Greg Jayne: College athletes get schooled in finance

Greg Jayne: Commentary

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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Being intelligent and educated and employed in the world of high finance, Josh Tschirgi can provide us with some insight.

"I think the big thing football players have a beef with the universities and the NCAA is that there's such a wide gap between what a head coach and an athletic director make, and a student-athlete getting $900 a month," said Tschirgi, a graduate of Skyview High School and the University of Oregon.

Tschirgi played his way through college, strapping on a helmet and blocking 300-pound behemoths in exchange for an education. He's 27 now, and he works as a financial advisor for Morgan Stanley in Portland.

So, when the issue of paying college athletes showed up in the news again last week, I gave him a call.

This is, after all, a question nearly as old as college athletics itself.

Athletes — the elite ones, at least — receive a free education while defending the honor of good ol' State or Tech in the athletic arena. It's not a bad deal for the athletes, but it's also not an equitable one.

But when NCAA president Mark Emmert proposed last year that athletes should receive an extra $2,000 annually for living expenses not covered by scholarships, it was treated as though the idea would send colleges over the fiscal cliff.

This week, Emmert repeated his desire to see some sort of stipend, but he acknowledged the cacophony that led to the plan being stayed.

" 'Stayed' is the polite word; it kind of got crushed," he said. "We didn't anticipate the reaction it provoked."

That reaction points out the indefensible economic model that governs college sports.

When Chip Kelly is making $3.4 million a year as Oregon's head coach, and Steve Sarkisian is making $2.4 million at Washington, and UW athletic director Scott Woodward is guaranteed $550,000 a year, it's disingenuous for the schools to plead poverty when it comes to paying athletes.

Earlier this year, in urging that the proposal be delayed, Cal AD Sandy Barbour said her school needs time to figure out how the stipend will fit into the budget. A few weeks ago, she decided to pay Jeff Tedford nearly $7 million over the next three years to not coach the Bears.

So, in trying to understand the issue of paying college athletes, I went to the people who actually matter — the athletes.

They're the ones who have their tuition paid for and who receive scholarship checks for an amount determined by an NCAA cost-of-living formula.

"We get paid $670 a month at Idaho," said Evergreen graduate Bobby Cowan, who last month wrapped up his football career with the Vandals. "Rent is $300 to $400 for most guys. You've got to pay bills, which is about $100 a month. And you've got to eat. I would be in favor of a stipend. The NCAA's making plenty of money."

Which is the reason this discussion has returned to the forefront.

TV money from the new college football playoff, which begins in 2014, will deliver about $470 million a year to the conferences. The current TV deal for the NCAA men's basketball tournament, money that goes directly to the NCAA, is worth about $770 million a year.

Yet while the marquee sports are the ones that generate the big money, colleges also have athletes who play volleyball, run track, or compete in wrestling. Stanford even fields varsity teams in men's and women's fencing, women's squash, and women's synchronized swimming. There aren't a lot of TV contracts for those sports, but those scholarship athletes would have to be included in any stipend.

Leanna Ludes, a Skyview graduate who recently completed her senior volleyball season at the University of San Francisco, said she receives a scholarship check at the beginning of each semester to pay for rent, food and essentials. Textbooks are provided, but student-athletes must return them; course fees are waived.

"I never really think about it until I talk with students who are paying for their own schooling," said Ludes, president of USF's Student-Athlete Advisory Committee.

Her thoughts on an additional stipend?

"That would be nice, but I think I would use it more for wants than needs," she said.

The ideal solution is one that will never happen, which tends to be the case when you're dealing with bureaucracies: There should be professional minor leagues for football and men's basketball. Other sports, by nature of their relative smallness, can be considered part of a school's educational mission; football and men's basketball are businesses.

"It's a business if the people at the top are getting millions of dollars," Tschirgi said.

Good point. Even if nobody ever paid to watch Chip Kelly strap on a helmet and try to block a 300-pounder.

Greg Jayne is Sports editor for The Columbian. He can be reached at 360-735-4531, or online at greg.jayne@columbian.com. Follow him on Twitter: @col_gjayne