A Minute With...

Don Hardin and Scott Tainsky, experts on the sports industry

10/2/2013  8:00 am

Perhaps the most divisive topic in college football this season is not which quarterback has the best arm or which coach has the best strategy, but whether student athletes should receive pay or other compensation besides athletic scholarships.
Don Hardin, the retired head coach of women’s volleyball at the University of Illinois, and sports economist Scott Tainsky are faculty members in the department of recreation, sport and tourism at Illinois. Hardin is the director of the Illini Scholars Program and teaches courses on sports ethics and leadership. Tainsky is a professor in the department with expertise on various aspects of the sports industry.

Hardin and Tainsky spoke recently with News Bureau editor Sharita Forrest about the ethical – and financial – considerations of professionalizing amateur athletics.

College sports are a multibillion-dollar business and are especially lucrative for schools and coaches with high-profile teams. If coaches, schools and the National Collegiate Athletic Association are making millions, isn’t it unethical to uphold regulations that prevent players from profiting too, especially since their efforts drive this economic engine?

image of coach don hardinHardin: From an ethical standpoint, the ‘fairness-justice’ concept is just one of the challenges. With increased pay will come more accountability and more expectation, in both college and professional sports.

If we pay student athletes money, will we hold them more accountable? Will their performance perhaps create a situation where money will be reduced or taken away entirely? Do we give people who perform better in a specific contest or over the course of a season more money? Should money be withheld for other nonperformance-related issues such as poor academic performance or team rules violations? The expectations change in this way within a professional model.

Do we pay athletes who participate in sports that don’t bring revenue through the gates? Based on gender-equity mandates, will a certain number of female athletes need to be paid?

So what we’re able to do, often clouds what we should do, and it would be a complex challenge to legislate payment in a just and fair manner.

image of professor scott tainskyTainsky: A lot of the complexities come from trying to merge two systems – amateur and professional athletics. If a worker producing widgets doesn’t produce enough, or there’s someone else who can produce more at less cost, we think it’s perfectly fair that the worker is replaced.

The idea that amateur athletics is immune to that is of course naïve. And reducing athletes’ salaries or compensation in the form of scholarships is almost identical to baseball’s reserve clause, which was allowed to exist right into the 1970s. Maybe we’re seeing history repeating itself, but without Marvin Miller to unionize the players, it’s been a little slower in amateur athletics.

There are several suggestions being tossed around about how student athletes might be compensated, including stipends and corporate sponsorships. Are any of these feasible?

Hardin: If we have a talented student-dancer or student-musician on campus and they go out to work on weekends or holidays, nobody really interferes with that.

Yet if a quarterback goes out and throws footballs through a hoop or signs autographs, something changes. For one thing, it is open to more abuse. For example, there will be people that will utilize this kind of situation to pay outlandish amounts in order to influence recruits to come to a specific program. It makes the recruiting scenario really challenging to manage. The element of sport brings out competitiveness in people and skews perspectives. This makes it a different kind of animal.

Tainsky: We’re probably talking mostly about men’s basketball and football because the idea that we should be compensating athletes for sports that don’t generate revenue is really off the table, except for its role in being compliant with other rules.

In August there were several news stories containing allegations of athletes getting extra benefits. All of this stems from trying to bring our 100-year-old sports system into the modern day incarnation of major-revenue intercollegiate athletics. It didn’t evolve gradually, so now we’re faced with these two systems that are largely misaligned.

How can we bring these two disparate systems into alignment? And what types of changes, if any, do you expect to see in the near future?

Hardin: Many would agree that the current model is not sustainable. Of the more than 300 Division I institutions, roughly 80 percent of them are not making the kind of profit from athletics that would allow payment to occur. Everyone agrees that the current direction, with coaches’ salaries and everything, is going to have to change dramatically. My question is: Who should provide the leadership for that?

Division I collegiate athletics are professional by many standards, by whatever rubric you put on it, with the exception of paying players. One thing of note is that if players are paid, NCAA sports could lose its tax-exempt status. Much of the revenue that comes into athletics is not taxable – much of the money from bowl games, donations – it’s all tax deductible because of the amateur status.

If players are paid, there will be a major shift in the kind of revenue that can be produced. I think the income and revenue from development efforts, bowl games and television rights could possibly take a huge hit.

Instead, we will probably see in the very near future some kind of reimbursement for expenses as opposed to paying salaries to student athletes.

Tainsky: I think Don and I are in agreement that we’re not yet at a place where the whole system needs to be blown up.

From a fan standpoint – and they’re a vital stakeholder group here – what we see on the field still embodies a lot of the values that we look for in major collegiate athletics – wonderful examples of student athletes who are doing exactly the kinds of things we revere: going to class, getting up early and lifting, developing an excellent work ethic and being leaders in fields that include but aren’t limited to athletics.

We see amateur athletics bringing the student body together and being a source of community and university pride. There’s not enough wrong with the system – and there are too many things that are too right with the system – to reorganize it as a professional system and try to somehow fit those values in.

Some critics allege that many student athletes are still failing to graduate, so they’re not really getting compensated in terms of obtaining the education that their scholarships are supposed to ensure.

Hardin: The graduation rate among student athletes for the last several years has been shown to be above that of the general student body. The visibility of certain athletes on some occasions can skew the perception of what’s actually occurring in that regard. We do have a lot of great values in our sports programs, including community outreach and establishing important virtues. There are many great sport stories going on at every university, but they don’t always get the media attention.

Do we want 18- to 22-year-olds playing because of the pay and getting it reduced if they don’t perform or do we want them playing for these other values and learning these other qualities first before making the decision to be a professional? And if we let it into college athletics, do we allow it in high school?

Our country is unique in the way we link sport with education. Is sports participation part of the education process?

The values for amateurism are still there; it’s not purely a financial issue.

Tainsky: As faculty in the department of recreation, sport and tourism, we are fortunate to see athletes in nonrevenue and revenue-generating sports, and they’re exactly the examples that we want our kids to grow up and be. They are largely unified on the importance of traditional sport values, but are conflicted on the pay issue.

They see both the advantages and disadvantages of moving in new directions. They aren’t unified behind it and demanding more for themselves; that voice isn’t yet loud enough to change the whole system.

Still, there is an inherent unfairness when a student athlete such as Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M quarterback who became the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy) isn’t allowed to ply their trade in the same manner that a person in almost any other field gets to do. It becomes an internal conflict for people in our position who follow the money from, in most cases, men’s basketball and football to sports that don’t generate the same kind of revenue. We see the kinds of things that all of our athletes bring to the university knowing that, in many ways, their ability to be there is contingent on those like Manziel who aren’t able to capture their values personally.

That’s where it becomes a head and heart struggle – to see the good that he produced is shared and enjoyed by many. That is unquestionably part of his personal contribution to the university, even if it never passes through his wallet. But most of us also believe in the idea that it is his decision how to spend what he generates.

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