Ten Miles Square

September/ October 2013 Pay or Don’t Play

Paying college athletes isn’t just fair to players; it could improve college basketball.

By Louis Barbash

But there have been enough success stories—Bryant, McGrady, Garnett, Dwight Howard, Amar’e Stoudemire, and, of course, LeBron James—to convince a league that revolves increasingly around stars rather than teams that high school players and underclassmen are good investments.

In all, forty-two high school graduates have turned pro and been drafted by NBA teams. The stream of prep-to-pros has been joined by a river of college underclassmen. By the 2005 draft, after the NBA and the player’s union had agreed to require players to have at least one year of college (the “one and done” rule), nine of the top ten draftees, twenty-eight of that year’s sixty draftees, were high school players or college underclassmen. And another stream of non-college seniors was coming from yet another source of competition: foreign countries, with nearly 200 draftees to date.

The NCAA’s prohibition against paying players still stands. But it has become increasingly irrelevant. The players whose compensation the NCAA’s rule is meant to bar—the best nineteen-, twenty-, and twenty-one-year-old players, stars who could be attracting fans to college games—get paid anyway, by professional teams.

It’s too soon to tell if big-time college basketball will join the historic monopolies and oligopolies that were slow to adapt to change and suffered the long-term consequences. The sport still commands enormous fan loyalty: locally in college towns among students and alumni, and nationally in the form of a lucrative long-term national March Madness TV contract. But will it be able to maintain its popularity as more of its best players increasingly see their hopes for a basketball career as lying outside the college sport?

And what about the fundamental unfairness inherent in a system in which college players create wealth for their institutions but are not allowed to share in it? Can the recurring dishonesty that has accompanied college sports be eliminated as long as the current system stays in place? For what shall it profit colleges, to paraphrase the New Testament, if they gain the whole world but lose their own souls?

Surely a system could be devised that would retain the basic structure of big-time intercollegiate sports but provide players a fair share. But a system that could be effectively enforced? That’s another question entirely.

The history of efforts to enforce NCAA rules is not encouraging. The amateur ideal has proved notoriously difficult to enforce, not just recently but almost from the beginning. As early as 1929, Duke professor Charles Clotfelter has written, long before big money came to college basketball, American College Athletics, a report issued by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, “documented abuses in recruiting, the undue influence of alumni boosters, widespread subsidies to players, high salaries of coaches and a ‘distorted scheme of values.’” What is most striking about the Carnegie Foundation report,” writes Clotfelter, “is how contemporary its findings sound today.”

What accounts for the persistence of transgressions across at least eighty years of NCAA enforcement activity? Perhaps a certain number of violations are to be expected; after all, despite red lights and speed traps, drivers still violate traffic laws on a regular basis. Or perhaps the fifty-nine-member NCAA enforcement staff is too small to adequately police the violations generated by 340-plus college sports programs.

Joe Nocera urges far-reaching reform. “Do you need any more proof,” he asked rhetorically after sports scandals at Rutgers and Ohio State, “that college presidents are not qualified to run a major entertainment industry like college football and men’s basketball?” His remedy: “culling the big-time football and basketball schools from the rest of the N.C.A.A. and letting them play by a different set of rules.” In addition, “create some real separation between the teams and the universities, and stop pretending they have any ‘educational’ value. (And while we’re at it, pay the players.)”

It may go too far to say that college sports have no educational value whatever. If basketball scholarships help kids make it through high school, get them into college, and propel them through graduation, that’s a good thing—especially for the vast majority of students who will never play professionally.

But if college revenue sports are, indeed, “a major entertainment industry” that college presidents “are in over their heads” trying to run, if big-time college sports have no educational value anyway, why are colleges, which exist to educate, in the business—and it is a business—of sponsoring college teams made up of students, paid or unpaid, at all?

If colleges believe that having a basketball or football team contributes to education, let them keep them. But let them run their teams like they do other campus-based enterprises, like public radio and TV stations or hospitals. Program producers and station engineers at college-based NPR and PBS stations don’t work for nothing. Neither do doctors and nurses at university hospitals. Neither should athletes playing for college-sponsored teams.

So pay the players. Pay them what the market will bear—maybe in the low-five-figure range of the salaries now paid to players in the NBA’s Development League. Allow them union representation like NBA and NFL players have. Provide a free college education—a real college education—for players who want one, as a fringe benefit. Players could pursue their degree while they’re playing, during off-seasons, or after their playing careers are done.

And exempt them from having to be students in order to play. Patients at university hospitals are attended by licensed physicians and nurses, not by undergraduate premeds. The programs made possible by “viewers like you” on college-affiliated NPR and PBS stations aren’t produced by film majors.

The University of Texas doesn’t have to give up its Longhorns or the University of Wisconsin its Badgers. They don’t have to give up the games or their ticket sales or their TV rights payments. They just have to share the wealth with the players whose work—let’s call it what it is—is the source of that wealth.

All they stand to lose is the clash between the demands of big-time, big-dollar college sports and colleges’ missions and ethics.

Image credit: AFP/Getty Images

Louis Barbash is a Washington writer who blogs at Connecting-the-Dots.net.

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