Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Paying Student Athletes

When I was younger, my family lived in Northern Vermont. We could not get cable at our house, so we survived with a large antenna on the roof and five channels - ABC, CBS, FOX, CBC, and something in French, also from Canada. We could get NBC, but it was incredibly fuzzy and often the audio would go in and out.

I have early memories of watching Michael Jordan win NBA finals games through a haze of static with my youngest brother yelling "Michael Me, Michael Me" at the top of his lungs (my brother's name is Jordan).

My first college sports memory is North Carolina's men's basketball championship in 1993. I was eleven by then, but as the oldest child in a non-sports watching household, I had to discover everything for myself. I remember seeing giant, awkward Eric Montross hugging his sweaty teammates (Montross later went on to play for the Boston Celtics wearing the immortal single zero uniform number - that always makes me smile for some reason). I couldn't root for North Carolina, though, they were the bad guys and I liked the Michigan Fab Five, whom they beat.

I liked the Fab Five mostly because I like when things happen that haven't happened before - and five freshman starting in the National Championship game was pretty unique.

All of this is prelude to something that probably should have been said in one sentence at the top. The first players I really resonated with in college basketball were Tyus Edney and Ed O'Bannon (along with Toby Bailey) on the 1995 UCLA championship team. While it was Lute Olson's Arizona Wildcat champions two years later who really grabbed my attention (and my loyalty), the UCLA team was the first one I rooted for because of some mystical attachment to the players.

Fast forward far too many years, Ed O'Bannon is the lead plaintiff in a class action suit filed by former college athletes against the NCAA. They're suing for compensation and control of the rights to their own likenesses - in video games and such.

The NCAA makes a lot of money licensing players' likenesses for video games and advertisement, even merchandise sales. They try to skirt the issue by not including specific names, but as an avid fan of EASports' College Football '97 for SEGA Genesis, I can tell you almost every actual college player is on that game, even if their names are absent - right down to Alex Van Pelt leading the explosive Nevada Wolfpack offense which you can use to upset an unsuspecting opponent who says, "fine, I'll play with you, but you have to choose a bad team."

This lawsuit has added current players and gotten permission to proceed through the court system. It's been legitimized. They may not win, but the NCAA is going to have fight it. The lawsuit has also lead to a larger discussion of the economics of college sports and whether a scholarship is enough compensation for players (mostly men's basketball and football) who raise significant revenue for their schools.

This week, a number of college football players have written messages on their pads and arm bands to stand in solidarity with the group working to secure increased benefits.

It's a difficult issue. For many of us who paid (and are still paying) for college, the idea of room and board with a small stipend for living expense sounds like a plum deal. Of course, these athletes are essentially banned from working other jobs. There are limits on who they work for and the huge time constraints of major college sports make anything beyond a small work-study position impossible.

The Athletic Departments of major football school rake in a lot of money, selling outrageously priced tickets and merchandise and whatnot. However, they also spend a lot of money, which means, in the end, only a couple dozen schools even end up in the black at the end of the year. Under the current model, there's very little money to give.

I support the O'Bannon lawsuit, not because I have warm feelings for Ed O'Bannon (though I do), but because it makes sense that students who can make money from their image, whether in commercial endorsements or other means, should be able to do so. They may be getting paid because of their ability to play, but they're not being paid to play - I recognize that's a fine line, but it's an important one.

The NCAA is already speaking out of both sides of their mouth there anyway. A guy can get drafted into baseball, sign a $2 million dollar contract, then decide baseball isn't for him, head back to college and be allowed to play football. Yet, a decade or so ago, Colorado football player Jeremy Bloom, who was also an Olympic level skier, wasn't allowed to sign modeling or endorsement contracts (which arose only because he's a famous skier and had nothing to do with his mediocre football skills) and retain his college eligibility. It's capricious.

I know those rules are in place so schools can't use "endorsement" money as an under the table way to pay players. But players already choose schools based on how much exposure they'll get to tv audiences, why would considering endorsement possibilities not fit into the same category?

At the same time, I don't think student athletes deserve more than scholarships and a small stipend for playing the sport of their choice in college. An education is a valuable commodity, one that will bring with it much more than the $150,000 value of the degree over the course of a lifetime. Money sports athletes really have little to complain about when world-class athletes in other college sports have to do with half scholarships or none at all simply because there isn't a television market for their skills.

If a kid is good enough or famous enough to make some money on his image - let him do it. Treat them like any other college kid - and hold them to a high standard of academics.

The NCAA is beginning to catch on here, but it's just a drop in the bucket of ways the system needs to change. Student athletes need to be making progress towards a degree, not spending four years taking intro course in every subject under the sun. The NCAA and the schools themselves need to do a better job of holding the athletic department accountable for the education of their athletes.

Part of that could be guaranteeing an athletic scholarship for the number of credit necessary to graduate. Currently, the players get only one year guaranteed, scholarships are renewed (or not) every year. If your coach was a bad judge of talent, you pay the price, not him. If the kid is good enough to get the offer, he should be good enough to get four years of school. Mistakes in judgment should come back on those making the decisions. And, obviously, if the student can't keep up academically, they can't enroll anyway. It would also allow those players who take minimal classes while playing to take the rest of their necessary credits after their eligibility is over.

Second, athletic departments should be required to scholarship all athletes at the same level, with a minimum number of require sports for big-time football schools. One's athletic fortunes should not be dependent on the whims of TV viewers. There should also be a requirement for contributions from the athletic department to the school's general fund every year - say ten percent of revenue. Hold the athletic department accountable to benefit the school in more ways than TV exposure. They're just going to get the rich boosters to chip in the difference anyway (many schools likely have boosters giving this money already) - it won't be a big change, but it won't allow athletic departments to spend extravagantly.

It's a money game. Money runs the show. We all know that. I'm not even sure there's anything wrong with it. What's wrong is our refusal to set up measures to make sure the money is benefiting everyone. Right now, cash strapped, often desperately poor athletes from desperately poor families are getting kicked out of school for associating themselves with unseemly types just to make rent or buy food. These kids, whose athletic abilities managed to get them a chance at an education when there likely wouldn't have been any chance otherwise, are losing out on both the education and the experience because the people in power are greedy.

You don't have to pay them a salary to give them a chance. Just treat them like human beings, or, you know, any other student at the school. Or, you could just start following Division III sports, where they don't give athletic scholarships and the kids aren't actually any different from the other students at school.

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