When everybody says something should happen, it probably will. But this isn’t necessarily a good thing.
What everybody is saying now is that it’s about time big-time college athletes in the so-called revenue sports—football and men’s basketball-- are paid. Time magazine said so in a September cover story. Joe Nocera, the New York Times op-ed columnist who sometimes writes about the NCAA, has agreed on several occasions. Sports-blab radio hosts have been saying it for years; it’s like you can’t join their union if you don’t share that belief. You might think so, too.
At least, it’s a commonsensical stance. Look around any college stadium on game day and you’ll notice that everyone who didn’t buy a ticket—sportswriters, TV folks, coaches, game officials, ticket takers, concessionaires, vendors and the people who clean up after—are on the clock. In a multi-billion-dollar business that enriches many, what could it hurt to toss a few bucks the kids’ way?
But think about it for a minute (I know, it hurts) and complications appear. How much would be “fair” compensation for the hours the players put in-- $100 a month, $1,000, $5,000? Should they be paid out of season as well as in? Should a kid who seldom plays be given as much money as a starter, or a starter as much as a star? Should Johnny Football have a pay class of his own?
Should players’ injuries be covered by workmen’s compensation, whose benefits can far outlast their college careers? Should the players be permitted to organize? Should they have a voice in their conditions of employment, such as the duration and content of practices? Should they get to audition cheerleaders?
I could go on but think the point is made. I also think it’s widely recognized that many if not most of the players already are being paid, only not by check. When I covered the University of Illinois football team for the Daily Illini in 1956 (gasp!), the players joked openly about the “$20 handshakes” they received from alums after games. According to a recent series in Sports Illustrated magazine about a long-term and far-reaching payment system in the Oklahoma State U. football program, it seems those attaboys are worth $200 these days.
No-work jobs from boosters were part of the OK St. package, SI averred; nothing new there, either. Ditto for free meals, beers, clothes and whatnot from friendly merchants around any campus. Agents can be counted upon to slip cash to players who might be future clients, as well as to their pals and loved ones; it’s a normal expenditure in that business. A recent piece on Yahoo Sports asserted that five current or recent Southeastern Conference football stars shared some $90,000 in agent payouts over a 15-month period ending last December.
But even such hauls pale in comparison with the value of what athletes are permitted to receive. The annual cash value of a “free ride” athletic scholarship to a top-division sports school-- covering tuition, room, board and books-- ranges from $15,000 to $25,000 for students at public universities to more than $50,000 for such high-toned private schools as Duke, Stanford and Northwestern. Multiply that by the four or five years it usually takes a jock to play out his eligibility and you have more-than-ample compensation for semi-skilled labor.
The final figure is much higher for athletes who manage to emerge with degrees. If you estimate that college grads earn about $20,000 a year more than people without degrees over a 40-plus year work life, you see the basis of the claim that a degree is worth a million dollars, not to mention whatever intellectual lamps it lights. Even those who wish to quarrel with that estimate must admit that a sheepskin is much more valuable monetarily than any salary young jocks might be paid while in school.
The real scandal of college sports doesn’t concern what the players get— legally or under the table—but what they typically don’t get, which is the ability to pursue the education they sign up for. Playing football or basketball at the top college level is a full-time job, with players so tied up in games, travel and workouts and practices of various kinds that they have little time or, sometimes, energy for schooling. Add that the youngsters must cope with the sort of news-media attention that would disconcert most of their elders and normal student life becomes an impossibility.
It’s possible that a strong-minded, persistent and well-advised young man can get through the athletics’ cement mixer with an education worth its name, but most 18-to-22 year-old jocks don’t fit that description. Abetted by their coaches, most are channeled into unchallenging majors whose requirements don’t conflict with their sports schedules, and eased along further by “program-friendly” profs and “academic advisers” who relieve them of the necessity to do much coursework. Yes, the lads often are complicit in their own exploitation, but their youth is an excuse while the adults who manage them have no such “out.” Putting players on a payroll only would increase the overseers’ leverage.
They’re not going to tear down the stadiums, the coaches aren’t going back to being paid like regular teachers and dumb-ass boosters aren’t about to get lives outside of sports, so remedies are hard to imagine, much less implement. One small thing that could be done, though, is return to the former practice of denying athletic eligibility until a student satisfactorily completes a full academic year. That might discourage college attendance by players who are interested solely in honing their games and give the others a taste of what the rest of the student body is up to. Some might like it and insist on continuing.