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Giving College Athletes an iTunes

Yesterday, Steve Spurrier made some waves by suggesting a $300 per game payment to players coming out of the coaches' pockets. He talked to the other SEC coaches about it, and Derek Dooley, Les Miles, Dan Mullen, Will Muschamp, Houston Nutt, and Nick Saban all signed on in favor of it.

It can't happen, of course, because the NCAA wouldn't allow it. Coaches directly paying players is taboo, and only one sport's athletes benefiting goes contrary to its (desired, anyway) egalitarian image. On top of that, it could throw schools' spending out of balance under Title IX regulations.

On the other end of the spectrum is Penn State assistant Jay Paterno, who used his newspaper column today to make the argument against paying athletes any more than they get now. He says athletes get "a great deal", and that throwing in a few hundred or thousand more a year won't stop cheating in college athletics.

Setting aside for the moment the issue of fair compensation based on the value that athletes in the revenue sports provide to their institutions, one that Paterno neatly ignores in his article, I want to address the part about curbing cheating. To do so, I'm going to draw analogy to the crisis the music industry has gone through.

A little over ten years ago, Napster burst on the scene and allowed people to swap music files with each other for free. It was a huge threat to the business model of record labels. It ended up getting shut down by the Feds, and the record labels tried litigating the imitators out of existence too. People caught downloading large quantities of music got hit with lawsuits as well. It was all about cracking down on copyright infringement.

Getting music by hoisting the Jolly Roger wasn't perfect, though, even if the price was right. Sound quality was a decidedly mixed bag, metadata was a mess, and you might not even end up with the song you wanted. Getting your computer infected with something was an issue too. However, getting digital music on a track-by-track basis has enormous advantages over buying CDs, so people dealt with the issues and kept pirating music.

Eventually, the labels caved and signed deals with Apple to create the iTunes Music Store. People finally had a legitimate alternative for getting digital copies of songs a la carte. The price increased from free to 99 cents per song, but the quality was guaranteed, metadata was always correct, and malware was never a concern. Honest people had a legitimate place to go to get their music that was just as convenient as pirating it, and despite the music now costing money, the store was a huge hit.

Now, you can still get free music today if you want to. iTunes and other legitimate music sources like Amazon's mp3 store and Pandora never wiped out piracy and never will. Despite that fact, there are places to get digital music legitimately, and the industry is better off for it.

College athletics under the NCAA has always been like the music industry post-Napster but pre-iTunes when it comes to compensating athletes above their scholarship, housing, food, and training equipment. Back in the day when college athletics weren't a big business, that was a completely reasonable stance to take.

The gigantic contracts that major college sports have wrought in recent years completely changed the situation. Giving athletes salaries in proportion to that economic growth would bankrupt the system and be completely unfeasible under Title IX as written today. However, there's a growing sentiment towards giving players a little extra spending money. Jim Delany brought it up a couple weeks ago, Mike Slive talked about it too, and then there was Spurrier yesterday.

While I don't doubt those who smell ulterior motives in Delany's plans, I do think that it could help curb players receiving impermissible benefits. The temptation will still be there as people have always and will always offer players things that the NCAA frowns upon, but the temptation to pirate music is still out there too. A spending stipend could be like college athletes' iTunes, the legitimate way to get that extra money they'd otherwise be branded cheaters for getting. That wouldn't stop the Reggie Bushes and Cecil Newtons of the world, but it might stop the Dan Herrons and Robert Roses from trading memorabilia for tattoos and give coaches the opportunity to crack down on boosters giving hundred dollar handshakes.

The big violators will always be there, but they're easier to catch anyway because they're, well, big violators. Adding a spending stipend has the opportunity to remove a lot of the small scale issues that are going on, which makes me think it's worth a try.