By Omar Tyree
The issue of granting a stipend for the marketing, enrollment, game attendance, sales of school paraphernalia and other monetary gains that popular student athletes provide at hundreds of American colleges and universities is in the national news again—this time because of a recent suspension for illegal profits of Georgia Bulldogs running back and early Heisman Trophy candidate, Todd Gurley II.
Gurley, a junior, was reportedly paid $400 by an autograph dealer for signing a few hundred school items during the spring offseason that are now being sold on eBay. It’s a violation of NCAA amateur rules that do not allow scholarship athletes to accept or seek payment or gifts for their autographs, appearances or popularity. Gurley was suspended indefinitely from the University of Georgia, which did not have a choice under NCAA rules.
Once reports surfaced that Gurley was suspected of NCAA violations, the school could have been forced to forfeit their Saturday game against the Missouri Tigers, along with paying other NCAA fines and penalties. So UGA Director of Athletics, Greg McGarity moved to shut Gurley down the athlete immediately even as school officials and attorneys continued to uncover the details of the case.
This couldn’t have come at a worse time for Gurley.
I had just read a great article about Gurley. A reporter wrote all about his humble upbringing with a single mother in Baltimore, who moved Gurley and his older siblings to Rocky Mount, N.C. and later to Tarboro, N.C. for a more affordable living and a simpler life “out in the country.” Gurley didn’t even have access to cable TV. It wasn’t in his mother’s family budget.
So this kid learned to work hard for everything. All he had was the love of his family, friends and football. His excellence as a high school athlete then paved the way for a grand opportunity to attend the University of Georgia, one of the premiere football schools of the south.
But once Gurley arrived there as a celebrated freshman, and had immediate success on the field, just imagine the difference this kid felt when hundreds of thousands of fans showed up to cheer and celebrate him each week, while millions more watched on TV, bought thousands of his team jerseys, and began to ask him for his autograph everywhere we went. Only, Gurley could not make a dime off of anything, and he had to be very careful about the wrong person inviting him out to a movie with buttered popcorn and a Pepsi.
Sure, I’ve heard all about the “free rides” of full scholarships that student athletes receive—now worth $30,000 – $80,000 a year. But I’ve also been there at the University of Pittsburgh in my freshman year of 1987, and those so-called “free rides” are earned, because these schools will work athletics to death in order to win. So good luck with choosing a major that’s actually worth $30,000 – $80,000. Most athletes don’t have the time for it, and many coaches will tell them so—especially in football and basketball. Nor were these kids invited to school to focus on a major. They are recruited to play sports, while masquerading as students. That’s the hardcore reality here.
But every time the conversation to pay them pops up, we are reminded of a million complications. Would these payments destroy the real reason for attending school? How much do we pay athletes? Do we pay them in all sports or only the selected few? Would the payment model be fair to women athletes and Title IX rules of gender equality, knowing that most women’s sports cost more annually than they earn?
These are the many questions of execution and fairness that pop up. But at the end of the day, life is never fair. Is it fair that a rich kid can earn a full scholarship to school and call home to his parents for thousands of dollars each month, while riding the bench in soccer? At the same time, a superstar basketball player from generations of poverty waits by the school cafeteria door each day with a growling stomach, while the university markets his name, game and jersey for hundreds of thousands of dollars that he can’t touch, including the scholarship money that paid for the wealthy benchwarmer in soccer.
It’s all an insane argument that will need to be dealt with sooner rather than later. The NCAA will have to find a better way to make it all work—in fairness.