Win-win proposal for student-athletes

It's safe to say prominent student-athletes like Johnny Manziel would welcome some sort of monetary compensation. Thomas Campbell/USA TODAY Sports

Several weeks into football season, I happened to be driving past the campus of a Texas university. From every streetlamp for block after block, there hung a poster featuring one of the team's star players. Of course, as amateur athletes, none of those young men were being paid for this promotional use of their names and images.

Such a situation is anything but unique, as those of us who follow big-time sports know. An intolerable disparity exists when a top college athlete cannot be compensated for his or her monetary value to merchandise manufacturers, broadcast networks and universities.

The result has been a groundswell of support for paying college athletes, expressed in the O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA and influential articles by Taylor Branch and Joseph Nocera, among others.

Yet such efforts, however well-intentioned, have helped to create a dangerous and unnecessary polarization of this issue. There is an assumption, sometimes stated outright and more often implicit, that once we start paying college players we also surrender the entire ideal of a student-athlete, at least in major sports. No wonder that the payment proposals have generated such fierce resistance.

But there is a clear and relatively simple way to have both paid athletes and student-athletes. It is possible, in fact, to use payment as a way to give athletes incentives to be better students. By borrowing some basic financial concepts from the creative arts and the banking system, we can stop the unfairness of cheating the athletes who are the college sports' cash cows without initiating the hypocrisy of having hired guns who do not even pretend to be students.

Think about how songwriters, producers and musicians are compensated in popular music. Though they may get some money up front, the payment system is predicated on royalties. That is, each participant receives a certain percentage of a song's sales price for each unit purchased.

The financial stakeholders in college sports could negotiate a standard royalty structure -- how much money the sale of a given jersey or poster and so forth would be worth to an individual player. Similarly, every television broadcast of a team's game would generate a standard fee depending on audience size that would be equally divided among all that team's starters (or all of its players).

So wouldn't that money mean the end of any pretense of athletes being students? Why would they bother struggling to balance classwork with practices and games if they could have a direct income rather than the indirect aid of a college scholarship?

The answer is two words: escrow account. Anyone who has ever bought a home knows about an escrow account. As a prospective buyer, you put a designated amount of money into an account, but it does not pass to the seller until the deal is closed.

For college athletes, the escrow account would fill up with the royalties I've mentioned above. The athlete wouldn't be able to receive the royalties, however, until he or she earns a bachelor's degree. If you go pro early or drop out, you never get the income. You only get paid when you earn your diploma.

Some cynics might argue that a big-time football or basketball star is looking at such riches in the pros that it would be easy to walk away from an escrow account measured somewhere in thousands or tens of thousands of dollars. Certainly, there will always be those one-and-done bonanzas.

Yet fewer than 2 percent of college football and basketball players make it onto a pro roster, according to NCAA statistics. And a player's average career length is about five years in the NBA and about six in the NFL.

Seen through that harsh reality, an escrow account looks a lot more appealing. If a player leaves college without a degree but returns later -- for instance, after that pro career has ended or never even started -- to finish the necessary coursework for it, the escrow account would be waiting, with accumulated interest.

As a student at the University of Wisconsin in the 1970s, I appreciated a college environment in which athletes did not have an existence separate from his or her classmates. Two running backs lived in my small dorm. I had a Comp Lit discussion section with an offensive lineman, an African-American literature class with a nose tackle. You'd look around at a Saturday-night party and there'd be a defensive end or quarterback sharing in the social life.

A royalties-and-escrow system like the one I propose wouldn't divorce athletes from other students -- an existing problem bound to worsen if they are turned into mercenaries, paid for their gridiron exploits. It would provide a concrete incentive for those players to take full advantage of academic opportunities that lead to lifelong careers and less likely to end up broke and undereducated after the cheering stops.