• Lillie Burke

Is it time to offer more than scholarships? A Belmont look into the pay for play discussion

In one of the most historic college football seasons ever, Louisiana State University defeated Clemson University 42-25 in the national championship game watched by more than 25 million Americans on ESPN Monday night.

LSU quarterback Joe Burrow broke records, won the coveted Heisman Trophy and led his team to a championship. He will be one of the top players drafted in the NFL this spring and make millions of dollars.

But a majority of the 32-man roster may never see the glory or the money.

In fact, only 1.6 percent of eligible college football players see the big leagues, according to the NCAA website.

College athletes don’t get paid for grueling workouts nor do they see any money made from games. Though many receive full rides to the universities they attend, they are barred from making money off their likenesses and images.

Is that fair compensation for the work?

It was for Scott Corley, Belmont’s director of athletics and former Belmont basketball player.

“Maybe I’m a little old school … What I got out of my experience was the value of an education and how I’ve matured and made contacts and just grew as a person. That to me was very, very valuable,” said Corley.

In late September, California decided to take a stance on the pay for play issue by passing a law allowing college athletes to make money off of their name and image — a bill supported by the likes of basketball legends Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Lebron James.

And in late October, the NCAA’s board of governors unanimously voted to move in the direction of allowing players to make money off their image while keeping the college model in mind.

“I still think for the majority of the people, the system works the way it’s meant to work,” said Corley.

Allowing players to make money off their likeness may only give larger, more popular schools an advantage, said Corley.

“We don’t know what it’s going to do,” said Corley. “You can have a big excited booster who’s going to say, ‘If you come here, I’ll give you $100,000 and put your name on a billboard.’ What happens there, does that booster now give the university the 100,000 to help support the other sports that don’t generate revenue?”

As a former student athlete himself, Corley disagrees with the notion that a college education isn’t fair compensation.

The school’s job is to educate student athletes and prepare them for their next stage of life, said Corley.

“I think there’s a lot of value that’s being discounted for 99 percent of the student-athlete population where they are getting a nice education, and in many cases a free education, some of the best training, some of the best coaching where they’re able to grow and mature build their brand while they’re playing a Division I sport,” said Corley.

Belmont men’s basketball alum and current Greek Basket League player Amanze Egekeze is on the other side of the aisle and believes that allowing players to make money off their likeness would be a great opportunity.

“This idea that paying the players and compensating them somehow diminishes the value of higher education, I never really believed that one can’t be true without the other,” said Egekeze.

“By the general basic rules of labor, technically you should be paying your guys. How much or how you distribute that? That’s where it can get tricky.”

As a player who has played for four different professional teams since 2017, Egekeze knows that playing professionally isn’t guaranteed and a lot of college athletes may never get to see financial success from their talents.

Egekeze is one of eight Belmont basketball players currently playing professionally. Ian Clark and Dylan Windler are the only graduates to have seen the NBA while the rest play overseas.

“Nothing is guaranteed for athletes,” said Egekeze. “An injury may derail their whole future. I just feel like for the schools that generate so much money from the players, at some point you’re going to have to find a way to compensate them.”

College athletes have been paid illegally in the past. The University of Arizona and the infamous Southern Methodist University football scandals continue to be talking points when pay for play is discussed. The NCAA has punished coaches, athletes and sometimes the entire schools. Why not make it legal, so under the table payments go away, suggested Egekeze.

Athletes making money off their image and likeness would be equivalent to a songwriting student at Belmont cutting a record deal or going on tour, said Egekeze. So why does the NCAA prevent athletes from using their likeness?

“They won’t be penalized in any way, but it’s the same thing. It’s their craft, they go to school for it but they can make money off of their likeness tomorrow. I don’t think it should be any different for athletes.”

Current Bruin volleyball stars Mary Catherine Ball and Mackenzie LaPage stand with Corley and feel players making money off their likeness can stray away from the amateur model and what makes college sports great.

“I think that staying a college athlete and staying amateur status and that way is very important for us to be able to mature mentally and financially learn what’s going on and stuff like that,” said LePage.

LePage said that right now, she thinks focusing on a degree and playing her four years of volleyball is what’s most important.

Ball, her teammate, agrees.

“Personally, I think it takes away from the universities because college sports are so big,” said Ball. “For the reason that it’s just players giving our hearts out for the university. I think it kind of turns it into more of a professional sport.”

These players may not be on the ‘pay for play’ boat, but what they would like to see is stipends for Belmont student athletes.

In 2015, the NCAA allowed universities to offer “cost of attendance” stipends for student athletes to help them better afford things like groceries, books and entertainment. Many schools, including Ohio Valley Conference schools like Murray State and Eastern Kentucky offer stipends.

Belmont, on the other hand, does not.

“This is our occupation at the time,” said Ball. “We barely have time to have jobs outside of sports for paying for different things such as food, clothing … the essentials of shampoo, conditioner, like all that it starts to rack up. So being a college athlete you don’t have time to make some money outside.”

Egekeze said he thinks stipends are the way to go when discussing payments for college athletes.

“I 110 percent agree that student athletes should have stipends,” said Egekeze. “The principle of it makes a whole lot of sense. Even if you’re not going to go all the way paying players, at least having something like that for the everyday stuff.”

LePage agrees way as the cost of living can get expensive for a college student, especially ones who don’t have the time to make some money on the side.

“I’m definitely in support of those just in the fact of living costs and stuff like that, if we’re putting in a lot of time on the court and in the gym, then we don’t necessarily have the time to have a part time job keeping us afloat.”

It isn’t just students who think stipends for college athletes are important. Rick Stockstill, head football coach for Middle Tennessee thought they were so important he gave up part of his raise once he found out there may not be room for them in the budget.

“I’m all in favor for them,” said Stockstill. “I think athletes should be entitled to it.”

Stockstill has been head coach at MTSU and has seen his fair share of success, but what stands out the most is when he delayed a $100,000 pay raise each year for four years so that money could go to stipends for student athletes.

“We’re very limited financially here like most schools our size. And it wasn’t just for football players, it was for all athletes,” said Stockstill. “I just felt it was important to do anything I could do to help our athletes get a little extra spending money.”

MTSU currently gives every student athlete a cost of attendance stipend of $3,400 a year, according to MTSU athletics.

Stockstill stands with the idea of stipends as long as they are regulated well and doesn’t give a school a recruiting advantage, he said. But as times continue to change, Stockstill knows the NCAA has to change with them — especially as college sports become a year-round dedication.

“There is so much money in college athletics,” said Stockstill. “Every athlete, in every state at every school should have the opportunity.”

“If he or she wants to go to a car dealership and do a commercial or whatever and make 500 bucks you know I’m all for it.”

Though he likes the idea and thinks it should be considered, Stockstill wants it to be heavily regulated because it may give other schools — bigger schools — an advantage when it comes to recruiting.

“I do think there should be some limitations on how much you can make and I even thought about, does that money go to an account and once you graduate you get it or even if you have a certain GPA after a certain year you can get it,” said Stockstill.

This is where most of Corley’s concerns come from. He feels the California law and the push for paying athletes will only help bigger schools.

“I still contend that some of this stuff is being legislated for such a small portion of anything the NCAA is about,” said Corley.

But Stockstill says that it is something that needs to be discussed because it is the direction we are headed into and there is most likely no turning back.

“It’s coming and I don’t see it stopping and I think it’s going to happen,” said Stockstill. “I think everyone has the opportunity to benefit for cost of attendance and benefit off of their image and likeness.”

Photo by Carina Eudy.

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