The high price of scandal

The solution to the rampant corruption in college sports might be to pay the players. It's a controversial idea -- and it's gaining ground.

Topics: Basketball, College basketball,

Fresno State has taken itself out of the postseason because of an academic scandal. Georgia head coach Jim Harrick is under fire, his son and assistant, Jim Jr., already dismissed in an academic and financial scandal. The University of Rhode Island, the Harricks’ previous employer, is looking into similar charges involving them there, and recently settled a sexual harassment suit against the elder Harrick.

St. Bonaventure players boycotted the last two games of the season after one of them was declared ineligible because he’d received a welding certificate, not a degree, from his junior college. The transfer had been personally approved by the president of the university, who overruled the school official charged with complying with NCAA rules.

That was the news from college basketball this week.

It’s not hard to conclude that big-time college sports are in trouble. Cheating, fraud and academic improprieties are rampant. The only thing surprising about this week’s flurry of scandals is that nobody seems to be surprised by them. It’s business as usual.

Or is it education as usual? That’s the question at the center of college athletics: Is it a business or a part of the educational process? The NCAA, which governs intercollegiate athletics, argues vehemently that it’s in charge of an amateur enterprise, a student activity. But with television contracts in the billions of dollars and athletes allegedly collecting six-figure payments from boosters while never going near a classroom, the argument is getting harder and harder to make.

And it may be time to stop making it. Athletic scholarships provide for room, board, tuition and books. The idea of going beyond that, of letting athletes share in the revenue they produce, has been batted around for a long time. Lately, it’s gained some traction.

Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers made the papers by introducing a bill that would force the University of Nebraska to pay players on its powerhouse football team a $100 weekly stipend if three of the six other states in the Big 12 Conference passed similar legislation. Chambers got a similar bill passed in 1988, but it was vetoed by Gov. Kay Orr. This time, Gov. Mike Johanns has said he’d sign the bill if it passed.

In Texas, a Big 12 state, Sen. Ron Wilson introduced a bill in the state Senate that, like other bills he’s authored in the past, would give all scholarship athletes in every sport at state schools $200 a month. Larry Eustachy, the basketball coach at Iowa State, another Big 12 member, went so far as to say he would be willing to donate part of his $1.1 million annual salary toward paying players.

The NCAA, meanwhile, which governs intercollegiate athletics, says that any player in Nebraska or anywhere else who accepts payment would be declared ineligible, regardless of any state’s law.

But something of a drumbeat to pay players is developing, and why not? “They are unpaid workers, and in big-time college athletics, not just football, there are no amateurs,” Chambers told National Public Radio. “What I want is the athletes to have some spendable money.”

Chambers is talking about athletes whose labor, in the case of Cornhusker football players, generates $16 million in annual profit. That’s more than $188,000 profit per scholarship, or more than 10 times the value of a scholarship at a state school.

The idea of the college athlete as exploited worker was most famously illustrated by Chris Webber’s claim, first made in Mitch Albom’s 1994 book “Fab Five,” that while he was a star at the University of Michigan, replica Chris Webber jerseys were selling for top dollar in the same mall where the real Webber couldn’t afford a Big Mac.

“I remember reading that and thinking, ‘That is total bullshit! Chris Webber is getting a pretty good amount of money to play at Michigan, as are the rest of the Fab Five,’” says Murray Sperber, an Indiana University professor who has written extensively about college sports. And he was thinking that before anyone knew about charges that Webber had accepted $288,000 from a booster, a case in which Webber is now under indictment for allegedly lying to a grand jury. “I just knew the way the Michigan program worked,” Sperber says. “He not only could have afforded to buy dinner at McDonald’s, he could have bought the McDonald’s franchise.”

Having said that, Sperber believes college athletes should be paid, but not because they’re exploited workers. He says paying athletes, treating them as university staffers who, like any secretary or clerk, had the option of attending classes for free but wouldn’t have to, would end the corruption that plagues the college sports world.

