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Mark Emmert on paying athletes: ‘If you’re going to come to us, you’re going to be a student’

Sep 17, 2013, 11:13 AM EDT

Mark Emmert AP

There may not be a more contentious debate in all of college athletics than whether or not the players that generate so many billions of dollars in revenue should receive a larger cut of those profits.

Conferences are signing billion-dollar deals for the rights to broadcast their games. The NCAA tournament is responsible for generating roughly three-quarters of the organization’s annual revenue. Every “scandal” involving college athletics that breaks further proves that these athletes have value; that there are people willing to spend their hard-earned money on these athletes.

Maybe it’s the $500 handshakes that football players were getting at Oklahoma State. Or maybe it’s the money that agents were willing to spend on players like Alabama lineman DJ Fluker or Kansas shooting guard Ben McLemore to ensure that they would become a client when they graduated. Or maybe it’s the thousands of dollars that Johnny Manziel was able to pocket simply by signing his name on a bunch of helmets.

Whatever the case may be, it’s becoming more and more difficult to justify the idea that the best athletes in revenue sports are getting a fair deal being limited to a college scholarship.

But according to NCAA president Mark Emmert, it’s unlikely that will change any time soon.

”One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there’s very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it’s a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals,” NCAA President Mark Emmert said Monday at Marquette University as part of the school’s ‘On the Issues’ forum. ”Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports.”

Emmert also questioned why an athlete that wants to be a professional would bother going to college.

”It’s a dynamic tension that we really need to work on because it’s at heart of part of what talking about here,” he said. “Why would we want to force someone to go to school when they really don’t want to be there? But if you’re going to come to us, you’re going to be a student.”

Why would an athlete want to play in college?

Well, quite simply, because the best way for a prodigy to make their way to the NBA is through the NCAA. Going straight to the D-League doesn’t get these kids the kind of exposure that college basketball does. The same can be said for Europe.

The bottom-line is that this a pitch that Emmert is going to have to continue to sell, because there are so many administrators like him that cash six and seven figure checks thanks to amateurism keeping the money flowing. The NCAA doesn’t pay taxes and puts severe limits on the amount that the people generating the revenue can bring in (a scholarship isn’t enough, but it is reimbursement). If that changes, if there is less money to go around, the cuts have to come from somewhere.

And I’d be willing to bet that Emmert, and the people that made Emmert the (handsomely-paid) face of their organization don’t want to see their bottom-line affected.

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