Wednesday, March 23, 2011

From Van Walker

(Disclaimer: the following article was written by a Fighting Illini fan whose tournament brackets are already in flames, which might explain the crankiness that follows.)

Having just watched the excellent ESPN Films documentary "The Fab Five," I remain convinced that college athletes should be compensated for their performance.

Right now, there are a number of you that don't just disagree with me, but are on the verge of calling me out of my name and making suggestions about my parentage, intelligence, or affiliation with certain cloven-hoofed individuals known to carry pitchforks and write shady contracts. Before heating the bile to the boiling point, hear me out.

It would be completely fair if the NCAA and her member institutions offered scholarships to persons based upon athletic ability, as long as the NCAA and her member institutions did not profit from the athletic performance of those individuals. The athletes would go out and win for good ol' State U., no money changes hands, and in return for providing athletic entertainment, they receive an education. It would be fair if no tickets were sold to games, no games televised, or no memorabilia created, nothing that could generate a profit, like intra-murals except with a traveling varsity team.

Give the popcorn and cola away and write it off, but don't sell it.

That, however, is not the current situation.

The current situation is this: the NCAA and her member institutions insist upon holding their athletes to a nearly impossible standard of amateurism that exists nowhere else in the known universe and enjoy a 100%-0% profit-sharing agreement with their athletes.

It is against NCAA rules for someone to buy a scholarship athlete as much as a pizza, as that somehow constitutes an illegal benefit. As someone who has eaten the pizza typical of most college towns, I think that this strains the definition of "benefit," but there it is. Buying an athlete a pizza that could be used as a Frisbee the next day is enough to get him into trouble.

The same institution, however, has no problem with using that athlete's name, image, number, and game production for as much profit as they can manage, everything from replica jerseys to video games to posters to anything that will separate the fans of good ol' State U. from their money.

I'm sorry, I'd continue my thought, but there's a growing chorus of people shouting something about "getting an education" being a more than fair trade. Let me address them before I continue.

For those of you going on about an education, Shut. Up.

Let me make clear to you the exact nature of this transaction.

The NCAA and her member institutions bank billions of dollars (for the mathematically-challenged, and for Democrats, a billion is a thousand millions) of profit from the services of these athletes.

The athletes themselves receive the chance at an education, which then offers them the chance at massive earnings.

The key words here are "chance."

Even if the athlete in question were to graduate, all he or she has at the end of the day is a piece of paper. An education is a guarantee of nothing. Just ask all those liberal arts majors currently pouring your triple-skinny mocha latte how their education is working out for them.

Even if the athlete in question were to graduate and get a prestigious job at a Fortune 100 corporation, he or she would have to be the CEO or the owner before he or she began to see the kind of profits that the NCAA rakes in year after year.

Basically, the deal is this: the NCAA gets billions of dollars, and the athlete gets a lottery ticket that won't win him what the other side is getting.

Why do you think the NFL players are so willing to do whatever it takes to get a fair deal out of the owners? Because this is the first time in their playing lives that they've had anything like an equal say in how the money gets split.

Oh, and by the way, how did those NFL players get their jobs in the NFL?

They were NCAA athletes first.

They played three or four years for no money for the chance to play an average of three and a half years for some money. There wasn't another option. Guys don't make the NFL from their couches. They have to be extensively scouted in game conditions before hundreds of thousands (or millions) of dollars are invested in them, and there's only one place that a kid can get that kind of exposure out of high school: the NCAA.

Some would call that a monopoly.

There are very few alternatives to becoming a professional athlete that don't involve the NCAA, but I support each and every one of them. For example, I fully applaud baseball's minor league system. Not only does it include levels, not only is it fully supported by the parent clubs, but it acknowledges the obvious: professional baseball is a job, and some guys weren't cut out to wear a shirt and tie right away. I applaud the fact that not everyone makes it to the major leagues, but that they are in fact paid. It's a fair process. There are no sanctions, no sanctimonious announcements on SportCenter about protecting the integrity of our game, nothing but a fair transaction: we pay you X dollars, you come play shortstop for us.

I applaud basketball players going to Europe to avoid a one-year sentence at a school they had no intention of attending. Again, it's professional. There aren't any silly rules about when a player can talk to his coach, the player is playing against grown men who won't respect him and thus challenge him on a man-level, and if he succeeds, he'll be much better prepared for the rigors of the NBA than some kid who dominated the Missouri Valley Conference and played games in southern Illinois or northern Iowa.

I even know how to pay the athletes.

Use the system that's already in place: the boosters.

They've got the money and the willingness to support these kids financially, so let them. No salary cap; whatever they could afford, let 'em pay that (besides, a cap would only encourage more cheating). Restaurants that want to give the athletes meals, good for them. Car dealers that don't care if a 19-year-old tools around town in a car that costs a decent year's salary, that's between them and their god. Boosters that want to put the kid up in a nice townhouse, get him some clothes, put some cash in his pocket, it's all fair from here.

But that tilts the field toward the big schools, some will say.

To which I respond, and how else has the field ever been tilted?

Not that I'll ever see it in my lifetime, but if the NCAA ever were to break down and cut the kids a check, does anyone here really, honestly believe that Alabama won't continue to have a top-10 recruiting class year after year? Does anyone here truly believe that Duke basketball will suddenly become an also-ran? Kansas State will never be what Kansas is, and that's just how things are.

The big schools are the big schools, always have been, always will be, so let's just eliminate this nonsense about amateurism and let the boosters do what they want for the kids. It might even convince some of the better athletes to stay in school longer, once the professional leagues move to finally close off contract bonus loopholes that allow rookies to out-earn seasoned professionals. That All-American might stay at Texas for financial reasons, since he could make millions at his university before being restricted as a rookie in the NFL or the NBA.

No, let the boosters put their money where their mouths are. Let them sort it out. The market will even out eventually, as even the wealthy boosters will realize that they simply don't have the cash to buy every blue chipper out there. Certain players would be guaranteed to earn more than others, but how is that any different from professional sports? Quarterbacks have earned and always will earn more than left guards, basketball players will draw more fans to the stadium than the diving team will, and women's sports will always lag woefully behind because, frankly, the interest is not there and won't be for a long time, if ever.

No, it's not fair in a playground sense of the word fair, but it is fair in a real-world sense of the word. The simple fact is that we don't watch Major League Soccer the way we watch Major League Baseball, and, as a result, the paychecks for professional soccer players and professional baseball players reflect the difference. The money-generating sports in the NCAA would stand to get the lion's share of the money, and that reflects the real world too.

Ultimately, this is about the real world, and bringing the NCAA and her member institutions into it. Even soldiers get paychecks as well as college scholarships, and one could rightly argue that soldiers risk a lot more than a blown ACL, so it only makes sense that the athletes that provide our entertainment get paid, and properly so, and immediately.

Because, at the end of the day, there was no justice in the fact that Chris Webber and Mitch Albom could walk down the street in Ann Arbor together and see Webber's jersey selling for $75 dollars, knowing that Webber himself, the man responsible for putting that jersey in the window, would not see one dime from its sale.


Yahoo! Sports

ESPN Films, "The Fab Five."

Common sense

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