“It seems to me the advantage of these staff contracts and professionalization is that all the stuff you’re reading in the paper about, like, in Georgia, the Harricks, and the various other paying athletes under the table, all this bullshit ends,” Sperber says. “The NCAA rule book, which is the size of the Manhattan phone book at this point, shrinks to a tiny thing.”

The NCAA has a bewildering welter of rules preventing athletes from making money during their sport’s season and limiting them to $2,000 of income in the offseason, though there’s no limit to what an athlete can make during school vacations, as long as it’s not made as a result of prowess in his or her sport.

Of course, athletes in big-time programs also get state-of-the-art training facilities, first-class travel, food and road accommodations, general adulation and the opportunity to rake in a fortune — both legally, by turning pro, and less so, by playing footsie with rich boosters.

But only as long as athletic eligibility remains. Kendall Youngblood, a radio advertising salesman and former Utah State point guard, co-founded the fledgling Former College Athletes Association in Salt Lake City to try to help former players make the sometimes difficult transition to life after sports. He says he has mixed feelings about paying players, pointing out that when he was in college a decade ago he had trouble managing the small amount of cash he had access to.

“But maybe that money is put aside to where they get it when they graduate, they get it when their eligibility is up,” he says. “I think that’s what you need to do. I don’t think you say, ‘OK, here’s your $5,000 a month.’ But you give them incentive.”

Peter Roby, director of the Center for the Study of Sport in Society at Northeastern University in Boston, says that despite popular perception, it’s mostly a myth that college athletes are an exploited class who are kicked to the curb as soon as they can’t help the team anymore.

“I think there’s plenty of high-profile examples of that,” he says. “Maybe that makes people think that every athlete that goes to a Division I program gets exploited and they don’t end up getting an education. The majority of people that go through Division I schools are actually getting a very good education.”

Roby, who played basketball at Dartmouth in the late ’70s and later coached there and at Stanford, Army and Harvard, says that education is the forgotten part of the discussion of paying athletes. The center helps former athletes by running the National Consortium for Academics and Sports’ Degree Completion Program, in which the 217 member schools agree to waive tuition for athletes who return to school to finish their degree, in return for community service.

“We can’t forget that the reason that institutions of higher education even exist is because people are supposed to be going there to get an education,” he says. “It’s not supposed to be a minor league for the NFL. So to suggest that because they’ve built this thing into a monster, now they have to do something else to compensate the players — why don’t they scale it back instead? Why don’t they make it less taxing on the athletes so that they can in fact go to school? They’re throwing bad money at bad money, and that to me is not the answer.”

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Michael Kinney got an education at Southwest Missouri Baptist University, where he also played football in the mid-’90s. He parlayed his book-learning into a job as a columnist for the Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat, and in a column Sunday endorsing the idea of paying college players, recalled being so broke in school that he couldn’t afford gas for his “smooth Geo Prism.”

“As valuable as an education is,” Kinney wrote, “the blood, sweat and tears that most football players shed during their tenure is more priceless. Besides that, you can’t put a scholarship in a gas tank.”

“The point I was trying to make is that, yes, athletes do get that scholarship, but they’re not allowed to participate in the rest of college life,” Kinney said in a phone interview this week. “Other people are allowed to do, you know, going out, late night, have a bite to eat or something like that. A lot of athletes may come from lower income families, and that money’s just not there for them to be able to do that. So in my mind, that’s something that — I’m not looking for two or three thousand dollars or anything like that, but $100 a week or even $50 a week would be a little more helpful.”

If you’ve never sat down and thought this through — and there’s no reason why you should have — you probably don’t realize how complicated things can get when you start talking about paying college athletes even nominal sums. The obvious question is: Where does the money come from? Perhaps only programs that show a profit should have to pay their players. But anyone who’s taken Accounting 101 or is a fan of the movies or major league baseball knows how easy it is to hide a profit. If only revenue-producing athletes, who are almost all male, get paid, then Title IX issues arise.

Paying athletes opens universities up to all sorts of questions — which is to say lawsuits — regarding worker’s compensation law, labor law, antitrust law, tax law. In short, it would very likely turn athletes into employees of their university, rather than students participating in an activity, as the NCAA strenuously, and so far successfully, argues is the case. Cross that line and everything would be different.

