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In-depth: Non-Revenue Sport Athletes Discuss Pay-for-Play

It doesn’t get any bigger than when ESPN College GameDay comes to town. Equipped with their bright orange Home Depot stage, famous sports personalities and a hype machine matched only by the Bowl Championship Series and Final Four, GameDay captures the attention of the college football world.

The eyes of fans across the country were focused on Evanston once GameDay announced they were coming to the matchup between No. 16 Northwestern and No. 4 Ohio State on October 5. The town and campus was abuzz all week leading up to Saturday. Students lined up nearly 12 hours before the start of GameDay to be front and center with their custom signs on Saturday morning while Northwestern fans and alumni set up tailgates surrounding Ryan Field for what was surely the biggest game for Northwestern football since the Rose Bowl in 1996.

On the same day, nearly 600 miles away in State College, Pa., the 10th-ranked Northwestern field hockey prepared for a showdown of its own against eighth-ranked Penn State. There was no GameDay, no hours of tailgating and no national television audience. The Wildcats fell, 2-0, in front of 417 spectators. Comparatively, a capacity crowd of 47,330 watched the Buckeyes sneak by the Wildcats, 40-30.

This is the way it works in major college athletics. Football and basketball, the revenue sports, are significantly more popular than non-revenue, or Olympic, sports such as field hockey, soccer and lacrosse.

“If you think about the crowds they turn out and the money that they make for the schools, it’s a lot larger than what we make, so it’s understandable that they get the large share of the attention,” says sophomore soccer player Joey Calistri. “It really doesn’t bother us too much. It’s kind of expected.”

What is not understood is where non-revenue athletes stand on the debate about the NCAA’s amateur system and whether or not student athletes should be compensated. Some believe that pay-for-play, stipends and trust funds are fair options for athletes that generate millions of dollars for schools and the NCAA while others believe true amateurism is what makes college sports special. Nobody knows what the answer is, but the debate is not cooling down anytime soon.

The question, like most things in college athletics, is posed with football and basketball players in mind. This makes sense considering football and basketball typically fund the other athletic teams at major universities. As a private institution, Northwestern is not required to disclose financial documents revealing revenues generated by the athletic department. However, in 2011, net income for football and basketball totaled $12.9 million compared with a net loss of $14.1 for all other sports, according to Adam Rittenberg of ESPN. Additionally, the NCAA generated $872 million in total revenue and $71 million in surplus revenue in 2012.

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Some student-athletes, including Northwestern senior quarterback Kain Colter, argue that with all the money generated by the schools and NCAA, those who create the product on the fields and courts should be compensated, or at least be provided with more rights.

Colter, along with 27 other football players across the country, demonstrated their support of student-athletes rights by scribbling “A.P.U,” which stands for “All Players United” on their equipment during one weekend earlier this season. Colter wrote the message on his wristband during a 35-21 victory over Maine on September 21. “It’s a sign of unity and not individuality,” Colter told reporters the following week. “It’s a sign of players coming together all over the nation and not just football players – basketball players, tennis players.”

Therein lies the rub.

The numbers clearly indicate the tennis player is not bringing in money on par with revenue sport athletes. As Colter and other football players promote student-athletes rights, including some form of compensation, the non-revenue sports are left to wonder about where they fit in.

“I could see both sides of it, but obviously if they decided to do revenue sports, we would like to be a part of it, but at the same time I don’t think any of us would be too upset if we weren’t a part of it,” said Calistri. “I don’t think any of us really put too much thought into it and clearly football does generate a lot of revenue for the school, probably a little more than we do. I just think that none of the guys here are too concerned with it.”

Northwestern senior field hockey player Nikki Parsley echoed Calistri’s thoughts that she and her teammates do not think about the issue much and she was not fully aware of the “A.P.U.” movement. Still, she is not without her own thoughts on the issue and while she stops short of saying college athletes should be paid by the NCAA or schools, she does believe they deserve to be able to profit off of their talents.

If Dita wants to sponsor a field hockey player or if Adidas wishes to sponsor Johnny Manziel, the athlete should be allowed to agree to that without suffering consequences, according to Parsley.

“I think there is something special about being a college athlete,” she said. “I wouldn’t personally say athletes should get paid, but I do think there should be something set up that college athletes can’t get exploited. It’s not very fair that the NCAA should reap all of that money from a player, but I don’t think we should be treated as professional athletes. But I would be happy if there was a middle ground or something like that.”

That middle ground, according to field hockey coach Tracey Fuchs could mean allowing athletic scholarships to cover the full cost of admission. The top academic scholarships cover everything, including room, board and books in addition to spending money. Athletic scholarships at the moment do not provide that extra money.

“There are kids on my team whose families can’t travel to games and stuff,” said Fuchs. “If we were able to give them up to cost of attendance, that would give them a few extra thousand dollars to either get their families there or to have some extra spending money, but I think if we go beyond that, it’s just going to be professional and I think that’s why the 1980 [USA Olympic] hockey team was one of the best teams ever. Because they were a bunch of amateurs who played for the love of the game and that’s what we need to get back to.”

Others, such as Northwestern men’s soccer coach Tim Lenahan, find it difficult to even relate to the problems of college football, because the his team is not in the same ballpark in terms of scholarships available, media attention or money generated. He said many parents take out loans so their son can play soccer at Northwestern and that most of his players are paying their own way.

“I would be supportive of the football guys and anybody who believed in the player’s rights and all this stuff,” he said. “But from my perspective, as far as I know how much sacrifices a lot of our parents make to pay for our kids to go to school, it’s kind of a different world. It’s just different.”

Moving forward, there are numerous philosophical and legal concerns that must be bridged before any form of compensation could be offered to student athletes in both revenue and non-revenue sports. Title IX and the aura of amateurism come to mind immediately as issues that must be considered. A single coach, player or administrator cannot solve this problem and there is no magic solution that will satisfy all parties involved.

Non-revenue athletes and coaches are no different than anybody else. They do not all agree on how or even if college athletes should be paid. However, whether or not there are 47,330 fans cheering on Kain Colter against Ohio State or 417 watching Nikki Parsley on the pitch against Penn State, they don the same colors, represent the same school, hold an opinion and have an audience, however big or small, willing to listen to what they have to say.

“We have no idea what the student athletes of today or tomorrow will do or can do,” said L.Z. Granderson, ESPN senior writer, CNN contributor and Northwestern adjunct professor. “But we do know that if they wanted to, they could make a great change.”