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Shell Game

Sept. 30, 2013
Sept. 30, 2013

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Sept. 30, 2013

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Shell Game

Arian Foster's revelation that he accepted—gasp!—illegal tacos is the latest chapter in the pay-for-play debate

Arian Foster, who gets paid a lot of money to play football, caused a stir last week when it was revealed he used to get paid a little money to play football. The Texans' star running back was a student-athlete at Tennessee at the time, and he says he took the money for a crazy reason: He needed it.

This is an article from the Sept. 30, 2013 issue

"My senior year [2008] I was getting money on the side," Foster says in the new documentary Schooled: The Price of College Sports, which will premiere on the Epix channel on Oct. 16. "I really didn't have any money. I had to either pay the rent or buy some food.... You're not going to convince me that there is something wrong with it."

Some fans questioned why he would do something as dastardly as tell the truth. But his admission represents progress, not so much for what he said but for how he said it: Foster refused to apologize, even when SI.com released the clip.

Americans have been arguing about the enterprise of college athletics for decades. But the nature of those arguments is shifting. Instead of debating whether violations occurred, men like Foster are questioning whether they should be violations at all. And, says Ramogi Huma, a former UCLA football player who is now president of the advocacy group the National College Players Association, because of the enormous rise in coaching salaries and revenue-fueled conference realignment, "fewer people [are] willing to buy into the myth of amateurism."

Huma does not advocate players' breaking NCAA rules. He is also not pushing for a system in which schools would bid for players. He just wants an NCAA that grew to power in the last century to adjust to the realities of this one. As Foster discovered, athletic scholarships do not even cover the true full costs of attending school. As others have discovered, coaches can strip scholarships on a whim. Major conferences are swimming in billions of dollars, but they are spending them on coaching salaries and fancy facilities.

That is why the NCPA is encouraging current players to write APU on their wristbands; it stands for All Players United, and it is intended to show a commitment to reforming college sports. Players from Georgia Tech, Georgia and Northwestern wore it last weekend, and many more are sure to follow. They are also fighting the arrogance of men like former NCAA vice president Wallace Renfro, who says in Schooled that athletes "should be protected from the influences of commercialism and professionalism," and Dick Vitale, who compared Foster to a prostitute in a tweet.

Foster says in the film that a Volunteers coach bought tacos for him and a few teammates, and dryly notes that it was an NCAA violation. (Full disclosure: I appear in the film but was not paid and have no stake in it.) By Renfro's logic, the kind and compassionate NCAA worries those tacos might have corrupted sweet, innocent Arian Foster.

Foster knows better. He just wanted something to eat. And now thousands of college athletes are angling for a seat at the table.

VIDEO

To see a clip from Schooled, in which Foster discusses getting paid while at Tennessee, go to SI.com/mag

PHOTOBOB ROSATO/SPORTS ILLUSTRATED (FOSTER)VOLUNTARY ADMISSION Foster, Tennessee's second-alltime leading rusher, was up front about getting paid.PHOTODANIEL SHIREY/USA TODAY SPORTS (APU, HAND)[See caption above]