It would no doubt fall to the courts to decide whether a tailback who sprains his ankle is eligible for workman’s comp. (Sperber tells in his book “Onward to Victory” about how the term “student-athlete” was coined by the NCAA to replace the professional-sounding word “player” in response to losing workman’s compensation claims to injured athletes in the 1950s.) The value of an athletic scholarship might become taxable income. Athletes could win the right to unionize and strike. Unions have struck over smaller matters than an entire industry, college sports in this case, limiting the salaries of an entire class of employee at an artificially low level, called an athlete’s stipend.

And don’t forget that, as the NCAA warned after Chambers’ Nebraska bill moved out of committee, any school that pays its athletes runs afoul of strict eligibility rules. Those rules might seem arbitrary and draconian when considered individually — why is it, again, that athletes can’t hold down a job or accept a ride to the airport? — but they work pretty well at squelching precisely this type of debate before it can really get started. They’ll probably render the bills in Nebraska and Texas, even if they pass, moot. The NCAA didn’t get to control college sports by being dumb. An argument can be made that the NCAA’s main reason for existing is to act as a cartel to maximize profits for its members, partly by limiting wages for players.

Sperber, the Indiana professor, says the problem the NCAA doesn’t seem to want to face is that college sports are pretty much already a professional arena. He points out that, contrary to popular belief, an athletic scholarship is not a guaranteed “free ride” through school. “In fact, they’re one-year contracts, they’re renewed every July, basically at the behest of the coach, and coaches often renew for athletic reasons, not academic reasons,” he says. “And when scholarships are like that, you’ve got to say these are contracts, and how is this different from professional sports?”

The answer might be that it’s different only in the imaginations of fans. “Some of the marketability of college athletics, a part of the reason people like college athletics, is they like the idea of amateurism,” Missouri basketball coach Quin Snyder told the Associated Press. “I think that’s kind of a myth. But it’s a myth that’s very popular.

An unscientific fan poll by Yahoo Sports this week found that a slight majority opposed paying college players.

Another argument against paying players is that most athletic departments lose money, even if they have successful football and basketball programs, since they also have to fund sports that don’t bring in any income. If they had to pay their players, they’d lose even more. NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro pointed out that the NCAA’s $6 billion television contract with CBS would not come close to paying every scholarship athlete $2,000 a year.

Many schools would be forced out of the big-time sports business if they had to pay their athletes a stipend, never mind market rates. That would create a smaller group of schools that could compete at the top level.

“Don’t you think it’s already like that right now?” asks Kinney, the football player turned columnist. “You don’t see too many schools who are constantly in that top 10 or top 15 range, battling for a national title.”

“It might be very salutary,” Sperber says, “because it would seem to me the landscape of higher education would be divided between those schools that are in big-time college sports, paying the players, and are essentially in the entertainment business, and all the rest, who are essentially in the education business. And parents would have a pretty clear idea where to send their kids.”

Sperber envisions that vast majority of schools that don’t want to play in the big arena dropping down to Division III or club status, where scandals are rare.

So how likely is such a scenario? As far-fetched as it seems, it might not be so far off. While it’s hard to imagine the legislative efforts in Nebraska and Texas having much impact because they’re so isolated, the idea of amateurism in big-time college sports may meet its Waterloo in the courts.

What if Chris Webber, angry over his allegedly unsated hunger for a Big Mac, had sued the University of Michigan, claiming that the value of his scholarship was chump change in comparison to the profits he created for the basketball program? It’s not so hard to imagine a court agreeing that Webber was a paid professional whose salary was artificially limited to the cost of a scholarship. There is precedent in a successful class-action lawsuit against the NCAA by so-called restricted coaches, entry-level assistants. The courts found that an NCAA salary cap for restricted coaches violated antitrust law.

A player winning such a suit would change everything, should that victory survive NCAA appeals that would undoubtedly be fierce and sustained.

“It seems to me it would cut through the bullshit,” Sperber says.

King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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