For Freddie Nichols, the debate hits close to home.
On one hand, he probably wouldn’t have gone to Southern Methodist University and gotten a degree in history if it weren’t for athletics. But on the other, playing for an NCAA Division I football team isn’t all about celebrity, trophies and a free education.
“It’s really not free,” Nichols said. “You’re practicing all day. When you’re not in class, you’re practicing or working out.”
Nichols is one of thousands of students who used their athletic ability to attend college.
He was a football standout for the Killeen Kangaroos and joined SMU after graduating from high school in 1980.
After joining the Mustangs, he found out how much work he had to put into the game. Nichols said during the season, he and his teammates often devoted eight hours a day to preparing for the next game.
Nichols is now a history teacher at Union Grove Middle School in Harker Heights. His son, Tre, was a basketball star for the Roos before playing for Texas State University, McLennan Community College and Boise State University between 2008 and 2012.
Tre Nichols has a degree in social work and plans to play professional basketball as long as he can. He is currently playing for the West Texas Whirlwind in the American Basketball Association.
Unlike nonathletic students, Tre Nichols had to take a lot of time away from class for road games and conference tournaments during basketball season. And when finals ended in December, he had only a fraction of the holiday break other students had.
“I’m only in Killeen on Christmas Eve and I’ve got to leave Christmas Day,” he said. “It’s a lot of time, dedication and family time missed. There are so many aspects that come along with it that people don’t realize.”
But both father and son said the most important thing athletes can do in college is get their degrees, especially since scholarship agreements are year to year.
“They’re going to get everything out of you, so you need to get everything out of them,” Freddie Nichols said.
It’s not hard to see why rumblings for athletes to get paid continue to get louder.
College athletes, like most college students, are generally broke.
But unlike most students, college athletes are the working cogs of a million-dollar industry.
In 2011, ESPN and the University of Texas announced a deal worth $300 million to broadcast Longhorn sports, from football to volleyball.
But athletes won’t see a dime.
For former athletes like Tim Atchison, a 2005 graduate of Copperas Cove High School who played safety at Baylor University, that kind of hypocrisy is hard to ignore.
“I don’t want to devalue the opportunity that we’re given as far as receiving a college education and all the stuff that comes along with it,” said Atchison, who also played briefly for the St. Louis Rams in 2011. “But when it comes to the end of that month and you’ve only gotten one check for that whole month and it isn’t enough to get you by, it’s kind of hard.”
For Logan Brock, a 2007 Cove graduate who went on to play tight end at Texas Christian University, the fact that athletes can’t even work a job while living on campus only adds to the hypocrisy.
Even when athletes move off campus and begin receiving a monthly stipend, they often find it hard to make ends meet.
All the while the golden goose continues to produce golden eggs.
“It is ironic that they make so much and the student athletes don’t receive any of it back,” said Brock, now an NFL free agent after stints with the Houston Texans and Carolina Panthers. “Those bowl games bring in millions and millions of dollars, and the fact that we don’t get anything back is a little crooked, I’d have to say.
“But at the same time, you also can’t complain about a free education.”
Perks of play
Despite all the revenue generated by athletics, many believe athletes should not be paid because of other perks that accompany being part of a team.
While most students are forced to take out loans to cover tuition, athletes have many expenses eliminated partially or completely based on their ability to perform in their respective sports.
Harker Heights head girls soccer coach Jared Cruddas, who also played at Midwestern State University, sees no reason why paying athletes should even be considered.
“To pay an athlete, to say that this is your job and you get paid for it, I think it’s an extension of education,” he said. “You shouldn’t get paid to learn. Athletes aren’t the only ones bringing in money. If you were to pay athletes, you’d have to pay the band and other clubs on campus.”
According to NCAA.org, the average college student graduates with $35,200 of debt, while USA Today determined the average value of a full-ride basketball scholarship in 2011 exceeded $120,000 annually when factoring in goods and services received.
At Baylor, tuition for a single year is $18,201, while Texas and Texas A&M each cost more than $9,000 for two 12-hour semesters.
Additionally, athletes receive high-level coaching that could potentially lead to a professional career, access to state-of-the-art training facilities, housing, meals and medical attention.
Gatesville athletic director and head football coach Kyle Cooper played at Angelo State University for five years and was the starting tight end in 1997. Cooper’s team reached the Division II national quarterfinals. He said the system is fine as is.
“It scares me to death to ruin the spirit of the game,” Cooper said. “The college game is still so much different than the NFL, and those guys play a lot more for pride, even at the major, elite levels. They are playing for a sense of school, a common spirit and that is just something the NFL doesn’t have.”
Admittedly, Cooper can see the flip side, understanding “tons of money is being made at their expense.”
At the same time, schools are awarding scholarships, partially supported through NCAA revenue distribution. According to NCAA.org, more than $2 billion in athletic scholarships are handed out to more than 126,000 Division I and Division II students annually.
Full scholarships typically average around $15,000 for one year at an in-state, public school with the total increasing by $10,000 for out-of-state public schools and reaching $35,000 for private schools.
The funds cover tuition and fees, room, board and required course-related books. Many athletes do not receive all the benefits, however, as their scholarships only cover certain parts of the aforementioned costs.
But athletes are not limited to athletic scholarships.
They can apply for other forms of financial aid and also have access to various grants. Additionally, the NCAA’s Student Assistance Fund offers more than $73 million to Division I athletes to help with costs, such as flying someone home following a family crisis or emergency.
For former Killeen sprinter Tiffany Townsend, a 2007 graduate who also competed in track at Baylor, it is adequate compensation.
“I feel like there are perks of being a college athlete,” she said. “I think that, yes, in a way, they are taken advantage of, but I wouldn’t say all college football athletes are or all college basketball athletes are, because some of them don’t work. Some of them are just on the roster as backups.”
Nearly all of the athletes interviewed by the Herald agreed current athletes deserve more than a scholarship that barely covers their cost of living. Yet even the most vehement supporters noted the process of compensating athletes, particularly in a way that indicates their financial worth to the university, is complicated at best and unrealistic at worst.
What is fair?
Trying to find a solution begs the question: What part of college athletics is truly fair?
Football, the crown jewel of college athletics, decided its champion via a vote, not on the field, until 1998.
College basketball decides its champion with a 68-team tournament that annually leaves out several teams because a committee decides they aren’t worthy. The same will happen when college football moves to a four-team playoff next season.
College athletics thrives on factors that are out of athletes’ control, which is why, when speaking about college-bound basketball players Cameron and Josh DeLaney, Harker Heights head coach Celneque Bobbitt mentioned an old adage: “Only one of two things can come out of it,” he said. “It’s either you’re going to use the basketball or the football or whatever, or it’s going to use you.
“Hopefully (these kids) can use the basketball. If you play for four years in college, you’ve got a degree for the rest of your life. That’s what the ultimate using the basketball is all about.”