I’m still smarting from Stanford’s OT loss in the Fiesta Bowl last night but at least I have been distracted by Joe Nocera’s provocative piece on paying college athletes in the Sunday NYT mag. Anybody who knows Ms. Makeda knows I’ve been harping on the travesty that is college sports for a minute. I saw “Hoop Dreams” as a kid and it pretty much ruined my view of college “athletics” for life. As far I could see, most college programs seemed content with using the dreams of barely pubescent boys to make millions. It’s no secret that less than 2% of college football and basketball players go into the professional leagues and most will not graduate with the skills they should have attained in college. I refuse to even watch the worst offenders (SEC, anyone?) that can barely manage to graduate half of their football players.
But true to my generally contradictory nature, I also fell in love with the March tournament at an early age. I still remember feeling the unparralled joy of watching Corliss and the merry band of Arkansas misfits roll over Duke in the ’94 final. You can’t buy that kind of athletic contest…actually, maybe you can.
Nocera starts from the premise that the big college sports (sorry, women’s rugby, he is only referring to men’s basketball and football) aren’t going anywhere. Despite the multitude of “commissions” created to confront the sad state of college athletics and the landmark O’Bannon case that challenges the use of players’ names on merchandise, there is entirely too much money and too many fans to end the current system. Countless investigations and “lowest graduation rate” lists haven’t managed to shame schools into ensuring players receive an adequate education while in school. Players are disciplined for taking a “free hamburger” from a booster while their coaches make millions of dollars. So in this depressing milieu of inequity, Nocera suggests paying players is the only way to make the system have an appearance of fairness.
Under this new system, each player would receive a contract and guaranteed compensation. There would be a salary cap for each team, $3 million for football and $650K for basketball. The minimum salary for a player would be $25,000. To address the academic issue, each player would receive an additional two year scholarship following his years of eligibility. Finally, Nocera’s plan would require lifetime health insurance for players and allow players to unionize. Players could employ agents for advice and the players’ union would negotiate a number of issues to provide players with necessary benefits.
Nocera argues that this plan address some of the fundamental injustices in college sports- the fact that schools can make money but players cannot and the empty bag of injuries and non-opportunities players are left with when they leave college. He admits there are lots of technicalities to address in such a system (Title IX concerns and the challenge of balancing the needs of small and large programs top the list) but his proposal is refreshingly honest for a fan like me. As much as I hope that every player wants to be an RG3 and study as much as he plays, the reality is most guys come to college sports to be seen and take a shot at the professional leagues. College players give thousands of hours of free play to schools and we should stop kidding ourselves that they get much back besides room, board, and a few minutes of fame.