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Wednesday, October 13, 2010 // The Statement B
ollege athletics and school
spirit are among the most cher-
ished of American traditions.
But college sports in the
United States are unique in their appeal,
both in relation to the rest of the world,
which does not share our obsession, and
to other forms of entertainment. We
pay to see Oscar-caliber actors at the
movies, not theater-school novices. We
wait in long lines for Bruce Springsteen
concerts, not high school battles of the
bands. Yet you'll rarely find a fan of the
NBA or the NFL who dismisses college
basketball and college football as trifling
So why don't we regard the win-
ners of the BCS Championship and the
NCAA tournament as merely big fish in
small ponds? What's the source of our
enthusiasm for college sports that minor
league baseball teams would kill for?
The answer dates back to the incep-
tion of intercollegiate competition, and
it comes down to one word: amateurism.
Popular American sentiment holds a
special place for the amateur ideal - we
adore the concept of student-athletes
who are students first, who wear their
school colors, who share a special con-
nection with their fan bases composed
primarily oftheir classmates and alumni
and who learn life lessons about team-
work and discipline while also working
toward a college degree.
Above all, the conventional wisdom
tells us, student-athletes are spared the
temptations of huge paychecks. We find
it wholesome that they walk away with
only an education. Even if it's just at a
subconscious level, these factors bring
charm and an innocence to college
sports that is absent in the professional
We cry foul when a college athlete is
caught taking cash or other perks from
a shady character with close ties to the
athletic department. We condemn for-
mer USC running back Reggie Bush for
taking gifts from agents, revoking his
distinction as the 2005 Heisman Trophy
winner. After all, making money isn't
what college sports are about.
At the same time, we eagery spend on
tickets, t-shirts and bumper stickers. We
tune in on Saturdays and lend our cap-
tive eyes to television advertisers who
paybigbucks tobe sandwiched between
coverage of young hot shots like Denard
Robinson taking snaps while serving as
walking (and running, and throwing)
promotions for ADIDAS. We buy the
magazines, the video games, the key
chains and the posters. Various entities
- athletic departments, media outlets,
apparel sponsors, top-flight coaches -
cash in for billions when all is said and
The only ones who don't, it seems, are
the athletes who pu their bodies and
futures on the line for our entertain-
California State University-San Mar-
cos economist Robert Brown told ESPN.
com for a December 2009 story that the
average NFL-bound college football
player would be worth $1.3 million to
$1.36 million per season to his school "if
the college game were subject to mar-
ket forces similar to those that govern
the NFL." Former Florida quarterback
Tim Tebow, he said, would likely be paid
more than $2.5 million.
Tebow's full-ride scholarship was
worth $13,000 a year.
Critics of the status quo contend that
amateurism is not so much an ideal as
an outdated construct, beloved for its
quaintness but ultimately servingto bar
those who generate value from the com-
pensation to which they're entitled.
Through the decades, beneath the
positive developments for fairness in
intercollegiate competition - most nota-
bly desegregation and Title IX - the
lurking trend of perpetually increas-
ing commercialization has led activists,
national columnists and some politi-
cians to insist that the public has been
misled, and that the brunt of the labor
going into college athletics goes toward
lining the pockets of everyone but the
Ernie Chambers is a former long-time
Nebraska state senator who repeat-
edly introduced legislation that would
require stipends for college football and
basketball players in the state. It never
came to be.
"There should not be surprise at the
number of young guys who take what
are called 'extra benefits,' " Chambers
said in a recent interview. "The shock
should be that not all of them do it."
Chambers, who never uses the word
scholarships without preceding it with
"so-called" and prefers to call them
"contracts of indenture," says athletes in
the revenue-producing sports - at most
schools, just football and basketball -
are entitled to compensation for the
value they bringto universities.
"No other level or classification of
employees could be treated as unjustly
as all these players, generating this
amount of money, and nothing be said
about it," he said.
According to Erik Christianson,
director of public and media relations
for the NCAA, athletic scholarships are
"Their goal is to graduate and to
achieve that college education," he said.
Indeed, to overlook scholarships or
to downplay their importance would
be to ignore a great opportunity given
to athletes, especially those who other-
wise could not afford it or could not get
into college. Without a doubt, athletic
scholarships have had an immeasurable
impact on the lives of these athletes and
arguably on society as a whole.
"You can't say that the players don't
get something," said Bill Martin, the
University of Michigan's recently
retired athletic director and former
president of the U.S. Olympic Commit-
tee. "They get an education. They get an
opportunity to experience college life
and all the positive attributes of that."
Martin didn't dismiss the moral and
philosophical case for paying student-
athletes, but he did note several legal
and practical nightmares that could
come from it.
Most would agree that the effort and
exertion aren't necessarily greater for
revenue-producing athletes than those
in non-revenue sports, which he said
would lead to controversy in the hypo-
thetical scenario in which football and
basketball players got paid.
He said he would anticipate such
a move to be challenged in the courts
under Title IX, which ensures gender
equality in college sports, if on no other
Above all, though, Martin said the
money just isn't there in most cases.
