The constant debate about whether college athletes should be paid just veered into the surreal when Minnesota Vikings running back Adrian Peterson recently offered his views on the subject. Before we even get into Peterson’s credibility in this realm, let’s first stick with the larger issue. College athletes don’t need to be paid, plain and simple. They also don’t need multimillionaires like Peterson distorting this conversation by talking about how screwed they were during their own days as amateurs.
The problem with Peterson weighing in on this topic is that once again the entire issue is being oversimplified. For those who don’t know, Peterson addressed the question of whether college athletes should be paid while promoting a product called Hyperice during a conference call Wednesday. He actually said that players “are the ones making these universities money” while adding that he and former Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel produced plenty of revenue for their respective schools. To top it all off, Peterson said “nobody wants to live in the dorms for four years,” as if that has anything to do with this discussion.
Before we go further, it’s important to note that Peterson is a smart, likable guy with incredible talent and what appears to be a big heart. That said, he is not the person who needs to be a spokesman for this cause. If we want to travel back to 2006, prior to Peterson’s junior year at Oklahoma, we’ll find that he was uncomfortably close to a scandal that eventually led to former Sooners quarterback Rhett Bomar being dismissed from the program. Bomar had been “working” for a local car dealer and major OU donor at a cushy summer job, one that reportedly paid him $18,000 (Bomar apparently barely worked at the dealership). Peterson reportedly was chummy enough with the same dealer that at one point Peterson was under investigation by the school for driving a Lexus he didn’t own for a month. (He claimed to be pursuing financing for the vehicle while it was in his possession.)
Though Oklahoma never found Peterson guilty of any wrongdoing in that matter, that story makes it difficult to empathize with his contention that players deserve a piece of the pie. Stars like Peterson have access to perks that average students never receive. And while he may feel slighted that Oklahoma “made so much money” during his playing days, he’s seriously misguided if he believes that is justification for all student-athletes to get paid. Oklahoma football was making serious money before he came along. It damn sure has made plenty since he left.
That isn’t to say Peterson’s comments didn’t do something important. They did return the discussion about college athletes needing to be paid to its most basic level, that being the twisted logic that fuels it. Supporters of this idea see all the revenue reaped by football (and basketball) programs around the country and believe the players deserve more because they’re doing the lion’s share of the work. They hear Peterson lament the inequity of the system — or a quote like the one UConn guard Shabazz Napier recently gave a reporter, in which he said he goes to bed “starving” some nights — and believe that college sports is quickly becoming something comparable to indentured servitude.
First off, college athletes aren’t “exploited.” Let’s reserve that word for the kids overseas who make two bucks a week assembling computers and stitching sneakers. Any student-athlete who receives a full scholarship is getting a hell of deal. For some kids at certain schools, you’re talking about a package that often is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars over the course of five years, when factoring in room and board, tuition and all the other bells and whistles.
For players as noteworthy as Peterson, there are even more perks that never get discussed when the topic of paying players comes up. It’s likely that Peterson was driving that Lexus was because the booster wanted to buddy up to the school’s latest superstar. Don’t think the average college student wouldn’t kill for those kinds of connections. If you don’t agree with that, then just consider how many influential people Manziel rubbed elbows with while at A&M (and we’re not talking about Drake and LeBron James). Former president George H.W. Bush was such a fan that he showed up to watch Manziel’s recent pro day.
Such relationships have a value that goes far beyond a student-athlete receiving a check every month (especially when you’re talking about players looking for work after their careers end). That’s also why this discussion sounds sillier the more people dwell on the cash aspect of it.
If Peterson really wanted to move this conversation about paying student-athletes forward, he would be talking about the very issues that are at the center of the current attempts by Northwestern football players to unionize. Instead of talking about money, they’re talking about more important benefits, like establishing post-graduate health care for players who sustain injuries while playing for their respective schools. Now that’s the kind of gift that can keep on giving.
It’s also worth taking that notion a step further when it comes to student-athletes, if you really want to talk about how best to reward them with all those riches that schools are making. Here’s an idea: Set up a fund for athletes to access when their eligibility expires. If they still need to take classes to finish their degrees — as many football players do — then they can use that money to cover their college expenses as long as they are in good standing. For those athletes who want to pursue graduate degrees, they also can tap those funds to improve their employment opportunities down the road.
This would be an important step for the NCAA, because the majority of student-athletes aren’t going to end up like Peterson.
Further, the reality is that a very small number of college athletes ever become prominent enough to actually make the claim that they deserve compensation. While Peterson wants to claim that players are the ones making all the money for their schools, it’s difficult to see how a third-string linebacker or backup punter ultimately impacts the bottom line of an athletic department’s budget.
Walk into any college bookstore this fall and you might find, at best, 10 jerseys being sold that belong to the best players on the football team. Those players also have the best chance to go on to the next level and make far more money than they likely ever imagined. While Peterson might not think about this, those schools provided them the opportunity to pursue those dreams and expose themselves in ways that might lead to future endorsement opportunities.
It’s a safe bet that Peterson won’t be the last pro athlete who stumbles into this conversation. The NFL is filled with players who agree wholeheartedly with his view on this topic. The hope here is that the next pro football player to weigh in on this matter offers a little more substance than what Peterson displayed. That’s because this really is a conversation worth having, so long as we’re willing to accept that the big picture is much bigger than just the money part of it.Jeffri Chadiha, formerly of Sports Illustrated, is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Chadiha first attended Wyoming on a full football scholarship before injuries led him to transfer to Michigan after two years. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication from Michigan in 1993 before pursuing a career in journalism. Chadiha is also a frequent contributor to ESPN TV.