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NEW ORLEANS -- Every year, the movement to pay elite level college football players -- or at least provide them with money beyond the basic NCAA scholarship -- begins anew. And every year, I think of bowl games.
More appropriately, I think of bowl gifts. Players technically are not paid to play college football. But think about the gifts they get at bowl time. It probably exceeds your Christmas.
University of Louisville players at the AllState Sugar Bowl in New Orleans received a Fossil Sugar Bowl watch, a New Era bowl cap and a Boxer & Stone Hoodie. But those were just the hors d'oeuvres.
The bowl then brings players into a "gift suite" where they can choose from such items as HD televisions, home theater surround sound speakers, headphones, mountain bikes, cameras, watches, shoes, clothing and even a sofa.
NCAA rules say that bowl games may give players gifts totaling no more than $550 in value. But the rules also allow schools to give players a gift of up to $400, and conferences also may give players gifts of up to $400 for winning a league championship. U of L gave each football player a gift card to Best Buy for its postseason gift. (Basketball players aren't left out of such things. Because its Billy Minardi Classic was an exempt event, players on both teams were permitted to receive the gift of a pair of headphones -- Beats by Dr. Dre.)
In New Orleans, U of L players could choose between such big-ticket items or combine smaller items to reach their "spending" limit. The gift suite is gaining popularity with bowls. At the Belk Bowl last season in Charlotte, U of L players were able to take part in a shopping spree at Belk in Charlotte.
"Oh man, Belk was really nice," center Mario Benavides said. "But this was really, really nice. All of this is something you dream of being a part of as a college football player, but when you're in it, the whole experience is just really special."
Benavides said it's a little overwhelming -- "I don't even know what to do with all of it." He chose a watch with a value between $400-$500, and a few smaller items. With the gift card from the university, he said, "It covered a lot of Christmas gifts for my family."
Lots of players were shopping for family. The NCAA allows bowls to give gifts to 125 team members, but schools may purchase bowl gift packages for others associated with the team, staff, cheerleaders, coaches' wives and more.
"That was nice, I got to do some Christmas shopping for my parents," linebacker Preston Brown said. "A lot of people were going for the TVs. . . . There was a lot of cool stuff in there."
Said safety Hakeem Smith: "We got some big-time things. This just motivates you to come back next year and come to another BCS bowl game. Everything is first-class. Great city, great people."
Smith said the hot items among U of L players was the surround-sound system, and Solo Beats by Dre.
"People on our team really like to listen to music, so now they can really blast it," Smith said.
That's not the only money that comes to players. Several Cardinals said that one other bonus is the per diem meal money that the school provides them. By eating cheaply in New Orleans -- or even taking advantage of all the team events where food is provided -- players get another amount of cash to pocket.
Now, it's easy to point to such excess -- and the gifts seem to get bigger every year -- and talk about the professionalization of everything. And that's a part of it. But I'm not bothered by it, considering how bowl committees and officials make so much money off the games, and considering how much the BCS has made in TV rights fees off the work of the players.
The entire bowl system is about nothing but money -- for the BCS, and for local organizers. It's part of the reason college football's establishment continues to cling to the bowls even as it transitions to a playoff model.
So with so much money flying around, a few items for the players would seem only fair.
But it's a long way from the nice banquet and gift bag players used to get.
"It's not why you do this," Benavides said. "But it's a nice perk."