Whenever someone takes big-time college sports to task for their failings—as I do frequently— some are ready with a cure-all answer. Just pay the players, they say, and all will be well.
It’s the remedy du jour, every jour. You hear it not only from casual fans but also from the “experts” who hold forth endlessly on the subject on sportsblab radio and TV. On any college-football Saturday, these folks note, everybody in the stadium—coaches, ushers, ticket-takers, vendors, cops and the kids who sell programs—is getting paid, so why shouldn’t the stars of the show? It’s only FAIR! they cry.
To that I say “teeesh.” Founded on the dubious premise that the poor are more easily corrupted than the rich, paying the players would cause more problems than it would solve while opening up a vast new area for potential abuse. Worse, it would increase the subservient status of college athletes that’s at the root of the real problems of the present, deplorable system.
Let’s look at what’s wrong with the proposal, starting with the easy stuff. Pay the players, you say? Okay, who do you pay? Footballers and basketballers for sure, I guess, but how about baseballers, lacrossers, wrestlers, swimmers and fencers? Just the men, or the women jocks, too? They all put in their time.
What would you pay them-- $100 a month, $500, $1,000? In season or year-round? Should starters receive more than reserves, or stars more than mere starters? Should the athletes themselves have a say in setting pay scales (can you spell U-N-I-O-N?)? Would injured players be eligible to receive workmen’s compensation payments, which could continue long past their college careers?
And how about the tax-exempt status of contributions to university athletics departments, without which big-time programs couldn’t be maintained at near present levels? If the players are salaried how would, say, Ohio State football legally differ from that of the NFL? If you think no one would be so bold as to raise that question, think again because it’s already surfaced.
Further, college athletes already are being paid, and terrifically well for teenagers or young adults whose marketable skills still are being developed. The cash value of the full-ride scholarships (tuition, room and board) they receive ranges from $20,000-to-$25,000 a year at state-supported institutions to as much as $55,000 per at such posh private schools as Duke or Northwestern. If you’re scoring, that works out to between $100,000 and $200,000 over the normal, four-year academic run.
Beyond that, even in these parlous times holders of bona fide college degrees can look forward to a lifetime of higher earnings than their degreeless counterparts. Even positing a difference of just $10,000 a year over a 40-year work life, that works out to $400,000. Not bad recompense for a few years of game-playing on some leafy campus, I’d say.
The rub, of course, is that the time and energy demands of big-time-college revenue sports can preclude the young men who play them from taking advantage of the promises they’ve been made. Often coming from poor homes, and lacking basic academic skills, they’re funneled into Mickey Mouse courses designed to preserve their eligibility, then cast adrift when their use to their institution ends. Many of them buy into the system because they believe it serves their desire to get a lucrative professional contract after college. For all but a few hundred out of many thousand, that’s a vain hope.
Turning the athletes into employees would exacerbate this situation by making them more chattel-like than they already are. Right now a strong-minded jock (I’m sure there are some) can opt for a serious course of academic study that might conflict with his coaches’ victory goals, involving, say, a lab course that interferes with his team’s practice schedule, but putting the lad on the payroll only could complicate such a stance.
The answer, then, is to make the system better serve the long-term interests of the young people involved in it, which is what college is supposed to be about. The optimum solution would be to tear down the stadiums, disband the conferences and turn the games into vehicles for healthful student recreation, which is what the rest of the world does. That ain’t gonna happen, so I propose the following steps, none of which would spoil the public fun:
ELIMINATE FRESHMAN ELIGIBILITY— Mandating that a student complete one-fourth of his degree requirements before beginning varsity competition would establish the primacy of education in the student-athlete equation. Future eligibility should hinge on the student’s continuing academic progress. An athlete still could compete for four years, but the fourth would come as a reward for achieving grad-student status. This would mark a sea change in a process that now allows a freshman football player to complete a full season of competition before earning a single academic credit. Incidentally, it also would eliminate the “one-and-done” phenomenon that now pollutes college basketball.
RESTRICT TEAM PRACTICES TO A SPORT’S SEASON— Such sessions should last no more than two hours a day and be conducted no more than five times a week, beginning two weeks before a team’s first intercollegiate game and ending with the last. No more spring football. Summers should be free, allowing athletes to take the sort of jobs other students use to finance their incidental (and sometimes other) campus expenses. Hey, they may even learn something in the process.
NO MORE ATHLETES’ DORMS, TRAINING TABLES OR EXCLUSIVE TRAINING FACILITIES--- In college, like at every other level of formal education, kids learn at least as much from the other kids as they do from what goes on in the classrooms, and ghettoizing jocks cuts them off from much of this good stuff. There’s a big world out there and it’s not all about sweat. Re the training tables, don’t worry, they won’t starve.
By the way, I’m available to any university that would like to take me on as a consultant to implement the above measures. My rates will be reasonable. Whatever I make will be more than I’m making now.