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Monday, March 15, 2004
Updated: March 16, 11:12 AM ET
 



THE REAL MARCH MADNESS: WHY ARE THE ATHLETES THE ONLY ONES WHO AREN'T MAKING BIG MONEY?


Everybody gets rich off the NCAA Tourney -- the colleges, the conferences, the networks, the announcers and analysts, the coaches, the fans who win their office pools -- everybody, that is, but the stars of the show: the players themselves.

In today's Writers' Bloc, Robert Lipsyte and Dan Shanoff debate the age-old question: Should college athletes be paid a salary, or is their scholarship enough of a reward?

Robert Lipsyte: The true madness of March is the millions of dollars -- generated by the kids who touch the ball -- that goes mostly to the advertising hustlers, television suits, arena operators, concession hawkers, athletic gear manufacturers and retailers, university administrators, coaches and sports media noisemakers. No wonder they don't want to share any of that money with the players. They've locked the doors on their sweat shop. So explain to me, Dan, why the players, the unpaid professionals, shouldn't get an honest, over-the table piece of their own action.

Dan Shanoff: Hey, Bob, here's my sticking point, and your successful conversion of me to your side of the argument hinges on your response to this: Last time I checked, Joe Jumpshot and Teddy Tailback got to attend college FOR FREE.

And not just free tuition -- an all-the-way free experience:

Not just free food: Free "training table" super food (at least for football).

Not just a free room and board: The best dorm rooms on campus.

Not just the occassional access to professors: Full-time teaching assistants whose only job is to make sure the athletes get the most out of the education experience (uh, that's aspirationally).

Not just free books and classes: First choice of any classes they want.

I'm pretty sure any student who is paying (sorry, borrowing) his or her own way -- or whose family is taking out massive, decade-crippling loans -- would trade the many hard hours of work and dedication it takes to be a college hoops or football player in exchange for that kind of "sweat shop" experience.

It may not be a paycheck, but when you total it up -- not even accounting for the "psychic reward" of best housing, best classes and best food -- the "payment" package in kind is north of $120,000 over four years, especially at one of your NCAA tournament No. 1 seeds like Duke or Stanford.

Your mission, Bob: Explain to me how these athletes aren't already being given a hell of a compensation package, relative to the poor "working stiffs" they sit next to in class.

RL: Dan, it's a compensation package all right, but once you start breaking it down, it might not look so good.

First of all, it comes with a one-year contract. Coach decides whether or not to pick it up. So there's no job security.

Now about those "poor working stiffs" the athletes "sit next to in class" ... I bet the stiffs feel stiffed that they have to pay for books (and also have to read them!) and can't go to the fancy athletic department tutoring centers where women not deemed attractive enough to sexually service athletic recruits can serve the university by writing papers for the varsity. The stiffs, however, probably won't have the opportunity to tell the athletes, because they are often not in the same classes and rarely in the same dorms. In a lot of schools I've covered, athletes are bunched in majors (sociology and criminal justice are current favorites) where professors deemed "friends of the program" will be sure they stay eligible.

So this word "free" you use, Dan ... it's very very hard for all but the most motivated athlete to take advantage of that "free" education, especially if he's missing midweek classes because of Thursday away games, not writing his papers and too busy practicing, lifting, playing, attending meetings to study. What this boils down to is that a lot of athletes are simply getting cheated out of the chance for an education while guys like you are saying they are getting an education for free.

Michael Jordan
Michael Jordan left North Carolina early to make his millions.
DS: Fair point, Bob. I may stipulate that their fully subsidized education experience isn't the same as the students paying their own way (though last time I was in school, the jocks seemed to have it pretty good, rather than this harried, half-baked experience you describe).

But hold on a sec: You think that the remedy for being "cheated out of the chance for an education" is to pay them? As long as we're dropping $120,000 on each of these guys already, it sounds to me that the solution to the problem you have just pointed out -- that they are being cheated on their education -- is modifying the environment, not modifying their income level.

You may laugh and say that institutional reform at the college level is one of the most ludicrous notions in sports -- that it's far easier to pay them -- but if the problem is really that they are being cheated out of their $120,000 in paid-for school experience (rather than your original point that they aren't making any money off their work, while the schools are), then let's work to improve their school experience, organically.

