King Kaufman's Sports Daily

The readers write: Maurice Clarett and other college stars don't play for free. They get a chance at an education, and that's worth something.


Salon Staff
August 19, 2003 11:00PM (UTC)

Several letter writers took me to task for giving suspended Ohio State running back Maurice Clarett a pass Monday for his dishonesty and bad behavior.

Clarett is being investigated by the university in a case involving items stolen from a car he was using, which was registered to a Columbus dealership. He admits overstating the value of the stolen goods in the police report, but says he was borrowing, test-driving, the car. The NCAA is investigating allegations of academic fraud involving Clarett and other OSU players.

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Here's what I wrote: "Without resorting to arguing about the purity of amateurism in college athletics, a concept whose purpose is to allow athletic departments to avoid paying their revenue-producing employees, it's awfully hard to think of a reason why Clarett shouldn't take whatever he can get."

Mark Antonation is one of a few readers who have a problem with that argument. "King Kaufman glosses over two very important ideas in his article on Maurice Clarett: Colleges exist to provide an education, and honesty is generally a good concept to live by," he writes in a letter to the editor. "He fails to realize that Clarett is exploiting the system as much as it is exploiting him ... Those who are really there only to play football must realize that it is this system that is allowing them to do so, so they must be willing to pay their dues."

Reader Michael Olander also thinks I glossed it over: "Your analysis misses the point that athletes like Clarett are being compensated, at least in part," he writes. "Tuition and fees at Ohio State (according to the OSU Web site) run $17,000 per year (almost $27,000 if you're from out of state). While this seems like chicken feed compared to the 40 grand students have to pay for a well-regarded private university, it isn't nothing."

He continues, "Any economic argument that takes into account what Clarett is missing has to take into account what he's getting upfront, or else it's not really about economics. The jing it would take for poor kids to put themselves through OSU without a scholarship has to have some value, unless you contend that (contrary to well-established evidence) an OSU degree has no economic value."

I don't think I miss the point that athletes are being compensated in the form of a college education. The problem is, that education, while it certainly "isn't nothing," is in fact chicken feed compared to what top athletes would be worth on the open market. The NCAA rules that prohibit them from profiting from their athletic ability are no different from a salary cap in professional sports, except the salaries are capped at zero. The purpose of a salary cap is to enrich whoever pays, or would pay, the salary. Saying its purpose in college sports is to encourage athletes to get an education is nonsense.

And football players like Clarett aren't "exploiting the system as much as it is exploiting" them. They're forced to accept their below-market compensation of zero. They can't skip it and turn pro because of NFL rules prohibiting them from playing until their high school class has been graduated for three years. They put their bodies on the line for no pay while others profit. There's a name for that, but it isn't "exploiting the system" or even "paying dues." It's called "working without getting paid."

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Let's take football out of the equation and imagine these people are engaged in some other activity. And let's imagine we're not talking about dishonest, immature Maurice Clarett, but about you, the gifted and honest readers of this column.

Let's say you're a musician or a computer programmer just graduating high school, and you've decided you want to put out a record or create a piece of software. Let's assume you're great, your record's going to sell millions or your software is going to be the "killer app." Either way, your share of the profits would be, let's say, $2 million over the next three years.

But there's a catch. In our hypothetical world, the record industry somehow has the power to prevent you from releasing a record, or the computer industry the power to prevent you from distributing software, until your high school class has been graduated for three years. But wait! Universities will allow you to release the record/software through them. They'll sell them at full price while prohibiting you from profiting at all. In exchange, they'll give you a scholarship that entitles you to a free education you don't believe you have any use for, since you already have the skills that will make you rich. That education is valued at about $51,000, or $81,000 if you're from out of state, over the three years you'll be biding your time.

You'll make between 2.6 and 4.1 percent of what you're worth, payable in the form of goods and services you have no desire for. The university will pocket the rest. Does that seem fair to you?

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Just because you and I believe going to college is a good thing doesn't mean Maurice Clarett, or any other football player, should be forced to agree with us and happily accept free tuition as payment for his services. College isn't for everyone, as certain guidance counselors thoughtfully suggested to me during my underachieving school days.

If I had been told that I couldn't make money from my writing for the first three years I was doing it professionally, but I could be compensated in the form of $17,000 worth of American cheese per year -- something as useless to me as many football players believe a college education is to them -- I'd have been pretty upset.

In fact, I did get paid to write when I was in college. Where was the harm in that? Where is the spirit of amateurism in the arts, the law, business? Why is it only athletes who aren't allowed to profit from their skills while they're in college?

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In an e-mail reply to Olander, the letter writer who pointed out the monetary value of an Ohio State education, I made the argument that ballplayers shouldn't be forced to accept an unwanted education.

His response: "Elite athletes clearly place a value on attending college (as opposed to getting a degree) as that experience is an entree into an NFL career. The value of three years at OSU for Clarett is that he gets national exposure and gets to earn his chops running over linebackers from East Jesus Tech and Miami of Ohio rather than Ray Lewis and LaVar Arrington. Not the same as the value of college for you and me, but still, as I said, it's not nothing. (Pro basketball players, due to the NBA's less draconian rules, don't have to worry about this as much as football players, but anyone who has witnessed the state of outside shooting in the NBA lately would likely agree with me that the value added of another year of NCAA instruction likely outweighs the value of leaving early, at least for most kids.)"

I'll take the last word on this because it's my column. Elite athletes have no choice but to place a value on going to college because it's the only entree available to them. Of course it's wise for players to play college ball for no pay, because the alternative is sitting out for three years. When your choices are limited, you take your best option, but that doesn't necessarily make your best option a good one.

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Basketball players leaving school early might indeed be behind the abysmal shooting and generally poor fundamental play that's so noticeable in the NBA of late. And there's no doubt that pretty much all football and basketball players, like anyone else, can benefit from another year or two of instruction. I just don't understand why they can't get paid for it, in money, not in American cheese.

I couldn't agree more with Antonation, who writes that "honesty is generally a good concept to live by." I would suggest the NCAA should try it for a single moment and admit that big-time college football and basketball are professional sports. But of course Antonation was referring to Clarett, who allegedly cheated and defrauded.

Reader Patrick Files answers better than I could: "Don't blame the fish for the pollution in the ocean. They're just trying to swim through it."

Files goes on to recall his days at the University of Maine in the 1980s, just as the Black Bears were becoming a hockey power.

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"I often argued with my roommate, Herb, over what the whole point of it was, recruiting all these kids from Alberta to come to our school so we could watch them play hockey," he writes. "Herb and I were at the university to take classes, but the hockey and football players seemed to be there to go to practice, go to the weight room and have sex with sorority girls. But as you say, who could blame them? When we would sometimes run into these athletes at a party, they were usually pretty nice guys. It's just that they were annoyed by having to go to classes."

He goes on: "Schools not only lose sight of their educational goals when they spend valuable resources collaborating in and profiting from this odd spectacle; they also cheapen the image of higher education. At today's tuition rates, they ought to be burnishing their reputations in every way."

Cast your mind back over the last six months or so in the world of college sports. Let me give you some memory aids: St. Bonaventure, Fresno State, Rick Neuheisel, Jim Harrick, Larry Eustachy, Mike Price, Baylor University. I'm just scratching the surface here, but let me ask you: Can you think of a single college athletic program that's helped its university burnish its reputation lately?

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