Monday, July 11, 2011

Should Colleges Pay "Student" Athletes?

College football is a mess. USC has been stripped of its national titles and Reggie Bush lost his Heisman Trophy. Ohio State’s coach just resigned in disgrace and the school gave back its Sugar Bowl win. Oregon was caught paying a middle man to circumvent NCAA recruiting rules, including helping a student change his guardian to a more Oregon-friendly relative. And those are just the tip of the iceberg. Some suggest paying athletes will fix this. I see that as treating a symptom.

Here’s the thing: college football is pretending to be something it’s not. To make the game sound like it’s not a business. . . to make it sound “innocent”. . . the NCAA pretends that college football is played by genuine STUDENT athletes. According to NCAA marketing, these are kids who might not have gotten a chance to go to college, but have been able to leverage their athletic ability to get some financial help toward getting their education. And we’re supposed to believe football or basketball or whatever is secondary to these kids’ desires for an education. Give me a break.

In truth, the vast majority of athletes are functionally illiterate. Most won’t graduate and those that do are getting an education in name only. The NCAA has lowered admission standards to the point that it’s almost impossible not to meet the requirements. They allow athletes to take puff classes and even then turn a blind eye as athletes are given answers to tests in advance, have others take tests for them, and are passed no matter what they do. Probably not one in ten can read at a first grade level -- even of the graduates -- and not one in five has ever seen the insider of a classroom.

This is a disgrace. The NCAA is hiding behind the idea that it’s providing quality education to these players so that it doesn’t need to pay them. But it’s not really providing any sort of education. What it’s really offering is the chance to get noticed by the NFL. But only something like 1 in 1600 college football players will make it to the NFL. Thus, the other 1599 will get nothing for their time except whatever equipment they can steal and whatever boosters illegally pay them.

At the same time, college football (and basketball) is a multi-billion dollar business. Teams that win titles and garner nation exposure can rake in $30-40 million a year. Even lesser teams are making millions. These are big businesses, who act like big businesses, pay their management as well as the Fortune 500, have bigger facilities than some state governments, and who’ve found a wonderful way to keep their labor costs down. . . actually free.

It’s this inequity that causes many to suggest it’s time schools paid athletes. But that misses the real point that the whole system is a corrupting fraud. The NCAA is sending all the wrong signals: (1) Exploiting athletes is fine. (2) There is nothing wrong with providing a fake education so long as the athlete has value on the field. (3) A college degree is just a piece of paper with no real worth except as public relations. (4) The idea of student athletics is a fraud and is not intended for genuine students, but it's ok to pretend because pretending enriches the school. (5) And cheating is acceptable. In fact, getting a whole community of coaches and boosters involved in cheating is fine. . . as long as you aren’t caught.

Paying athletes won’t fix this because it only addresses the first part and it leaves in place the NCAA’s false marketing. The real solution must come from making the NCAA either live up to its promises or stop making them. It’s time the NCAA actually requires athletes to be genuine students with real classes earning real degrees, or it should drop the pretense of an education entirely and allow programs to hire athletes just as if it were the NFL’s minor league, without forcing those athletes to pretend to be students.

Either be a school or be a business, but stop being a business hiding behind being a school. Anything short of one of these two solutions will just keep the NCAA limping along in the unethical land in which it currently resides.


(P.S. Think about the irony that schools run by leftists are exploiting the labor of poor black kids to enrich themselves to the tune of millions of dollars a year. And they call corporate America "capitalist exploiters"?)

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