Stanford’s Shaw offers strong words of caution on possible NCAA changes

In just three seasons, David Shaw has not only proven to be one of college football’s top coaches, he’s emerged as one of college athletics’ strongest voices. The 41-year-old Shaw, who is 34-7 leading the Cardinal, has never been shy about tackling some thorny issues. On Thursday, Shaw had some hefty comments about what he views as a misguided stance many have taken in a climate desperate for NCAA overhaul.

"I think where people don’t completely understand it, is that there is a hard line in the difference between unionization and paying players and using the player’s image," Shaw told FOX Sports. "Those are two completely different worlds. I don’t believe at all that we should be paying student-athletes. I think they should remain student-athletes. I think they should remain amateurs. I do think we should do more for them and make their lives better, which I’m excited about doing. On the other side, I think there are a lot of things that we have to work on with players’ images and what they can do with their own image and what we can do with their own image, and that is going to bear out in the courts. A lot of people have mixed all those things in together, but I think there is hard line between those two worlds.

"One is truly an individual thing, ‘This is my face. This is my body. This is me, and no one should be able to make money off my image. And I completely understand that. But at the same time, you’re a student-athlete. If we’re going to pay for your education, if we’re paying for your schooling, if we’re paying for room and board and if we’re paying for all those other things — to say that we need to pay you more money on top of that just because we have a TV contract, to me, is a little bit different because now you’re skewing what they’re there for, which is to play great football, yes, but it’s also is to go to school to learn and to learn how make a living. I’ve been saying this for years: It’s our job to teach them how to make a living at the university and not to give them their living at the university. Then, we’re not teaching the proper lessons at the school."  

Shaw said if some of these ongoing arguments regarding the NCAA prompt student-athletes to be viewed as "employees" — which is how several football players whom FOX Sports spoke to this week view themselves. They devote roughly 50 hours a week to their sport, but Shaw is hesitant to make alterations.

"That would change everything," Shaw said. "You could make the arguments that you’re the student-athlete, so you work for the university now: ‘Why am I still going to school here? I’m an employee just like the professors, and I need to put more time into my craft now because I’m being paid for it and less time for my school work,’ and we don’t want that. We need to hold ourselves to that 20-hour-a-week (rule), absolutely, but you need to use that other time to make sure that you’re still going to school, still going to classes, still making sure that you’re still learning and growing as a student because we all know there’s such a small percentage of these people who are going to go on and become professional athletes. We need to make sure that these young people are being educated. We need to put the emphasis back on school. Not to put the emphasis more on football because there’s money to be made. That’s the exact wrong approach to take. 

“My stance is, ‘Let’s hold the universities accountable. Let’s hold the conferences accountable. Let’s hold the student-athletes accountable to graduate on time.’ That’s where our emphasis needs to be. Not just on ‘Can we give them more money?’ No, let’s make their lives better. Let’s give them more perks, Let’s make sure their daily lives are better so they can have the time to go to school and play football and make sure they are on pace to graduating. The food allowance changes — those things are great. But just giving an 18-year-old a bunch of money? That is gonna cause more problems than anything else in my opinion."

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The topic of student-athlete’s welfare is a complex issue that actually has become a sort of bubbling-over stew in which critics have dropped in a bunch of things while the flame under the NCAA and its embattled president Mark Emmert and his tone-deaf ways has ramped up. Shaw agreed that the animosity many have toward the NCAA has stoked the climate for widespread change — for better or worse.

"There’s also a natural inclination that we all have to protect our young," he said. "These are young people. These are people that are growing, so if there are things that are wrong, we want to come to their aid. I completely understand that, but I think we need to look at it pragmatically and systematically also and say that, ‘OK, let’s see what makes sense and see what doesn’t make any sense. Let’s make sure that we’re not just attacking the NCAA to attack the NCAA. If we need to attack the NCAA on very specific things, which we are doing, great, but let’s not let one or two comments make us go completely overboard and end up doing something for these student-athletes that, in the long run, is not going to be in their benefit."

One such comment that became a rallying cry came at the NCAA basketball tournament last spring, when then-Connecticut star Shabazz Napier told reporters he sometimes goes to bed "starving" because he can’t afford food despite the fact UConn’s student-athlete guidelines include provisions for meal plans.

"I don’t feel student-athletes should get hundreds of thousands of dollars, but, like I said, there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving," Napier said.

Shaw said comments like that "100 percent" confuse the message and muddle the dialogue.

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"Way back when I was a student-athlete, we didn’t have as many perks as their young people have now," said the former Stanford receiver. "I was never hungry. I didn’t know anybody who was hungry. The guys that lived off campus got money for food, and it’s how you allocate that money. The thing with going to college is that you have to learn how to operate within a budget. ‘Here’s what I’m gonna eat. Here’s what I’m gonna eat, and here’s where I’m gonna buy my food from. Here’s how I’m gonna survive and how I’m gonna thrive.’ Those were lessons that you have to learn.

"I think (that’s) one comment from one student-athlete, and I don’t know his circumstances — I’d love to know. I’d love to hear how he got to the point where he says he’s ‘starving,’ which is just hard for me to believe based on the scholarship that I know that he has been given. Being on the West Coast, I know what the USC scholarship is. I know what the UCLA scholarship is. I know what the Washington and Washington State and Stanford scholarships are, and I know what those young people get. It’s hard for me to believe that there is not enough money to eat."

What Shaw and many other college coaches and administrators worry about is the ramifications of widespread changes and the unintended consequences of blowing up a system based on misguided thinking and some emotional comments that could squeeze many student-athletes and non-revenue sports into the margins of big-time college athletics caught in the gears of big business. As one Big Five conference AD lamented recently, "The money still is going to have to come from somewhere."

‘It’s still a zero-sum deal," Shaw said. "At Stanford, we have 36 varsity sports. I’m under no delusion that football is not paying for a lot those sports, which is great. I am excited to go to the field hockey games. We go to the lacrosse games. We go to these sports that don’t have the money to sustain themselves. We’re putting all of our money in a big pool to make sure that all of these student-athletes have the ability to be great in their sport. But now if we’re going to add money to it — well, at a place like Stanford, we’ll find a way to make it happen. But if the money increases so much, there’s going to be a lot of places that drop sports because they can’t afford to because we have Title IX, which is phenomenal. We need to have Title IX. We need to treat all student-athletes the same and not just football and basketball players because they play revenue-producing sports. That’s just not a smart way to go about it."