Pay college athletes? Saint Leo poll says no

The topic of paying college athletes is a controversial one.

Yet a new poll by the Saint Leo Polling Institute suggests most people have already picked a side, and the answer is no.

Jerrel Harris, a guard with the Saint Leo University basketball team, attempts a free throw during a game last season. Like typical college athletes, Harris is not paid for his work, and a new survey says most people believe it should stay that way. (Courtesy of Saint Leo University)

Jerrel Harris, a guard with the Saint Leo University basketball team, attempts a free throw during a game last season. Like typical college athletes, Harris is not paid for his work, and a new survey says most people believe it should stay that way.
(Courtesy of Saint Leo University)

The national poll, conducted between May 28 and June 4, asked 1,016 people —including 802 likely voters — about the subject of paying athletes, specifically football and basketball players at high-profile schools, an undetermined amount of money above and beyond traditional athletic scholarships. A strong majority, 66 percent, agreed with the statement “Giving athletic scholarships and the chance to earn a college degree for free is fair compensation for college athletes, and they should not be paid.”

Just 21 percent of respondents agreed with the statement “College athletes deserve to be paid for the time they spend practicing, traveling, and playing, above and beyond the value of any scholarships they might receive.” The remaining respondents, representing 13 percent, said they didn’t know or weren’t sure.

The poll has a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percent along with a 95 percent confidence level, which represents the degree of likelihood that the results truly fall within the stated margin of error.

While the pollsters at Saint Leo are mainly concerned with creating a scientific poll, collecting the data and reporting their findings, even they weren’t expecting such a lopsided result.

“It was definitely surprising,” said Drew Gold, executive director of the Saint Leo Polling Institute. “I don’t think anybody expected it to be that overwhelmingly against paying the athletes.”

With the Olympics now utilizing professional athletes, college sports is one of the last true high-profile amateur competitions, and people seem to want to keep it that way, he said.

While it was a local school, Saint Leo, that created the poll, the results have had global appeal. In addition to being discussed in the United States, the findings have been reported in countries such as France, Germany and India.

And even as the findings might surprise some people, Gold said the methodology is sound, and the institute stands behind the results.

Pasco-Hernando State College athletic director Steve Winterling wasn’t one of the people surveyed for the poll. But if he had been, he’d be part of the 66 percent against paying athletes.

“I’m definitely with the majority there. I just think you’re opening up a can of worms,” said Winterling, who also serves as the school’s baseball coach. “I’m in favor of them not getting paid.”

Getting a free education in exchange for athletic play is a good deal for students, he said.

And his philosophy doesn’t change when taking into account that some athletes generate a lot of revenue for their schools by playing popular sports in a big spotlight. In fact, he believes athletes seek out those opportunities knowing that an education and a big stage is their compensation.

“They know what they’re getting into with that,” Winterling said. “Athletes know going in they’re just getting the scholarship.”

Students often choose those schools so they can showcase skills at a program that gets wide media exposure and the possibility of playing for a championship, he said.

While PHSC is primarily a two-year college whose athletes play at the Division II level for the National Junior College Athletic Association, Winterling spent several years as an assistant baseball coach for Florida State University, and is familiar with its successful baseball and football programs.

Florida State’s athletes train in world class facilities, have access to top-rate medical staff, and travel in above-average accommodations, he said. In fact, baseball players from the school who went on to play professionally for Class A or Class AA Minor League Baseball teams told him how much better the school’s conditions were compared to their professional teams, from uniforms to locker rooms to equipment.

“One thing they always said when they came back was they didn’t realize they had it so good at Florida State,” Winterling said.

He believes paying players would create more disparity between bigger schools with popular programs and wealthy boosters. At the same time, however, Winterling said he understands smaller schools don’t generate as much revenue and that some athletes have trouble making ends meet while in college. He supports loosening college rules to allow students more freedom to hold jobs while they go to school and play sports.

The poll might not be used to actually affect policy, the National Collegiate Athletic Association could consider it strong evidence that most people don’t support paying players, Gold said.

In any case, the results show that while the topic generates interest and discussion, it’s not an evenly divided issue at this time.

“The public feels overwhelmingly that they should not be paid. That’s what the numbers tell you,” Gold said.

Published June 25, 2014

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