Former county star wants to see college athletes compensated

A Sports Illustrated cover story that exposed the clandestine financial relationship between sports agents and college athletes also contained a San Luis Obispo County connection and reignited debates about the value of an athletic scholarship.

Matt Soenksen, a former Arroyo Grande High and UCLA standout, was one of 30 athletes named this month by former NFL agent Josh Luchs, who detailed cash payments made to football players that were in violation of NCAA bylaws.

An Arroyo Grande native who has since spent seasons coaching football with the Eagles and track and field at Nipomo High, Soenksen lettered as an offensive guard at UCLA from 1992 to 1995 and admitted accepting about $200 a month from Luchs during his junior and senior years.

After training camp stints with the San Francisco 49ers as an undrafted free agent and with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in 1996, Soenksen said he repaid the money Luchs offered him in full.

Soenksen, now a San Luis Obispo County correctional officer, knew he was breaking the rules by taking gifts, but not in an egregious way, he said. He looked at it no differently than taking out a student loan.

“Maybe I made a mistake,” Soenksen said, “but I just didn’t see it as big enough of a deal. I wasn’t abusing the system or taking money that I didn’t need. This was money that I needed to get by.”

Recent admissions of misconduct by agents like Luchs, as well as recent sanctions against USC and ongoing investigations of rule-breaking at schools like Florida, Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, have drawn the ire of college sports’ governing bodies.

The Trojans were hit hard when it was revealed that Heisman-winning running back Reggie Bush and men’s basketball guard O.J. Mayo each received improper benefits.

“The NCAA is adamant about the fact that they’re going to try to clean this up,” said UC Santa Barbara men’s basketball coach Bob Williams, a member of the National Association of Basketball Coaches and a voter on the USA TODAY/ESPN Board of Coaches. “They’ve increased their enforcement group. They’re going to go after the agents as hard as they can, and we as a coaching community, the NABC, we’re supportive of that.

“The NABC is committed to try and paint the picture that there is a lot more good than there is bad going on in college basketball, and I think that unfortunately, everybody wants to read about the bad.”

But without universal federal regulations in place to punish people doling out the money, the practices appear on course to continue.

California nearly passed a bill over the summer that would have required agents to apply for a credential with the state, which could also have the right to revoke or deny applicants, and the law would have provided an avenue for universities or college athletes to sue agents who did not comply with regulations.

More stringent than the current laws governing sports agents, the legislation was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who wrote that the bill would have created unnecessary cost to an already financially unstable state and seemed like a task better suited for the Federal Trade Commission.

In the cases of athletes like Soenksen, who were using relatively small amounts of money to supplement their scholarship stipend rather than to secure a free mansion for their family, the question ripe to be asked seems to be whether universities should do more to financially support their student athletes to prevent them from being tempted by agents.

“Is an athletic scholarship enough to live on?” Cal Poly athletic director Alison Cone said. “It would be awful tough, but if they aren’t able to have finances coming in from home, there are Pell Grant supplements that you can get on athletic scholarship.”

For Soenksen, living in Los Angeles on the roughly $630 a month he received on scholarship was tough, and grants weren’t the answer.

His divorced parents did not have a low enough income to qualify for additional financial aid, but that didn’t mean Soenksen could burden them with his rent and grocery bills.

When he was in college, the NCAA did not allow full-scholarship athletes to have jobs during the school year, so, his stipend — which is independently determined on a campus-by-campus basis to be the rough equivalent of what room and board should cost — was his only income.

It meant the 6-foot-5, 300-pound offensive lineman had to room with three other teammates in a two-bedroom apartment and eat a lot more Ramen than he wanted to.

“For those first couple years, the only shoes or clothes or anything that I got that were new were issued by UCLA,” Soenksen said.

That was until Luchs came along after Soenksen began to establish himself as a legitimate professional prospect. Soenksen said he always intended to repay Luchs and that the $200 per month was enough.

“He was willing to give me more, and I said ‘That’s all I need,’ ” Soenksen said. “And that was enough for me to go from the poverty level to the middle class of college athletics.

“I could say, ‘Let’s go out to the bar tonight,’ instead of me just making an excuse and saying I don’t have any money at all.”

Student athletes are now allowed to have jobs, but it’s something that’s virtually impossible for them to do during the season, which can typically include anywhere between one and three days per week of contests or related travel, 20 hours of practice time, film study, meetings, as well as academic classes and study time.

It wouldn’t take a lot more money per athlete, Soenksen said, to go a long way.

When reading about the $11 billion television rights deal struck for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year and seeing the many NCAA licensed video games stacked up on store shelves, the idea of increasing a scholarship’s payout seems more than reasonable.

Schools also profit from the jersey sales of their athletic teams. Laws of amateurism prevent players from being compensated, but the numbers of the teams’ top stars are readily available.

Cal Poly’s El Corral Bookstore offers replicas of the Nike football jerseys worn by linebacker Marty Mohamed and receiver Dominique Johnson, whose names are used to associate the numbers on the store’s website even though they aren’t printed onto the apparel.

At the same time, however, the NCAA does have ways of funneling profits back to member institutions, such as providing travel accommodations for all postseason championship events for each sport.

And while the rights contracts may have never been larger, very few campuses are reporting profits from their athletic departments.

An NCAA report over the summer showed that just 14 of the 120 Football Bowl Subdivision schools made money from athletics in 2009, which was down from 25 in 2008.

Even big-name schools like Cal, which announced its decision in September to drop baseball, are not immune to financial concerns.

Cal Poly, which competes at the Football Championship Subdivision in football, is among the schools losing money, Cone said.“To characterize the NCAA as getting rich,” Cone said, “I think that’s a misrepresentation.”

If there were reforms that allowed the amounts that universities could provide to student athletes to increase, many athletic departments might not be able to pay the increase or would have to resort to cutting programs to do so.

“The divide between the haves and the have-nots would get deeper,” Cone said, “and I may well bet that institutions would not be able to continue to offer athletic opportunities to as many students as they are now, and at a situation like Cal Poly, that would be the first move. And we wouldn’t be the only one facing that decision.”

Soenksen doesn’t want to see that happen either, but he remains convinced something needs to change.

“Is there a clear way out of how to do this? I don’t know yet,” Soenksen said. “I do know the system that we have right now is flawed.

“To take money from agents, that’s not the best way to do it, but in some way, athletes need to be compensated.”