Sunday, September 25, 2011

To pay or not to pay, that is the question

Perhaps no current topic in college sports is as polarizing as the one posed in the headline, as in, "Should student-athletes be paid beyond what is provided by their scholarship?" Yes, I realize you might not have heard it phrased quite that way, since many who feel these young people are treated unfairly simply want them to earn a salary of some kind. Regardless of whether you think college players are fairly compensated, it is a simple fact that the scholarship they receive is a form of compensation. Is it enough?

Many others with a higher importance and more talent than me have weighed in on this subject; HBO devoted an hour of programming to a roundtable discussion featuring columnist Jason Whitlock, former Michigan football coach Rich Rodriguez and former CBS college basketball analyst Billy Packer, among others, with Bryant Gumbel as moderator. There are a few others who have gotten my attention, as well, including Sports Illustrated writer Joe Posnanski, CBS and Sports Illustrated college hoops expert Seth Davis and noted Civil Rights author Taylor Branch.

My view runs concurrently with Posnanski and Davis and as far away from what Branch believes as possible. If you took the time to read the thoughts of those gentlemen, I likely won't improve upon them. In case you didn't, I will do what I can to summarize those thoughts here. I suggest you read their full writings to get a deeper understanding of their position.

I'll start with Branch, who is a brilliant writer and historian. Unfortunately, he falls on the wrong side in this discussion:
Taylor Branch: He essentially believes NCAA institutions are making millions of dollars a year off the backs of unpaid labor, even going so far to compare it to slavery. A common theme in his long argument for paying college athletes is that no other business would be allowed to follow this model. He talks of the fact that the players should be free to negotiate the terms of their servitude, much like those of us in the real world earning a living.

Seth Davis: This article refutes much of what Branch writes, including the notion that athletic departments at institutions of higher learning are "making" millions of dollars a year. As Davis points out, among the 332 colleges currently making up NCAA Division I, less than a dozen of them earn a profit in athletics. You read the correctly, less than 4 percent. How could they and why should they spend more money?

He also hammers at another point that I often make in discussions on this matter, namely that the NCAA does not prohibit anyone from getting paid for playing his or her sport. There is no NCAA rule that stops anyone coming out of high school from turning professional immediately instead of accepting a college scholarship. The NFL and the NBA are the ones who have limits on who can be drafted, so any complaints about the current system should start with them.

Finally, Davis also disputes the notion that NCAA athletes be allowed compensation similar to the Olympic model, where the competitors can negotiate endorsement deals without compromising their eligibility, their so-called "amateurism." ESPN basketball analyst Jay Bilas is one who constantly belabors this point. Again, I often have asked (rhetorically) if we really want a world where North Carolina's Harrison Barnes, arguably the top returning college basketball player, earns hundreds of thousands of dollars, or more, from Nike or another source. Davis takes it a step further, pointing out that recruiting battles could be contested based on the amount of money a business was willing to give the player. It is utter nonsense.

Joe Posnanski: He eloquently describes how college athletics really is about the school, not the player. It is the same argument used daily by people around the country, based on the old cliche that college athletes should play "for the name on the front of jersey, not the one on the back." It is a valid idea. If the aforementioned Barnes didn't attend North Carolina, would the basketball program in Chapel Hill really suffer? Wouldn't coach Roy Williams' squad still be on national TV nearly every game, and wouldn't fans still fill the Dean Dome to watch the Tar Heels? How can you measure the value of Barnes' impact on the overall program? You can't.

As I said, I urge everyone to read all three of these articles, along with Branch's rebuttal of Davis' rebuttal that was posted on his Website. He again misses the point, even if it makes for good reading.

There is one final thing I'd like to say on the matter, something I haven't heard from anyone during this debate. A simple way to end any questions about the "fairness" of the current system would be to award scholarships only to those who value them, as in recruits who plan to get a college education.

Doug Porter, whom you all know as the women's basketball coach at Olivet Nazarene, had these thoughts when I asked him his views on playing college athletes:

Doug Porter: "College athletes do receive compensation. It’s called a scholarship, and it provides them with a free education that other students often must pay over $100,000 to receive. This education also provides them with a college degree that opens doors for them the rest their working lives. They also receive free room and board for four or five years.

"In a culture that places such a low value on actually learning anything, it’s not surprising that people in favor of paying college athletes a stipend feel that they aren’t being fairly compensated. They must view a college degree and the skills/knowledge it represents as a worthless piece of paper."

Well said, Coach Porter.

The football program at North Carolina currently is under investigation by the NCAA, and the one fact that stood out from all the rest from the entire ordeal was this: one of the players who received extra benefits, Marvin Austin, took remedial English during his first fall semester on campus.

Seriously? A university with the reputation of North Carolina offers a course called remedial English? There is no way that should happen, unless of course, unqualified students are being allowed into school simply to play sports.

OK, so I know that happens at nearly every "big-time" athletic program, so I shouldn't pick on the Tar Heels. Still, that highlights how out of kilter the entire concept has gotten. Let's start allowing genuine college students to play sports for their universities, instead of ones who are athletically talented, yet educationally inferior. This would end most of the troubles befalling our favorite teams now and return college sports closer to what they are supposed to be.

A novel concept, right?

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