The question every NCAA player must ask themselves is why go hungry at school when they could go pro and be well taken care of. News that came out during the NCAA Men’s Final Four tournament about Connecticut senior Shabazz Napier going hungry at times has brought up major concerns.
Looking at the difference between student athletes and regular students can be disturbing to many. Not every athlete is on a scholarship and not all scholarships pay for every expense the student faces during the school year. Many student athletes have to pay part of their tuition and some have to pay it all. And many of these players are finding that money is tight. Not all of them we able to have college funds started for them by their parents, and many may not qualify for all of the financial aid they may need. Many will have student loans to pay for school.
A regular student goes through the same situation. Some may get academic scholarships, small scholarships from various groups and foundations, grants, and financial aid. Like the student athletes, they may not qualify for financial aid and have student loans that must be repaid. The difference is that regular students typically have the time to go and find a part-time job, internship, or even full-time jobs to supplement the cost of living they face.
NCAA players can start thinking about going pro halfway through their freshman year when they start realizing they do not have enough food and start to go hungry. During the sports season the different athletes are competing in, there really is no free time for a job of any kind. Between classes, practices, studying, games, road trips, and hopefully sleeping, it is not an option.
Not getting paid in school compared to a potential multi-million dollar contract by entering the professional leagues is viewed by some of the athletes as their only option to survive. Many of these players make the jump too soon. They may find themselves drafted, but then regulated to a developmental league, the minor leagues, or released from the team.
And the schools suffer too. Many schools are looking at building the best teams they can so that the school can be competitive in their conferences and potentially have a shot at winning a national championship. The teams may have a talented squad, do well, and the following year have a different looking team because many players tried to make the next step to the professional leagues.
A regular student studying mechanical engineering can get a part-time job during the school year, and even look for an internship in their field of study. This can pay for food, bills, a car, even an apartment for the student. During the school year, the student athlete has little chance of a part-time job. During the summer, they could get a part-time job or even a full-time job for the three months off, but many of them will participate in summer leagues of their sport to continue to get better as an athlete. And three months of working part-time gives the athlete just a little extra money for the school year.
While these student athletes may be suffering from a lack of money, the school’s capitalize on the athletes. Ticket sales, money from bowl games, the prestige earned from winning conference titles, and all the money that the teams earn from the athletes and the students see nothing in return for their hard work. So moving on to the professional leagues and the lure of big money becomes even more enticing.
Major League Baseball (MLB) has a rule set for college students. When a student graduates high school, he can enter the MLB draft if he has not attended college and join the organization that drafts him. He could very well stay in the minor leagues for years before the chance to move up to the senior team if ever. If that student enters a four-year college, they must complete their junior or senior years and be at least 21-years old before they can enter the draft. This makes it compelling for an athlete to enter the draft out of high school if they think they are good enough. If they are not drafted, and do not sign as a free agent with a team, the player can go to college and play. At that time they now must wait until they have completed their junior/senior year and be 21-years old before trying for the draft again.
The NFL only requires that a player must have been out of high school for three years before they are eligible for the draft. They do no have to be in college, but the expectation is that the player has attended college for at least three years and played college football or another sport prior to entering the draft.
The NBA has a one and done rule. The only requirement for an athlete to enter the draft is that they have completed one year of college. That rule has made it hard for college basketball coaches. Teams that have had players stay for three or four years of their eligibility are suddenly finding that they are only having players stay for one season. A team on the verge of a national championship or a top 10 ranking can suddenly be out of the running the following season.
The word that Napier was going hungry disturbed the new NBA commissioner Adam Silver. He has proposed that the NBA could potentially consider subsidizing NCAA players. It would be a huge undertaking with the amount of schools out there and the amount of players and it is just in the idea stage right now. If an agreement between the NCAA, the NBA and the NBA’s Players Association could be made, then you could see the NBA issuing money to the schools for the players. This money could be distributed to the players as food vouchers or cash. Maybe even a ticket home once a school year for athletes who can not afford to travel home to see family.
It is not just basketball players who are considering leaving their NCAA sport to go pro instead of hungry. It can be all athletes, and the difficult part about it is what happens to the players that do not have that option to go pro. Some of the sports that do not have a professional league the athlete may have the slim opportunity to continue on as an amateur athlete competing in the Olympics and world championships, where they could earn a living from sponsorships, but for the most part, there would be no money coming into those sports.
If the NBA does pursue subsidizing college basketball athletes, what does it mean for other sports then? The NFL would be smart to join, but with near 100 athletes per team, either the amount given by the NFL would have to be much larger than the NBA’s idea, or it would have to come up with a different plan altogether. Then you may see MLB and the NHL have to follow suit soon after. Even Major League Soccer and some of the smaller professional sports leagues be pressured into similar offerings.
It could be possible that the money received from the professional leagues could be pooled and distributed evenly to all of the athletes at a school, but then the athletes again return to the potential that there will not be enough money for food the entire school year. The Northwestern Football decision that they could unionize and should be viewed as employees of the school could flow over to all sports in all schools overtime. If the professional leagues subsidize players and and student athletes end up being paid as employees, not only might you see athletes staying in school, but also becoming better players when they do move on to the professional leagues.
To go hungry or to go pro is a question that should never come up for the NCAA or the players in college. The NCAA needs to take this very seriously. Throughout growing up students hear that education is important, stay in school, go to college, but if the college does not provide well enough for the well being of their student athletes, the NCAA needs to fix the problem and make staying in school all four years more appealing for the athletes.
Commentary by Carl Auer