There's a way to pay players. There's a way to pay them as much as you want.
Five figures a year? No problem. Enough, even, to make Terrelle Pryor and his entitled hands-out band of brothers think twice about going outlaw. You really want to fund what is becoming the buzz-issue of the offseason? That would be cost of attendance.
Before considering the answer, consider how we got here. Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany made some of the biggest news of the offseason in May by suggesting that athletes get a little somethin'-somethin' in addition to tuition, room, board, books and fees.
|More on NCAA stipends|
The cost-of-attendance discussion -- basically providing spending money for athletes -- has been around for decades without a clear resolution. Everyone agrees that, in theory, the idea is a good one. Major-college athletes' time demands make their chosen sport something close to a full-time job. Including a stipend in a scholarship seems fair and just. Criticizing the idea is like coming out against cuddly puppies.
That doesn't mean it will work.
Delany didn't offer many details. Commissioners had talked about the concept at the Final Four. Delany chose to go public at the Big Ten meetings. The combination of his standing as one of the most powerful persons in college athletics and a slow news week might have had something to do with it becoming a talking point. Predictably, those major conference commissioners, suddenly flush with money from lucrative network rights deals, supported the concept.
But that's all it was, an idea, a thought. Everywhere you run down this path of payola there is a dead end. Specifically ...
• How does a modest $3,000-$5,000 extra per year keep the likes of Georgia's A.J. Green from selling his jersey for $1,000? It sure as hell doesn't stop Pryor from allegedly making $20,000-$40,000 off the sale of his memorabilia.
• How do you pay 85 scholarship football players without paying 85 women on the other side as well as every other scholarship athlete? At a place like Stanford that includes more than 850 athletes (the school does not disclose its actual number of scholarship athletes).
"I think at a purely practical level it's going to be hard to pay for it," Stanford AD Bob Bowlsby said. "The economics of it are not there. ... You've got 328 schools [actually, 335] playing Division I basketball. This is a great solution for 60 of them. It's an awful solution for the other 250."
|Some coaches, like South Carolina's Steve Spurrier, have been vocal about the need for a stipend system. (Getty Images)|
• There are those who will tell you that deserving athletes are already paid. The federal government provides Pell Grants. The NCAA makes available monies from various funds for those who are truly financially strapped.
"There is this whole premise about, 'I don't have a trip home,' that really is not legitimate," Bowlsby said. There are also hardliners like former Ohio State great Chris Spielman who question whether an athlete on a full scholarship needs such financial help. He understands why wrongdoers are tempted to take extra benefits, but he still doesn't like it.
"At what point is it the kid's responsibility, while he's the student, to support the family?" he said. "If mama needs an electric bill paid, then mama needs to pay the electric bill. That's her responsibility.
"Don't tell me about [lack of] money if you have the latest, greatest iPhone or iPad or suit or watch."
Still, there is a way to do it. A lucrative, sensible way that would make Delany and his fellow commishes look hypocritical if they didn't do it. You want enough money to pay the players? You want enough cash to paper a locker room? Start a playoff.
There's no question the money would be there. There have been countless playoff proposals. Recently, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban started a limited liability company to explore the issue. The BCS bowls alone produced $193 million last season. A modest playoff might be worth four times that amount. Let's round it off to $800 million.
"This is why an FBS championship solves so many problems ...," said John Infante, assistant compliance director at Colorado State and author of Bylaw Blog on the NCAA website. "I have a hard time seeing less than a billion dollars."
Even at $800 million, that's an average of $6.7 million in found money for the 120 schools in FBS. At a school with 250 scholarship athletes, that comes out to a gross average of $26,800 per athlete. Half of that would be more than enough for the average college student.
Heck, pay them a 10th of that figure. Use the rest to pay for more NCAA enforcement cops. Start guaranteeing four-year scholarships. (Currently they are renewable year-to-year.) With that much money available there really are no bad suggestions to help the student-athlete.
But a playoff is a non-starter right away for the BCS power brokers. They would rather have the power that comes with keeping more than 80 percent of that $193 million than share $1 billion equitably. They can afford cost of attendance, but they live in a different financial neighborhood than, say, San Jose State.
The WAC school considered dropping football a few years ago. That $6.7 million would be a huge boost, representing a third of the current budget.
"San Jose State would find a way to [fund cost of attendance]," said Marie Tuite, senior associate AD and COO at the school. "We'd have to. You can't wear the title of Division I-A and then beat your chest and say you're a I-A institution and then not support the provisions of that division."
But there's a difference between "finding a way" and having disposable income. San Jose State could fund cost of attendance perhaps at the expense of a new weight room or raises for coaches. Ohio State could fund its massive athletic program and still have enough left to get tattoos for everyone.
"What happens to San Jose State is that it just makes them tread water instead of investing in other sports," Infante said.
Throw in a playoff and suddenly the likes of San Jose State can make ends meet. Maybe that's what Delany was aiming at, a subtle way to further separate the haves from the have nots. For now, the only answer that makes sense (a playoff) is the one that makes no sense to the powers guiding this debate.
Short of tapping into that postseason windfall, Delany and his peers have done nothing more than earn the right to say, "I told you so." Just wait for the next kid with his hand out and the next big scandal.
That would make them righteous. It doesn't make them right.