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Should college athletes be paid?

Some things didn't show up in the March Madness boxscores. For instance, UConn basketball coach Jim Calhoun was paid $2.3 million this past season, more than any other state employee in Connecticut. UConn point guard Kemba Walker, invaluable to Calhoun during the team's championship run and a marquee performer in the three-week television extravaganza that generated almost $800 million for the NCAA, was compensated with an athletic scholarship of uncertain worth.

With a shortfall, according to a recent national study, of almost $3,000 in what it cost Walker to attend school this year.

Calhoun was asked about this late in the tournament.

Q: "Are you at the point that you think some of the student-athletes should be paid beyond what their scholarship allows?"

Calhoun: "For a lot of years . . . I was a hundred percent against that, a hundred percent against that. Kids get room, board, tuition, books and fees. They can also get $6,000 in Pell Grant money and another $1,500 in special needs. So that's $7,500 of spending money over a nine-month period. But given the amount, for example, some of our kids' parents aren't here [in Houston for the Final Four]. That's wrong."

Later this month, at the NCAA's board of directors meeting, president Mark Emmert's organization will "explore" this long-discussed topic, though he is on record saying it is "inappropriate to pay players . . . converting them from students to employees."

This week, at a two-day Wake Forest University "Losing to Win Conference" examining issues of race and intercollegiate sports, the pay-for-play question will be "woven through seven or eight panels," said conference organizer Earl Smith, a professor of sociology and American ethnic studies at Wake Forest.

"It's an old story," Smith said in a telephone interview. "And, long story, short: Yes, they should be paid."

Just how is another argument altogether. "Is it doable?" said Phillip Miller, a University of Minnesota-Mankato economics professor who contributes to the Sports Economist website. "Yeh, it's doable. I don't see why it would be difficult to pay a salary. All that money's going somewhere -- to coaches, a lot to funding the rest of the athletic department. But Title IX [mandating financial "proportionality" for women] complicates things."

Much of the heat in this debate is aimed at establishing a no-lie zone by removing what many believe to be out-and-out hypocrisy: Plenty of anecdotal evidence lays bare the myth that, in the big-money college sports of football and men's basketball, everyone is either an amateur or a student. "It's a sausage factory," Miller warned. "You don't want to find out how it's made."

During the NCAA Tournament, consumer advocate Ralph Nader chimed in by calling for the complete abolition of athletic scholarships as a means to "de-professionalize" college sports; Nader would allow only need-based scholarships.

With that strategy roundly dismissed as impractical, Indianapolis Star columnist Bob Kravitz revived his old suggestion that the NCAA offer athletes the choice between a scholarship or an annual salary of $40,000. Kravitz's reasoning is that the majority of college athletes -- swimmers, lacrosse players, wrestlers and even some football and basketball players -- would choose the opportunity to get a free education while continuing to play the sports they love.

Those few using the high wattage college sports stage merely as steppingstone to the pros, such as one-and-done Kentucky basketball star John Wall, meanwhile could honestly take the $40,000 -- no pretenses about going to class -- thereby getting a small share of the enormous bucks they help generate for their athletic department through tickets sales, advertising and TV money.

Kravitz's plan acknowledges the almighty power of this multi-billion-dollar business and, beyond that, the fact that unscrupulous boosters still will have their secret handshakes (with greased palms) for top players, some of whom gladly will take the swag. Fighting the system, admitted Smith, the Wake Forest professor, is "worse" than fighting city hall.

"Wall Street," he offered instead. To bring significant change would require getting to the athletic directors, because "the most powerful people on college campuses are athletic directors. The weakest person on campus," he added, "is the college president. They're afraid of the athletic directors."

That a four-year college scholarship already is substantial payment for services rendered on the playing fields is a long-held contention -- and one not without some merit. But Smith called such scholarships "fictitious, because the four-year scholarship doesn't exist anymore." Since the 1970s, athletic scholarships are renewed on an annual basis, at the discretion of the athletic department.

Furthermore, a study conducted by the California-based National College Players Association and the Ithaca College graduate program of sports management found athletic scholarships falling short by $3,000 to $11,000 per year -- depending on the school -- of covering the actual cost of attendance. (The NCPA is campaigning for allowing college athletes at least to be paid endorsement money for the use of their images in ads and video games.)

Taking all the numbers together, Smith described a "financial apartheid:" The sports generating the most money are peopled by mostly black, mostly poor athletes whose performances enrich an athletic department hierarchy of mostly comfortably compensated white people.

"You have to ask," Smith said, "how can these schools take these players in, some with less than 700 on their SAT combined, move them through colleges and universities on a shadow curriculum, without them becoming second-class citizens?"

That fabulously paid coaches routinely expect full-time commitment from their players -- beyond practice, there is weight training, film review, travel -- further minimizes time for athletes to be scholars. As Murray Sperber, visiting professor at California-Berkeley and author of several books on the excess of college sports, put it recently, "There should be some education involved" in the athletic scholarship agreement.

Smith offered this: "With the kind of money that the NCAA, BCS and all these people are taking in, you could put some into a kind of postgraduate fund. The John Walls are rare. Athletes should graduate to get the money. But as long as they are sticking with their sports, when they pick up their degree, there it is."

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