He'll be getting paid soon.

Photographer: Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Flying Mom to College Playoff Won't End Pay Debate

Kavitha A. Davidson is a former Bloomberg View columnist.
Read More.
a | A

The National Collegiate Athletic Association granted a last-minute waiver last week to the College Football Playoff for a pilot program to cover the travel expenses of players' families in tonight's inaugural National Championship game. Let's just say: It's a start. 

According to ESPN's Heather Dinich, the CFP will be allowed to reimburse families for travel, lodging and meals up to $1,250 per player -- despite the fact that the CFP "is able to provide up to $3,000" each. Still, it's a significant improvement on the $800 stipend Ohio State was set to give out from its student opportunity fund, an amount Buckeyes head coach Urban Meyer dismissed as laughably insufficient.

In addition, the NCAA announced that it would also reimburse family members traveling to the last games of the men's and women's Division I basketball tournaments: $3,000 for the Final Four and $4,000 for the title game.

Back in August, the five wealthiest conferences in college sports won autonomy from the NCAA, breaking free from many of the restrictions the association places on athlete compensation. The case for financial assistance for the players who comprise the "Power Five" conferences, and who thus contribute most to the revenue-generating sports of football and basketball, gained significant ground last year amid a number of lawsuits against the NCAA. While the issue of "pay-for-play" remains divisive, Power Five officials have promised to pursue major concessions to their athletes, including scholarships that cover the full cost of attendance and more comprehensive health care coverage.

But consider the bigger picture here. Travel assistance is a nice benefit, but it's simply a drop in the bucket of college sports' big money and isn't anywhere near fully addressing the financial needs of college athletes. 

Rather, these types of boons to players allow the NCAA to gain some positive press at a relatively low cost while further distancing itself from the larger issues of athlete compensation, from pay-for-play to merchandise royalties to scholarship renewal. There's already been a level of back-patting by college-football executives -- CFP executive director Bill Hancock has been touting that the travel assistance reimbursement will cost the group close to $500,000.

Just for some perspective: That's about one percent of the estimated $50 million bump to base revenue each of the Power Five conferences is expected to see this season. It's about 0.1 percent of the $608 million in average annual television revenue from the CFP's deal with ESPN ($7.3 billion over 12 years). And for good measure, it's about 11 percent of Meyer's $4.5 million total pay and $50,000 less than the maximum bonus he could receive this year (not that it should be up to coaches to personally compensate players).

That's not to say that the Power Five haven't made strides in extending fairer practices toward players. In December, the Big 12 joined the other four conferences in announcing full cost-of-attendance scholarships, loss-of-value insurance, and scholarship renewal. If the NCAA approves the plan finalizing autonomy at its annual meeting later this month, it will go into effect August 2015.

Still, advocates for fairer athlete compensation, as well as the athletes themselves, shouldn't allow themselves to get distracted by minor concessions such as travel assistance. The NCAA is still broken; college sports is still big business; and college athletes are still an exploited and unpaid labor force driving the national thirst for more football. It's great that some of the players' moms will be at the game tonight, but we should remain skeptical of any self-serving "benevolence" the NCAA and the CFP extend to the athletes.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Kavitha A. Davidson at kdavidson19@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net