Chris Borland knows it sounds greedy to suggest his life is unfair.
He knows he's one of the best linebackers in the country, the pride of Wisconsin athletics. Scholarship money covers his tuition at a distinguished university. He performs Saturdays in front of sold-out stadiums. Strangers shout his name.
But he also knows that college football generates massive piles of cash for people who don't wear a chinstrap. Which is why Borland says the old amateur formula is “unjust.”
“There's absolutely a disconnect when administrators and people are making a lot of money and players' families can't come to the games,” he said. “There are guys eating PB and J and Ramen noodles more than they should based off of what they contribute.”
The pay-for-play debate has lingered over college athletics longer than Borland has been alive. But it's picking up steam as TV contracts, coaching salaries and football budgets skyrocket.
In Chicago last week, Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany restated his belief that student-athletes should receive a few thousand dollars more to cover living expenses. That doesn't satisfy players like Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter.
“We're bringing in hundreds of millions of dollars to the NCAA,” Colter said. “When you're bringing in this much money to a business, I would hope that the business would help you out. I'm not saying we need to get paid like professional athletes get paid, but there definitely needs to be a change.”
Major change could come via a lawsuit, filed by former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon. His complaint alleges that the NCAA violated antitrust laws when it allowed companies like EA Sports to use players' likenesses. If O'Bannon and other plaintiffs win, student-athletes may be entitled to a significantly larger share of the NCAA cash pile.
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Colter, a senior from Denver, is watching the proceedings closely, though it likely won't be resolved before his career ends.
“I'm completely behind the movement,” he said.
Not all Big Ten players share his opinion. Illinois defensive lineman Tim Kynard has talked with teammates about additional compensation. He wouldn't object to a bigger check, but he says it isn't necessary.
“The education and the money we get already is enough,” Kynard said. “Some players maybe want more just because of the rigorous schedule we go through. That's quite understandable, but overall I think the scholarship is just fine with me.”
Everybody wants more money, Kynard said. But there's a reason it's an amateur sport.
“If you're blessed enough to make it to the next level, that's where your payday is going to come,” he said. “College is more of a pure sport before going to the NFL. ... If you're fortunate enough to make it, that's where your money is. If you don't, you still get your degree.”
Said Illini teammate Corey Lewis, who has already earned his degree: “It's great we have an opportunity to get our education for free. ... If (change) happens, it happens, but we're still getting something.”
It's not actually a free education, Colter said.
“We're paying for that with the amount of work we put into football,” he said. “It's not a free ride, because we're sacrificing our time.”
And when you add up the hours training and competing, its worth exceeds the scholarship and stipend check combined.
Twice this year, Colter said, his car was damaged in a hit-and-run. He didn't have full coverage, so he had to pay the damages.
“Where am I going to get that money?”
Then there's cellphone bills and holiday flights home and the occasional night out. A stipend increase would help, Colter said, but it doesn't address the underlying issues.
“I really feel like (the NCAA) is taking advantage of us in a lot of ways,” he said.
Colter's coach, Pat Fitzgerald, is a former All-American who endured the same financial frustrations. He didn't have time to get a job, because he was training year-round. He devoured every bite of Mom's home-cooked meals.
“I was Mr. Tupperware,” Fitzgerald said. “I ate for free all week.”
Fitzgerald wants what's best for his players, but he doesn't have all the answers, he said. How, for instance, do you fairly compensate football players while meeting the standards of equality?
“If you're only going to do it for the revenue sports, I'm not sure how that makes sense,” Fitzgerald said.
“Our volleyball players and our softball team, I could keep going on and on, they work just as hard as our guys work. They sacrifice just as much as our guys sacrifice. I'd hate to see a tier system set up; I don't know if that would be fair to the other athletes.”
Borland understands the complexities. But as he looked around last Wednesday, he saw a bigger picture. This was an elaborate two-day event in a luxury hotel on Michigan Avenue. Presidents have walked these ballrooms. Movie stars, too.
And now college kids were sitting in suits and ties, fielding questions from hundreds of journalists, generating headlines from coast to coast, thus helping pay the checks of coaches, administrators and strangers who don't even know their names.
“It's difficult to talk about because we have it good — people aren't going to feel sorry for college athletes,” Borland said. “But that's really kind of a side issue. Everyone should be given their fair share.”