Warszawski: Fresno State's Derron Smith says football players 'should get more'

The Fresno BeeJune 28, 2014 

Don't misconstrue what Derron Smith has to say.

Fresno State's All-America candidate speaks only for himself. Still, his views surely represent the vast majority of college football players across the country.

"Life is good as a college football player, but it could be better," Smith said. "We get enough money to live off of. But to me, just looking at the income that college football brings in, we should get more than we're getting now."

The senior free safety and communications major is spending the summer attending classes while participating in offseason workouts that are purported to be voluntary. (Yeah, right.)

Smith and his Bulldogs teammates don't live in cocoons. They know what's going on. They watch SportsCenter and peruse the Internet. They understand there are sweeping changes afoot that will radically alter the college football landscape.

Whether it's players at Northwestern winning the right to unionize or the NCAA getting sued for not paying athletes to use their names and likenesses in video games, this genie is not getting stuffed back in the bottle.

"We get by," Smith repeated, "but the way I see it is we should get more."

Right about now, I sense some of you are frowning. Don't college football players like Smith get scholarships? Aren't they getting a free education? Isn't that enough?

The answer to that last question is, "No." Maybe 30 years ago, a scholarship was enough. But that was before the money generated by college football became obscene.

That was before schools in the Power 5 conferences started getting more than $20 million a year from TV revenues — and using that money to build opulent facilities that would make Louis the XIV blush.

That was before salaries skyrocketed to the point where top college coaches are paid as much as (and in some cases, more than) NFL coaches. Before bowl executive directors earned $200,000 salaries for games that are held once a year. Before athletic directors got country club memberships and free use of luxury cars.

In a world inundated by money, why shouldn't athletes get a larger slice?

Comparing Fresno State with universities like Texas and Alabama is like comparing grapes with watermelons. Athletic director Thomas Boeh needs football TV money simply to make budget.

Sometimes, those financial pressures take precedence over academics. The Bulldogs are playing four straight Friday night games this fall, three of them on the road. While those contests pay much-needed bonuses, they also mean every member of the traveling squad will miss an extra day of class.

So much for always putting "student" in front of "athlete." Not when football players are forced to sacrifice academics so the university gets extra money and exposure.

I asked Smith if he, as a star player who assuredly will be a big part of Fresno State's marketing push, ever felt exploited.

"Exploited is a strong word," he replied. "But if it's a yes or no question, I guess I'd have to say, 'Yeah.' Like I said, it's all the money being brought in.

"As many times as I saw Derek Carr on everything in Fresno and No. 4 jerseys all over the place … they didn't have his name on it, but it was still No. 4. Everyone knows whose jersey that is. So the answer is, 'Yeah, a little bit.' "

Scholarship athletes at Fresno State receive monthly checks during the academic year and also during the summer provided they're enrolled in classes. Those who aren't find summer jobs.

How much are those checks? For most players, it works out to about $850 per month.

That $850 must go toward rent, bills, gasoline and, oftentimes, food. Fresno State does not have a training table and deducts money from each monthly check for a certain number of meals (18 per week for freshmen, 12 for everyone else) at the dining commons.

Players who choose to eat elsewhere — and many do, for numerous reasons — in effect pay twice for food.

"I basically live off my check," said Smith, who lives off-campus. "My mom offers what she can and my dad, too, but they both work. My mom has two jobs. They both help me if I really need it, but basically it's off the check."

One NCAA reform that has widespread support is to increase the value of scholarships so they more accurately reflect the actual cost of attending college. How much would depend on the cost of living in a particular city.

I asked Smith how he would spend the extra money if his annual scholarship was bumped up by, say, $3,500.

"You'd probably take a few trips on the weekend that you didn't have money for gas before," he said, slipping into second person. "You could go to the mall and buy something nice for yourself instead of always wearing your Fresno State gear everywhere. …

"Even with the little money that we get now, some guys send part of it back to their families. It's not that uncommon."

Football at Fresno State directly generated $9.7 million in revenues during the 2012-13 academic year, and the football program is also responsible for a huge chunk of the $10.9 million in revenues that were not allocated by sport.

With that in mind, it stands to reason football players should reap more of the rewards than tennis or lacrosse players. Doesn't it?

That very question is what keeps university presidents and athletic directors up at night with questions of fairness and Title IX. (Well, at least some of them.)

Just not all-conference free safeties.

"That's part of the problem, the disparity between sports bringing in a heavy amount of income and sports that don't," Smith said. "Certain people are going to get paid more than others. I mean, everybody at the same job doesn't make the same amount of money."

Smith's opinions may not sit well with folks who still cling to outdated notions of college athletics. Time to let go.

The columnist can be reached at (559) 441-6218, marekw@fresnobee.com or @MarekTheBee on Twitter.

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