Only 14 Division I athletic depart-
ments - out of 335 - earn revenues that
exceed their expenses, according to
Christianson, the NCAA spokesman.
And even forschools that have profitable
football and basketball programs, the
money earned goes primarily toward
paying student scholarships and subsi-
dizingthe non-revenue sports.
"If push came to shove," Martin said,,
"and Congress were to say 'OK, pay
them,' what would athletic departments
do? Cut sports. So we decrease the num-
ber of opportunities to appropriate par-
ticipation in college spots at the varsity
He said that while he was athletic
director at the University, before the
opening of the renovated Michigan
Stadium, "four (football) games out of
eight, every penny of gate receipts ...
went toward scholarships."
Butthe simmering question is wheth-
er, for many revenue-producing ath-
letes, success in athletics comes at the
expense of education.
The NCAA touts a statistic that says
Division I athletes are more likely to
graduate than the general student body.
But they won't draw attentionto the fact
that for athletes in revenue sports (foot-
ball and basketball), the NCAA-report-
ed graduation success rates are lower
than all the other sports by a significant
margin (67 percent for FBS football ath-
letes and 64 percent for men's basketball
compared to79 percentoverall).
Pressed on this, Christianson said
that new numbers that show improve-
ment in those sports are forthcom-
ing, and that the current rates show an
upward trend from previous years. The
NCAA website has only broken links
to the pre-2009 data, and requests for
the information were not returned by
Certainly, some of this gap can be
accounted for by early attrition to pro-
fessional sports. But considering only
1.2 percent and 1.8 percent of all NCAA
athletes in men's basketball and football
players respectively end up going pro,
according to the NCAA, that effect has
to be relatively miniscule.
Martin said that the other major fac-
tor in play here is the admissions stan-
dards of academic institutions. The
"sliding scale" system, which allows
for tradeoffs between GPA and stan-
dardized test scores on NCAA-clearing
admissions standards, was changed in
2003 to increase the extent to which one
can compensate for the other.
According to Martin, this amounted
to "relaxed" admissions standards for
NCAA athletes, which Chambers insists
were already far too low to take serious-.
ly the NCAA's and universities' claims to
have athletes' best academic interests at
Chambers also disputes the argu-
ment that programs couldn't afford to
pay athletes because, after all, top pro-
grams find the money to compensate
coaches handsomely. He said this con-
tradiction amounts to hypocrisy on the
part of NCAA and the universities.
He bemoaned the fact that it's often
the same coaches quoted spouting about
character, personal dignity and loyalty
who end up bolting for greener pastures
when a more lucrative opportunity pres-
He brought up Brian Kelly, Notre
Dame's first-year coach who left an
ascendant Cincinnati pro-
gram last winter for the
"Cincinnati was having a
great season, was going to a
bowl game. He talked about
how he loved it, his fam-
ily loved it. Everyone was
happy," Chambers said.
"When the siren call came from
Notre Dame, without letting those play-
ers know, he jumped ship. Some of them
found out from the media. Reporters
asked them how they felt about it. Some
didn't even know. And ata meeting that
was called, some of them left the meet-
ing in tears."
"This coach for whom they played
their hearts out left them in the lurch,"
he said. "It's almost poetic justice that
Notre Dame is doing as poorly as it is."
Many will defend the fact that some
football coaches are the highest-paid
public employees in their states with
the "free market" justification. But this
always begs the question: If it were truly
a free market, why would the players,
who arguably deliver the same kind
of value as the coaches, be excluded?
There's certainly irony in the fact that
amateurism in college sports is consid-
ered profoundly American, while it goes
against one of our deepest-held beliefs:
that capitalism is the only way.
Christianson said the difference is
that players are amateurs and coaches
To JasonWinfree, a professor ofkine-
siology at the University of Michigan
and an expert on the NCAA, this ratio-
nalization falls short because it creates a
false distinction. A self-proclaimed free-
market guy, Winfree sees it as a moral
debate, not a semantic one.
"It's hard to argue, I think, that col-
lege athletes shouldn't be paid and that
everybody else should be paid," he said.
"It seems like a stretch to me."
"A lot of people sort of have this reac-
tion ... Why do they need all that money?
Can they handle it at that age?" Winfree
"But they're already being taken
advantage of," he said, and not just by
the money they bring in, but often with
Winfree lamented the pressure on a
20-year-old athlete on national televi-
sion: "If they screw up, everybody sees
them screw up."
He posits that the fairest system
would completely embrace the market.
Players would sign contracts, Winfree
said, and a backup kicker could end up
earning far less than the starting run-
ning back. When asked whether he
would cut the wages of a highly touted
freshman quarterback who underper-
forms, he said he would.
He also suggests that athletes
shouldn't be required to be students. "If
they're really not academically oriented,
what good is that going to do them any-
way? They don't value that. And maybe
they shouldn't value that. You hate to
say this on a campus, but college isn't for
Winfree's proposal presents prob-
lems because it would likely result in
high school athletes needing agents to
navigate the recruitment and contract
process, something Winfree admits is
less than ideal for a 17-year-old.
Chambers detests the idea of paying
some players more than others. He says
such attitudes only give fuel to the pay-
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