SBJ/August 26 - September 1, 2002/Opinion

College diploma beats athlete pay

Most writers are inveterate clippers of news items, and I'm no exception. That's because we never know when something one contains might come in handy to make a point or flesh out a piece. The trick is to put the darned things where we can find them when the need arises.

The clipping I'm looking at is from the front page of USA Today of a few months back. I was so sure I'd be using it that I tacked it to my bulletin board. It's a graph showing mortarboards topping dollar signs, with text quoting the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics as reporting that possession of a college bachelor's degree adds $2 million to a person's income over a 40-year work life.

The statistic relates to the subject of paying college athletes, one that comes up frequently. It's a favorite hobby horse of sports-blab radio hosts and callers, and some smarter people as well.

It's especially apt with the onset of the new Division I-A college football season, which the NCAA this year has lengthened to 12 games from 11 because (gasp!) it found an extra Saturday in the fall calendar. No excuse is too thin or silly for the college sports honchos to use to squeeze more labor from their unpaid troops.

The argument for giving college athletes a paycheck stems from the observation that, on game days, everybody else working in the arena — ticket takers, ushers, vendors, coaches and news people — is making money but them. It would seem that simple equity demands that they get a share.

The trouble is that, like many simple arguments, it doesn't stand up to scrutiny. For instance, what's a fair salary for a college athlete: $100 a month? $500? $1,000? Should scrubs be paid as much as starters, or starters as much as stars? Should the amount be negotiable, and, if so, by whom? Even jocks can put together the letters u-n-i-o-n.

Which athletes should be paid, just those in the revenue-producing sports of men's football and basketball, or those who play other sports as well? Golfers, volleyballers and fencers sweat, too, you know. Well, maybe not golfers.

And if an athlete is injured pursuing his or her sport, would he or she be entitled to collect workers' compensation payments? Don't snicker; that's important.

The fact is that nothing that conceivably could be paid to college athletes would approach the dollar value of the education that's quoted in my clipping, not to mention the benefits that can't be quantified. The main problem with big-time college sports — and their shame — is that the schools routinely renege on their promises to provide scholarship athletes with a fair shot at pursuing an education worth the name, whether or not a degree goes with it.

As it is, the lures of academe are dangled in front of youngsters in the recruiting process, then pulled away once they arrive on campus. Athletes often find themselves pushed into contentless courses designed to preserve their eligibility, and so encumbered by the demands of practice, games, travel and publicity that they're left with little time or energy even for those. Making it worse is that many have only marginal academic qualifications to begin with.

Of late, college athletes' sports duties have been made year-round by summer workout programs that are supposed to be voluntary but aren't. These deprive them of the summer work experiences that can be a valuable springboard into the job world. Professional contracts don't await all of them, you know.

It's no excuse for the institutions that, often, athletes contribute to their own shortchanging by taking the shortcuts their so-called advisers press upon them. They're kids and don't know better. In such an environment, putting them on a school's payroll would only legitimize their exploitation.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@sportsbusinessjournal.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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Colleges, NCAA, Opinion

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