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Pay For Play: How To End The Exploitation Of College Athletes Once And For All

In this March 14, 2012, file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament college basketball game. (Keith Srakocic/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
In this March 14, 2012, file photo, a player runs across the NCAA logo during practice in Pittsburgh before an NCAA tournament college basketball game. (Keith Srakocic/AP)

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Workers should be paid.

We can argue about what the minimum wage should be. We can argue about how generous the benefit packages should be.

But who’s going to argue that workers shouldn’t be paid?

Only those who believe in the concept of the “student-athlete.”

This was a concept corrupt in its origins. It was developed by the NCAA in response to a lawsuit charging that the family of a football player on an athletic scholarship killed in a game should receive some compensation. The fiction of the student-athlete prevailed at court. The NCAA was off the hook, as was the university for which the athlete played…and died.

In part because the fiction worked as a gimmick to allow the colleges and the NCAA to shirk their responsibility and save money, and in part because it appeals to people who, for whatever reasons, prefer to think of the men who play football and basketball at the university level as amateurs, no matter how much income they generate for others, the fiction has prevailed.

No matter that lots of the best basketball players are on campus for less than a year, “attending school” only to fulfill a silly requirement designed to enhance the value of the TV product at the expense of the workers.

No matter that lots of the athletes who do stay in school are taking courses designed to keep them “eligible,” rather than to provide them with a college education, however one might be inclined to define that.

No matter that the business of the revenue sports has grown monstrous enough to provide coaches with multimillion-dollar salaries and universities with palatial centers for the housing, feeding and training of the athletes.

...when they can no longer work to the standard their coaches anticipate, they can lose their scholarships and become former athletes without degrees.

None of this is to suggest that lots of young men and women don’t benefit from athletic scholarships. If they’re involved in sports that don’t eat up all their time, and if they’re working with coaches who care whether the athletes are students and are willing to provide them with the opportunity to be students, great. The volleyball players and swimmers have a shot at taking the courses they want to take, thus learning to be something other than volleyball players or swimmers. But the football and men’s basketball players frequently don’t have that opportunity, because the system isn’t designed to provide them with it. It’s designed to profit off their labor in the creation of a spectacle. And when they can no longer work to the standard their coaches anticipate, they can lose their scholarships and become former athletes without degrees.

Periodically, there is a scandal significant enough to produce objections to that system. But the system benefits the most competitive colleges and universities spectacularly, and their resistance to significant change is powerful, and the voices of the athletes who are run over by the system are usually faint or lost.

One way for the college and university presidents to achieve real change would be to acknowledge that the schools are operating as minor leagues for pro football and pro basketball and treat the players accordingly; that is, pay them for their labor. The market would set the rates. A star high school running back would earn more than a reserve who’d be likely to sit on the bench until somebody got hurt or the coach changed his mind. Recognizing that the responsibilities of those players to the coach and the team would take precedence, the colleges and universities would be required to provide the players with open-ended vouchers enabling them to take courses and pursue a degree whenever it was feasible. Meanwhile, the players would be assured that medical expenses incurred as a result of their work would be assumed by their employers, who would also be responsible for whatever lifetime care those injuries made necessary.

This approach would ... also give athletes the chance to be students at some time when they weren’t so busy being athletes.

This approach would diminish the level of hypocrisy currently apparent in the revenue sports. It would also give athletes the chance to be students at some time when they weren’t so busy being athletes. In addition to actual pay for work, this opportunity would seem to be reasonable compensation.

The second prescription for the current ills associated with college sports would be de-emphasis of the product. Universities and colleges and the NCAA could decide that college basketball and football have gotten too big for their own good, and for the good of the institutions. The heat could be turned down under the NCAA Basketball Tournament and the Bowl Championship Series.

This seems unlikely, because business on the college sports front is so good for some institutions, and because so many of the ones for which it isn’t so good dream that it will be someday soon, if only they can gather enough wealthy boosters to hire the right multimillion-dollar coach and build a multimillion-dollar weight room. For many of those colleges and universities, the dream turns out to be toxic. No matter. Thanks to the glitz and glamour associated with the product on TV, hope endures.

So de-emphasis is unlikely, which means the better approach is modification of the system in order to provide salaries and genuine educational opportunities to the workers who make the industry of the revenue sports possible.

The voucher idea is not new. Richard Lapchick suggested something like it decades ago, when he was the director of the Center for the Study of Sport and Society at Northeastern University. At least that was when I first heard it. And of course the idea of paying those who produce the products of college football and basketball has lots of adherents. But in the wake of the most recent scandal — a mess that has not only embarrassed the NCAA and several universities but also intrigued the FBI — it’s as good a time as any and perhaps better than most to adjust the system so that it reflects reality, roots out at least some of the more obvious opportunities for corruption, and stops cheating those so long cynically referred to as “student-athletes.”

Editor's Note: Bill Littlefield is the host of NPR's Only A Game. On Oct. 14, the show dedicated its entire hour to an examination of the history and workings of the NCAA and asked the question: Should college athletes be paid? You can listen here.  

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Bill Littlefield Twitter Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield has been the host of Only A Game since the program began in 1993.

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