March 13, 2003

Pay the Athletes

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On Tuesday, the Sun ran a poll on its sports section website asking if you’d be willing to bend the rules in order to win on the D-1 level. The assumption was that you’re the head coach of a major D-1 sports program and have an opportunity to get ahead by slightly bending the NCAA’s stringent regulations. Interestingly, most of the respondents clicked the choice “No, I believe in fair play.”

I’m not buying it.

Come on, people. Imagine being the maestro of a glitz and glamour program into which millions of dollars pour every year from boosters. You compete for the nation’s top prospects, appear on PTI for “Five Good Minutes,” get booed and spit on when you fail, and get treated like the Second Coming when things go well.

Have you ever seen Hoosiers? The question shouldn’t even be asked, but anyway. Remember the first practice where Coach Dale (played by a strapping Gene Hackman) is approached by the players’ fathers and they all tell him how his team needs to be run? A similar situation presents itself in the local barbershop a few days later. Now multiply that by about 35,000,006 and you might understand what Coach K is up against at Duke.

With all that pressure, all that potential for fame and fortune, you wouldn’t hand out a phone card or two?

I thought so.

My question, then, is why is everyone so appalled at the recent outbreak of college basketball scandals? (Excuse me for concentrating on college basketball but March Madness is right around the corner and I’m giddier than a sorority pledge eating in Trillium while wearing a pair of pink bunny ears.)

Can you imagine what these guys are up against? Not only do they have personal pressure to perform or be fired, but they also have competitive, bottom-line obsessed A.D.’s on their backs, wealthy boosters threatening to cut off donations, and the national media critiquing every substitution they make. It’s a cutthroat business; to think no one does a little extra to get ahead is as ludicrous as Word of Mouf.

Major college basketball has a new adversary lately, as well. The curse of early departure has raised the stakes of recruitment and retention to an entirely new level. With millions of dollars luring stars from the college ranks, coaches need an incentive with which to convince players to stay for an extra year. It’s a vicious cycle.

Nebraska’s governor recently approved a bill to allow Nebraska’s major universities to pay its players. While the resolution will be shot down by the NCAA quicker than a freshman at a DG party, it recognizes the need to address this vicious cycle. College athletes deserve some sort of compensation. It’s a long-standing debate and one which needs to be re-opened in a serious manner.

At some universities, revenue from athletic merchandise and ticket sales can account for a significant portion of the college’s total income. Yet, the players don’t see a cent.

Sure, they are treated like princes, get an occasional free apple from the dining hall, and sometimes have tests taken for them, but where’s the monetary compensation?

Some would argue that paying college athletes would rob the game of its purity. I strongly disagree. I have a work-study job on campus that I get paid for and you should see me go! My heart is still in it even though my weighty salary accompanies my performance.

A flat-wage for high revenue sports programs would also ensure that colleges can’t compete by offering better salaries. What the NCAA could do is offer performance bonuses for programs that bring in the most money during a given season. Individual schools can also offer a certain amount of merit pay according to measures of success within a given conference. It’s a win-win situation.

I’m not talking about a ton of money either, maybe a couple grand per athlete.

Such a system ensures a level playing field for recruitment, relative fairness for high-grossing programs, and incentives for team, rather than individual, performance.

And don’t tell me there’s not enough money to achieve such a system. Cornell, for instance, could easily cover the cost of paying its hockey players by leaving just one of its buildings alone for more than a week. (The construction on campus is killing me. Can’t they just stop for like a year? Would it kill them to just leave our campus alone, rather than ruining it by digging up every inch of earth they can find? This place looks more like a disaster area than an Ivy League institution. And do they have something against grass? The only nature on campus 15 years from now is going to be the outfield of the baseball diamond. Of course, that’ll probably be astroturf sooner or later. Somebody please help.)

All I’m saying is that if the Comm department can give $3000 to its top speechmaker of the semester, then why can’t the athletic program offer a reward to the university’s most important asset, its student athletes? It would clean up the current scandalous nature of so many programs and allow more people to respond honestly to our poll. And isn’t that what the NCAA is all about?

Archived article by Scott Jones