proposing legislation that would force the NCAA’s hand.

Across the country, a debate that was once relegated to the barroom has moved into boardrooms and classrooms, statehouses and courthouses. What it all adds up to is an unprecedented push for the rights of college athletes coming from fronts both inside and outside the NCAA structure.

A number of issues have precipitated that debate from the inside. In recent years, football's biggest conferences have begun poaching teams from each other in a race for the money that new members in new, bigger television markets could bring. Since the University of Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College shunned the Big East for the Atlantic Coast Conference in 2004, 10 other schools have left one of football's six major conferences for another. The motivation is money: bigger conferences with teams in more television markets mean more lucrative television packages from networks like ESPN, CBS and Fox Sports.

That expansion, along with the BCS playoff that will begin in 2014, will generate millions of dollars in new revenue for universities, all because of football.

The big business that is American college athletics continues to prosper, even if the labor on which it depends does not. But because players are defined as student-athletes and not as employees, they don’t share in the wealth. And the NCAA’s arguments continue to shift from amateurism to sustainability.

That paying players is unsustainable, that there isn't enough money to make it work, is a laughable excuse to people like Jay Bilas, a college basketball analyst for ESPN who regularly sees the business up close. There would be plenty of money to pay players, he argues, if it was allocated differently. “They always go to amateuris;  then, when that fails, they say there’s not enough money,” Bilas said of NCAA defenders. “They pay themselves first, then say there’s not enough left over for the athlete. That’s absurd.”

At the biggest schools, that would seem to be the case. The University of Texas pays just four members of its athletics staff -- its athletic director, men's and women's basketball head coaches, and football head coach -- $9.8 million a year, according to salary reports from USA Today and Forbes. Ohio State University pays a collective $8.7 million to the same four positions. Twelve schools paid a collective $31 million in buyouts after firing their coaches this year. Ohio State embarked on a $19 million renovation of its basketball arena in 2012; at the same time, it made a $7 million upgrade to the video screens at its football stadium. Texas is planning a full-scale renovation of athletic facilities that will undoubtedly have a price tag in the tens of millions.

Across the top-tier of college athletics, the stories are the same. In 2011, there were 31 men's basketball coaches who made at least $1 million, according to Forbes. There were five coaches in women's basketball, long considered a non-revenue sport, who topped that same threshold (in 2007, just one women's coach made more than $1 million). The $5.4 million Alabama paid Nick Saban to coach its football team in 2012 would make him one of the 10 highest-paid coaches in the NFL and would put him just outside the top 10 of highest paid coaches in American professional sports. The average head coaching salary in college football’s top division is now $1.64 million, a 44 percent increase since 2007, and that average is $2.3 million or higher in three of the six BCS conferences.

The money will only continue to pour in. The Southeastern Conference has two television deals worth more than $3 billion combined, and after adding Texas A&M and the University of Missouri last year, it is in the process of renegotiating them for even more money. The Big XII, Big Ten, ACC, and Pac-12 have followed with similar, if slightly less lucrative, deals. The Big Ten now has its own 24-7 sports network; Texas started the Longhorn Network to broadcast its sporting events across the state. The BCS recently signed a 12-year agreement with ESPN that will reportedly pay it $5.6 billion, or roughly $470 million a year. That money will be divvied among schools too.

At the same time, universities have begun exempting more and more costs from the value of a full scholarship, adding fees that aren't covered by the aid athletes receive and creating a gap between that amount and the amount they owe their schools.

The response from the NCAA has been to add a yearly stipend to the value of the scholarship, though smaller schools have balked repeatedly and blocked final approval. Such a stipend, the organization argues in a bizarre display of logical gymnastics, amounts to an extension of financial aid and maintains the integrity of amateurism. It is not, NCAA president Mark Emmert asserts, a path toward paying players.

The proposal is supported broadly, at least by college coaches at the biggest schools. All 14 of the Southeastern Conference's head football coaches have said players should have some stake in the financial success of their programs, which are collectively the most lucrative in college football. So has Texas head coach Mack Brown, who makes $5.3 million a year at the helm of one of college football's richest empires.

The rise of the mega-conferences and frustration with a lack of progress in the stipend process, though, has driven speculation about other alternatives. And in recent years, one of the NCAA’s most well-recognized coaches, the leader of one of college sports’ most well-recognized teams, spoke of a new possibility: leaving the NCAA altogether.

The idea that the biggest schools could abandon the NCAA was little more than backroom speculation during the recent college shake-ups, but it hit the mainstream when John Calipari, the charismatic head coach of the University of Kentucky men's basketball team, floated the idea last spring. Calipari, ever the provocateur, predicted that the large schools would consolidate into four major conferences and break away from the NCAA before his career was finished.

"They’re not going to be around long. The NCAA will not," Calipari told the Sporting News. "Before I retire from coaching, they will no longer oversee college athletics. They will, but it won’t be the four power conferences—they’ll be on their own.”

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