Giving them more funding than the $120K they already enjoy won't change the symptoms of a college experience that you have correctly labeled as being broken.

By the way, if you polled non-athlete students at most D1 colleges and asked if they would trade half their quality (and costly) academic experience (how many sleep through half their classes already?) for free everything and the best seats at the basketball games (the bench), I'd guess that most would take you up on the offer.

RL: Go, Dan, I think we're getting somewhere here. Those phrases you're throwing up like treys -- "institutional reform" and "modifying the environment" -- will take us where we want to go. But first, your poll of non-athletes: If they are hard-core non-fans (and there are plenty), they may believe that big-time sports dumbs down their school and devalues their degree. If they are hard-core fans, they are probably too drunk to answer your questions.

I think the majority in the middle might agree that athletes in the revenue-producing sports should have the choice of going through school as a regular student or taking a modified professionalized sports track in which he (and sooner than you think, she) is paid a living wage, perhaps taking a few basic courses along the way. A Dexter Manley might even come out of such a program knowing how to read.

What this would do is end the lying and cheating that all but criminalizes big-time college sports. Stanford and Duke seem to have found a way to retain their academic images and shine athletically. (However, give me six months, Shaun, Luke and subpoena powers, and I might change that sentence.) But almost every other major seems to wallow in a swamp of hypocrisy that mocks the meaning of higher education.

The NCAA is a trade association set up to take the flak, and tweaking the system with minor reforms isn't going to fix it. But maybe you think it's not broken. And that's the biggest bracket racket of them all.

Danny Manning
Danny Manning stayed all four years at Kansas.
DS: You couldn't leave it alone with my simple "they're already paid," could you? You had to bring up ... A solution.

"Professionalized sports track?" I think they call that "minor league baseball" (and, unsurprisingly, there's the reason baseball isn't an NCAA revenue-generator). However, I'm all for expanding a real pro minor league for the NBA and NFL (they, of course, would probably not like to lose their free feeder system).

As soon as you set up a "pro-style sports track" in college, that's when the chicanery will really begin. I'm no fan of the NCAA, but I'm pretty sure they limit the jobs athletes can hold (both during the school year and the summer), because they don't want any "Sopranos"-style sitting around the biggest booster's construction site, making $500 an hour.

How exactly do you define "living wage"? I guess you should ask the kids on work-study, who shelve books at the library or swipe cards at the dining hall for $6 an hour so they can offset the ridiculous amount of money that college is going to cost them.

I go back to my original statement (so I guess you haven't convinced me, and we'll agree to amicably disagree): What part of that year-to-year scholarship value of more than $40,000 -- earlier, I forgot the ridiculously amazing medical benefits, along with the long-term value of not being in debt re-paying school loans -- isn't a perfectly acceptable living wage?

The NCAA and its member schools are making huge money off the efforts of the athletes -- which is unseemly, yes -- but the athletes are free to reject that system, to skip college and to make money as much money as they can at one of any number of jobs available to those without a college degree. Oh, that's less than the value of their scholarship? Hmmm ... maybe the athletes want to re-think that "imbalance."

RL: I still love ya, Dan, but we're going to have to agree to disagree. That $120,000 figure you wave around is an airball, a phony retail sticker price, since it doesn't guarantee a degree, much less a real education. It's part of the scam. Athletes who don't make the pros or graduate (and we could discuss what some of those degrees really mean) don't have a ticket to mainstream jobs. And, unfortunately these days, a failed jock is nowhere; as more and more athletes show up on police blotters, the chances of at least hanging on as the PR front for a local brewery, insurance agency or drug lord diminishes.

I like your idea of minor league basketball and football even better than I like my college sports track, but I can't see Stern and Tagliabue giving up their free rides. Too bad. If we cleared the big-time ballers out of college sports, we'd be left with what we love about the games, passionate kids playing their hearts out for alma mater instead of almighty moola.

So, I guess we part here, pal, for different sides of the arena. I'll paint my face blue, you paint yours red, and I'll see you after the game, wasted, when we vandalize downtown.