On August 8, 2014, a U.S. district judge ruled against the NCAA in a highly anticpated case that centered on a college athlete’s ability to receive payment for his image, likeness, or name in television broadcasts or video games. In S.C. Gwynne’s cover story on UT athletics in the September issue of Texas Monthly, the Longhorns’s new athletic director, Steve Patterson, spoke at length on this topic, and his view remains that athletes should not receive compensation while playing for a university. Below is an sneak preview of September issue’s cover and excerpt from the story “Can Steve Patterson Fill This Stadium?” available on newsstands August 21. 

Winning and making sure UT’s revenues stay ahead of those of competitors like Ohio State, Florida, Michigan, and Alabama are things Patterson must do to keep his job. His biggest challenge in his first years, however, may well have nothing to do with how his teams perform. 

The sports world is engaged in a contentious debate over the issue of paying student-athletes. It is no secret that they generate huge revenues for colleges but get no cut of the profits. Meanwhile, universities who pay executives and coaches record salaries—Charlie Strong is in the $5 million–plus range—stand accused of the “systematic, ongoing, prolonged abuse of thousands and thousands of innocent young men and women,” in the words of Illinois congressman Bobby Rush. The NCAA and its members have recently faced an endless barrage of complaints, and the critics are abetted by recent studies, such as the one conducted by the National College Players Association, showing the purported “fair market value” of players. For a Texas football player, that would be $567,922. The study also showed that the average full athletic scholarship fell $3,285 per year short of covering the actual cost of college attendance.

The issue has coalesced in a wave of lawsuits that challenge the very nature of the NCAA’s amateurism model. One led to a ruling in March by the National Labor Relations Board that Northwestern University football players are employees and have the right to unionize. Though the case is being appealed, college athletics is collectively holding its breath. If the ruling is sustained, similar cases, with major union support, will likely be brought against public schools like Texas. Another alleges that universities deliberately set limits on scholarships, which fall below the actual cost of attendance, and yet another argues that colleges unfairly make billions off athletes’ likenesses without compensating them.

With the largest budget in college sports, Texas is perhaps the preeminent example of collegiate amateurism in America. One might not expect Patterson, with his largely professional sports background, to voice passionate opinions on this subject. But at a time when many NCAA officials are running for cover, he is one of the few major college ADs publicly defending the current system. 

“We have allowed ourselves to be trapped,” he says. “All of us, the NCAA, colleges, coaches, and athletics directors. We have done a very poor job of talking about what college athletics really is all about for the 99.5 percent of student-athletes who will never play professional sports. We have allowed ourselves to have a discussion about that half percent.” He points out that athletes who make it to the pros have an average playing career of only four years. “They have a half century ahead of them after they are done playing,” he says.

Patterson’s argument begins with his conviction that both the scholarship and the college degree are enormous benefits to student-athletes, many of whom would not have gone to college otherwise. “I don’t think college athletes are the equivalent of minor-league football players,” he says. “They are students who wouldn’t get into the university but for the athletics and wouldn’t stay in the university but for the sports. If you look at them as a group, approximately eighty percent of them are the first in their families to go to college. In American colleges in general that group has about a fifteen percent graduation rate. With athletes, the rate jumps to between seventy-five and eighty percent. That is because of the resources the university puts toward helping them.” At the University of Texas, the tuition, room, board, books, fees, and other support in a scholarship are worth an average of $65,000 a year. “That is more than the average household income in the United States,” he says. “I don’t see how they are being shorted.”

But what about athletes like Vince Young and Johnny Manziel, who create huge benefits and revenues for their universities, from fund-raising to ticket sales to sponsorships and licensing? Shouldn’t they at least be allowed to monetize their famous names? “No,” he says categorically. “I am not saying they did not benefit the university. But you have to understand that both parties benefit. The university is largely creating the value. The athletes are trading on the value the universities have created. No corporations are going to be lining up to pay them money out of high school. They also get a huge benefit on the college stage by having such assets as strength coaches, nutritionists, psychological support, tutors, mentors, media training. All of that costs money. It is too easy for those in the sports press to say, ‘You are manipulating and using these kids. You are giving them nothing.’ We are not giving them nothing.” 

There are also practical problems with paying athletes, Patterson says. He suggests that if schools pay Young or Manziel, they are going to be sued by athletes on the soccer or basketball or rowing teams, looking for equal pay. “That would almost certainly happen,” he says. “And if you have a situation where the students are employees, you will have to either hugely increase revenues or cut costs and eliminate teams.” 

Patterson insists, at the same time, that he is not opposed to high school students’ turning pro immediately. It’s just that he thinks it is usually a poor option. He cites baseball as an example. “If you want to go to the minor leagues, ride the bus from Biloxi to Beloit and sleep in a Motel 6 and not have nutritionists, tutors, trainers, strength coaches, and everybody else who works with you at UT, if you think that is a better deal, God bless you, go do it,” he says. “I personally think it’s a better deal to come to UT and get a degree, even with Augie screaming at you for four years.”

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