Morris: Athletes getting just rewards

TAMPA, Fla. — Make no mistake, the players get the most out of the college football bowl experience, and well they should.

Argue all you want about college athletes getting a free education. The fact is, while coaches earn lavish salaries and administrators drink the finest wines, the players are pretty much serfs during the regular season.

That all changes come bowl time. The athletes have all the fun. They also are showered with gifts and earn a nice paycheck around the holidays. It is as if the NCAA’s guilt over producing billions of dollars in revenue at the expense of amateur athletes finally catches up with it.

So for the bowl game only, the rules are relaxed and players essentially are paid as reward for their long hours on the practice field from August through November and for winning games.

“I’ve had a great time at each one, a lot of fun,” said Justin Sorensen, a senior offensive tackle for South Carolina who, on Thursday, will play in his third bowl game when the Gamecocks meet Iowa in the Outback Bowl. “They make it so it’s fun for the players.”

Sorensen also played in the Independence Bowl following the 2005 season and the Liberty Bowl after the 2006 season.

At each of USC’s three most recent bowls, Steve Spurrier said there was a balancing act between ensuring a good time for the players and adequately preparing the team for a bowl game that carries little significance.

The players seem to have a good idea of where their priorities should be.

“There is a time for play and a time for business,” said Eric Norwood, a junior linebacker for USC. “We know what we’re down here to do.”

Most of the heavy-duty work in preparation for the bowl was completed during the week of practices in Columbia before Christmas. The bulk of the team’s video study occurred then, as well, because final exams were completed and players had plenty of time to concentrate solely on football.

In Tampa, USC has practiced about two hours each day since arriving Friday. The players’ schedules are cleared the remainder of each day, aside from a smattering of events, most of which are optional. Spurrier set curfew at midnight until Monday, when it was moved up one hour. Players are not allowed to leave the hotel on New Year’s Eve.

Entertainment for the players in Shreveport, La., for the Independence Bowl consisted mostly of hanging out at a huge game room near the team’s hotel. For the outdoorsmen on the team, a nearby Bass Pro Shop was a favorite attraction.

In Memphis, Tenn., where the Liberty Bowl is played, another arcade was located near the team hotel. Most of the team also attended a Memphis Grizzlies NBA game, and many toured the Graceland home of Elvis Presley.

This year, USC and Iowa attended Busch Gardens amusement park. Handfuls of players from both teams watched a Tampa Bay Lightning NHL game, and a night was scheduled at GameWorks, an arcade in Ybor City.

Aside from the free vacation, players most appreciate the gifts and the paycheck, which is disguised as travel reimbursement. Sorensen, for example, could have been paid 47 cents a mile (round trip) for travel from his hometown of Vancouver Island, British Columbia.

USC was not willing to pony up the $1,598 for Sorensen’s travel and put a cap on all player travel at $600. Norwood and two teammates from the Atlanta area piled into one car and split the cost of gas. Each made about $400.

Additionally, the NCAA allows each bowl to award up to $500 in gifts to each player and for each participating school to tack on an additional $350 in gifts per player. USC, like most schools, uses its apparel contract to give each player Outback Bowl shorts, sweat pants, sweatshirts, T-shirts, etc.

Sorensen and senior wide receiver Kenny McKinley said they distributed most of the apparel they received from the school as Christmas presents to family members.

Gifts from the Independence and Liberty bowls included a watch and a camera. The Outback Bowl has distributed a Pure Digital Flip mini-camcorder to every player, as well as a Fossil watch and Jostens ring.

There is incentive for players to play in the better bowl games. Participants in the FedEx BCS national championship game can purchase up to $300 in Sony Electronics products that are showcased to them at the team hotels, according to the Sports Business Journal. Players also receive a Tourneau watch, a New Era 59fifty hat, Crocs and an Ogio duffel bag.

Now that is fun stuff.

Listen to Morris from 4 to 5 p.m. Tuesdays on ESPN Radio 93.1 FM.