Column: How to pay ASU athletes

Redistributing coach and administrator bonuses could be a mechanism to compensate college athletes

In its opinion deciding the O’Bannon v. NCAA case, the Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals held that “offering (college athletes) cash sums untethered to educational expenses” would completely and irreparably transform collegiate athletics, ultimately relegating it to “minor league status.”

While that reasoning is logically inconsistent (why, for instance, does coaches accepting pay unrelated to academic expenses not completely vitiate college sports?) and ignores the fact that collegiate football and basketball already function as minor, development leagues for the NFL and NBA, respectively, it is nonetheless the controlling precedent in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction and must be adhered to in future litigation.

Though this ruling significantly restricts the type of compensation athletes may seek in lawsuits challenging the NCAA’s amateurism restrictions, it does not completely foreclose the chances for players to receive significantly more than they are currently allowed.

Indeed, a generous interpretation of “educational expenses” could cover a wide variety of items, including graduate school tuition, more comprehensive health care after graduating, graduation incentives, and the like. I argue that, in the interest of supporting the NCAA’s well-worn “almost all (athletes) are going pro in something other than sports” mantra, athletes’ job relocation expenses should also be considered educationally-related.

Once the permissible “expenses” are determined, the question then turns to how such programs would be funded. To be clear, institutions currently have the financial resources to fund graduate scholarships, long-term health care and graduation bonuses for their athletes — they just choose not to, and instead spend the money on other inputs, including administrative salariesrecruit-capturing facilities and ridiculously-high buyouts for prominent coaches.

So, the resources necessary to fund these other “educational expenses” could be redirected from a variety of places throughout the athletic department or simply be taken from the new (and increasing) revenues schools generate every year.

One option, as I will outline below, is to take the existing athletic and academic incentives contained in coaches and administrators contracts and distribute those amounts amongst academically eligible athletes. Because shouldn’t the individuals doing the actual work be the ones receiving (at least some of) the reward? That’s a novel concept in collegiate athletics, to be sure, but the industry must be open to significant change if it is adapt to the onslaught of lawsuits and other reform efforts.

Here is how such a redistribution might work, using ASU football head coach Todd Graham and head men’s basketball coach Bobby Hurley’s contracts as examples.

Graham’s contract, renewed last year, contains a variety of athletic and academic performance bonuses, including: $300,000 for appearing in the Pac-12 championship game, or $600,000 for winning the Pac-12 title; $450,000 for a New Years Six bowl appearance or $750,000 for a win in one of those bowls; $25,000 for a win in any other bowl; $50,000, $150,000, and $300,000 for eight, nine, and 10 wins, respectively; $125,000 for a team GPA of 2.75-2.79; $300,000 for a team APR of 970 or above.

These bonuses, if and when earned, could be redistributed amongst ASU’s academically eligible football players, with the money placed in trust and payable upon graduation. The distribution scheme would be different for academic and athletic bonuses: Athletes would receive 100 percent of academic bonuses, and 50 percent of athletic bonuses (acknowledging the coach’s role in orchestrating on-field success).

Thus, if ASU appeared in this season’s Pac-12 Championship Game, Graham would keep $150,000 of the bonus due and owing, with the remainder distributed amongst eligible ASU players. Moreover, if the team’s GPA were 2.77, $125,000 would be given to the players — the ones who actually attended class and did the papers, projects and presentations for which Graham is being rewarded. Though the individual payouts might be relatively modest, anything is more than what players are currently allowed to receive. The cliché that “something is better than nothing” certainly rings true.

Similar distributions could be made pursuant to Hurley’s contract — and this time, the individual payouts would be much higher due to the smaller roster size. At the time Hurley’s contract was agreed to in April 2015, his incentives included: $50,000 each for winning the Pac-12 regular season and tournament titles; $100,000 for a Sweet Sixteen berth in NCAA Tournament; $25,000 for a 20-win season; and $75,000 for a 3.0 team GPA.

So, if the team reached the Sweet Sixteen and maintained a 3.10 GPA, $125,000 would be owed to players; divided among 13 athletes, that’s over $9,600 — not an insignificant amount of money for players who may seek graduate degrees or require increased medical care as a result of their playing careers.

Admittedly, altering coach’s contracts in this manner may be legally problematic, but financially immaterial for two coaches who base salaries are a combined $4.2 million. I would hope that both would gladly accept reduced bonuses if it meant their players were better positioned for long-term success.

In addition, athletes from all sports, not just football or basketball,could be monetarily incentivized to graduate. For example, the athletics department could offer a $1,000 bonus for each ASU athlete who graduated that could used to cover graduate school tuition, or job relocation expenses. Even if all of ASU’s 504 athletes earned the bonus, that’s just over $500,000 over four years — about 17 percent of Todd Graham’s annual salary.

Similar incentives could be placed on other academic achievements, like conference and national scholar-athlete honors. A Pac-12 All-Academic award could be worth $500, while a Scholar-Athlete of the Year honor could be valued at $1,000. The possibilities in this space stretch as far as the athletic department’s creativity.

Would such a system of compensation justly award athletes, particularly those in football and basketball, for the revenues their efforts generate for the University? Absolutely not, but again, any compensation — even that which is tethered to educational expenses — is more than players can currently receive. What’s more, $1,000 could make a world of difference for a player who, without any financial support, could never dream of moving away to take a great job across the country, or continue his or her education at the graduate level.

The opportunities for college athletes to earn compensation above-and-beyond the value of their athletic scholarships are severely limited in the post-O’Bannon world (in the Ninth Circuit’s jurisdiction), but they are not completely unavailable. Redistributing coaches’ bonuses and incentivizing academic achievement, if implemented properly, could be aspects of comprehensive amateurism reform — no matter how small the individual payouts end up being.            

In the words of Nigel Hayes, these are “Broke college athlete(s), anything helps.”

Reach the columnist at or follow @camerun_miller on Twitter.

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