Let 'student-athletes' climb aboard the money train
John JeansonneJohn Jeansonne
Jeansonne has been a reporter in Newsday’s sports department since
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It is a metaphoric, sophomoric pretense to continue arguing, as NCAA president Mark Emmert did this past week, that paying big-time college athletes would destroy the purity of the enterprise.
On the contrary, any honest evaluation of the billion-dollar business must acknowledge what several studies have concluded for years: That major college football and men's basketball players essentially function in high-tech sweat shops. They are the masses of employees, working long hours for their company, expected to go to school full-time but whose priority is to deliver the product that brings in millions of dollars for their employers.
Every day, it seems, another story emerges. On Saturday, the players from Georgia and Georgia Tech took the field in separate games with gear marked "APU" (All Players United) to protest the NCAA's treatment of athletes on several issues, including concussions and compensation. Earlier in the day, Texans running back Arian Foster was quoted by Sports Illustrated as saying he took money during his senior year at Tennessee. Oklahoma State came under fire for alleged payouts to athletes in an SI report, and who can forget the uproar and half-game suspension that arose from Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel's signature?
The old argument, that they are adequately compensated by a full scholarship, no longer passes the smell test. It is typical -- in the most successful "programs," as college teams have come to be known -- that the head coach wields the power to cancel a scholarship after a single school year, without regard to the athlete's academic progress.
Furthermore, research has shown that scholarship money rarely covers all of the athlete's expenses. And a proposal to give schools the option of offering $2,000 stipends beyond tuition, room and board, books and fees has been put on hold by member institutions. Given that major college football coaches average more than $1.5 million in annual salaries, and that the football profits at the likes of Texas and Michigan are in the vicinity of $80 million and $62 million, respectively, the calls to give star jocks a cut of the revenues are getting louder.
Ellen Staurowsky, a Drexel University professor of sport management and author of the book, "College Athletes for Hire: The Evolution and Legacy of the NCAA Amateur Myth," has noted the "moral dilemma that everyone associated with college sport is confronted with on a daily basis."
While the athletes provide the show for free, colleges in the top conferences share multi-year, billion-dollar television contracts, and football weekends in college towns sustain cottage industries such as hotels, restaurants and bars, ticket sellers and stadium workers. Staurowsky further cites the layers of competing conflicts of interest: the corporate sector, gambling interests, fans and media.
In declaring that NCAA athletes will not be paid, Emmert appears intent on riding the hobbyhorse of "student-athlete" hypocrisy, telling a Marquette University forum on Monday that "one of the guiding principles [of the NCAA] has been that this is about students who play sports."
This, in the face of mountains of evidence that it really is about athletes who often only dabble in being students, the most obvious example being those routine "one-and-done" college basketball players' path to the NBA, in which some barely spend a semester on campus. Mostly in the gym.
As Emmert noted, this "enormous tension that's growing between the collegiate model and the commercial model" is "nothing new." But the whole Manziel episode, in which the Heisman Trophy winner was investigated and ultimately suspended for half of Texas A&M's opening game after being accused of accepting money for signing autographs, has brought the discussion to the Sept. 16 cover of Time Magazine.
In a blog post, sports author and commentator John Feinstein this week called for a trust fund, from which a player, after graduation, can draw a share of the school's profit in that player's sport.
Staurowsky's model would be to simply split revenue-generating sports from the amateur, educational process. The players still could go to classes if they'd like, but the universities would be taken away from the role of promoters and brokers of athletic talent and of mass sports entertainment. The odds of any reasonable, thoroughly virtuous system appears long. But Feinstein's warning that "the NCAA is going down in flames," doesn't seem entirely remote anymore.