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Everyone is winning — the NCAA, schools, agents, coaches and fans — except the players

Nowadays, a scholarship and $120 a month just isn’t enough

The imagery is striking — and fitting.

In one gigantic, connected space in Indianapolis, you have the Indiana Convention Center and Lucas Oil Stadium, where for the past few days hundreds of former college football players have been running, jumping, lifting and taking tests to persuade teams to pick them in June when the NFL holds its annual draft.

Five blocks away from this activity sits the imposing headquarters of the National Collegiate Athletic Association.

The NCAA hands out penalties, oversees myriad programs and runs championships in all sports — except big-time football.

For decades, NCAA member schools have served as eager minor leagues for the NFL and the National Basketball Association, and to a lesser extent for Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League, which maintain their own minor league systems.

The NCAA has come under fire, once again, for maintaining a system of free labor in which athletes are punished for receiving extra benefits while many of their coaches receive millions and conference commissioners receive the same.

Recent disclosures of payments to athletes from a former sports agent and arrangements with apparel companies to steer top athletes to programs that wear the company’s product have reignited calls for athletes to be paid.

“Everybody’s winning except the players,” said Troy Vincent, the executive vice president of football operations for the NFL. “The system needs adjustment. Just a scholarship alone today isn’t sufficient.”

Vincent is well-versed in the system.

He played football for Wisconsin from 1988 to 1992. He played 17 seasons in the NFL and worked for the NFL Players Association.

Vincent does not feel that he was exploited. “I received a quality education. I would say I’m indebted to the university for what it provided for me in navigating my journey through life.”

That has nothing to do with the current reality of a multibillion-dollar intercollegiate athletic industry. Vincent has seen the industry explode over the past 20 years with conference television networks, lucrative conference playoffs, the rise in influence of apparel companies and mega sports agents, coaches and conference commissioners making multimillions in compensation.

“The kids are seeing all these things and saying, ‘My mom hasn’t seen me play, my father hasn’t seen me play.’ How do we meet the needs of the student-athletes?” he said.

Vincent has a vested interest in seeing an improvement. Two sons (the Vincents have five children) are scholarship football players. Troy Jr. is a senior at Towson University in Baltimore. Taron is a highly recruited high school player who is headed to Ohio State in the fall.

The needs of the contemporary student-athlete are basic but overlooked: travel allowances, proper food allowances, parking permits and clothing allowances.

“Don’t go to a number, go to what’s the need. Start with what is necessary just to make it,” Vincent said. “We shouldn’t be having this discussion in 2018 when everybody in the universe is winning.”

Yet, here we are in 2018 having the same conversation about an insidious form of child abuse dressed up as intercollegiate athletics.

Athletes are bigger, faster and stronger, and many train in state-of-the-art facilities. The only thing that has lagged is the compensation for college athletes who provide a measure of on-campus entertainment at their respective schools.

Chad Pennington came to the NFL combine 18 years ago as a wide-eyed quarterback from Marshall University.

“I was completely obsessed with the game of football and the whole experience,” he said. “All I was thinking about was the field and playing and pursuing the dream of playing at the next level of competition.”

Eighteen years later, the combine has become a commercial magnet.

Fans attend the workouts, corporations buy suites to entertain clients, and an apparel company, Under Armour, outfits the athletes from head to toe.

“When I went through the combine, we got a cotton T-shirt with a number on it,” Pennington recalled.

“The young athlete now has been exposed to the business of the game earlier than the NFL,” he said. “They’ve even been exposed to it in high school, with regional combines and all-star games and the recruiting process. Now these kids are being recruited as freshmen and sophomores.”

I spoke to a few of the athletes attending this year’s combine about their view of the pressing issue of the day: compensation for college players.

Ryan Nall, the 22-year-old running back from Oregon State, said his opinion about compensation is still “kind of up in the air.”

“I see arguments from both sides,” he said. “I understand that basketball and football are the two main college sports that bring in the most revenue. The argument there is how about the other sports? How are they going to be paid?

“I’d be happy for the kids to be able to get paid, but it’s complicated and controversial.”

Nall’s No. 21 jersey is sold at the campus bookstore. He sees people wearing his jersey around town and on campus.

He is not offended.

“I thought that was the coolest thing,” Nall said. “I was walking around campus; some kids were wearing my jersey. My name isn’t on the back, but people know it’s a Ryan Nall jersey.

“Some people feel they should receive compensation for that. Obviously, it would be nice to be compensated. But a piece of me loves knowing that I’m representing the school and people are representing my jersey. Its meaningful.”

From the NCAA’s perspective, this is the perfect attitude: gratitude. Feeling fortunate to have been given the opportunity to run up and down the football field with room, tuition and board covered, three meals paid for and a monthly stipend check that ranges from $150 to $200. Athletes who play in so-called Power Five conferences might receive more.

But Nall is not oblivious to the problem many of his fellow athletes face. “I know some guys are struggling, not getting enough from the scholarship check,” he said. “They’ve got to make payments. They’ve got to be able to support their families back home. I see the other side …”

Kamryn Pettway, the running back from Auburn, is less understanding.

“I feel that athletes should be paid because the university and the NCAA make billions of dollars off us and we don’t see a dime,” he told me.

Pettway is married. He and his wife have a child.

“Trying to budget off a school stipend, that was kind of hard,” he said. “So I feel players should get something.” Asked whether he felt exploited, Pettway said that on balance he felt he got as much value out of the university as the university got out of him.

“I’ll graduate with a degree,” he said. “I lived out my dream of playing college football. Now I have the chance to go to the NFL, so I feel like I’ve got everything out of it.”

How much should 20-something-year-old athletes be allowed to share in the fruits they help generate?

No athletes, no system; no system, no athletic scholarships.

Brandon Parker, the former North Carolina A&T star, feels that an increase in compensation is in order. “I was fortunate that my family was able to help me through,” he said, referring to receiving money to help fill in the gaps that his monthly stipend check did not cover.

“So it hasn’t been too rough. It still wasn’t great, but it wasn’t as rough as it’s been for some of my teammates.”

Parker told of watching teammates struggle. “I have seen teammates who may not have had that support system struggle to get meals, even with the scholarship.

“You get the cafeteria, but the cafeteria closes at 8:45. What about those late nights when you’re hungry? You’ve been up studying all night?”

Parker’s suggestion: “We may not need to have a very generous compensation, but at least something to help us through those rough times that would make it a little more comfortable.”

I asked Parker for a figure. He said he received $120 a month, along with room, board, tuition and three meals covered by the athletic scholarship package.

“I think that, even though you’re in school, you can’t be spoon-fed,” he said. “You need to learn how to manage money. But I would do $150 to $200 a month. That’s not a whole lot; you just must learn to make it stretch.”

We know from well-documented history and current events that boosters, agents, apparel company representatives and others will make sure certain players receive what the NCAA calls “extra benefits.” The gifts and loans are designed to fill in the gaps or entice players into future contractual relationships.

Paying players will not stop this activity, any more than legalizing marijuana will stop violence around the drug trade. What reformers should be after is finding a way to more fairly compensate all college athletes in a college sports industry awash with money.

In the wake of last year’s apparel scandal, the NCAA formed a committee tasked with, among other things, coming up with a formula that satisfies the NCAA’s labor force while keeping NCAA coffers filled and big-time coaches and conference commissioners making millions.

“There is enough for everybody,” said Vincent. “We have to make sure that all are winning. It’s not either-or. It has to be both-and.”

William C. Rhoden, the former award-winning sports columnist for The New York Times and author of Forty Million Dollar Slaves, is a writer-at-large for Andscape.