WHILE "March madness" sweeps the country, "March sadness" hangs over my house.
Unlike most of the nation's college basketball fans, who, starting today, are hunkering down in front of their TV sets to watch the NCAA championships, I don't feel much like cheering.
Not one but two of my alma maters -- the University of Kentucky and the University of Maryland -- are ineligible to compete for the national championship this year. The NCAA is punishing both schools for various rules infractions.
So being left on the sidelines, I have both the time and the motivation to speak out against the NCAA's zealous crusade to punish student athletes for their ability to earn a good living.
It is common knowledge that alumni and fans across the country secretly give money, cars and other valuables to college athletes, in violation of NCAA regulations. From year to year, as these payments are uncovered, the scandals come and go, the names and faces change, the punishments vary, but through it all the NCAA tirelessly upholds the creed of amateurism. According to this creed, amateurs are morally superior to athletes who take money.
This creed figured prominently in the University of Kentucky's banishment. It started a few years ago when an air freight enveloped popped open in transit, spilling $50 bills all over the floor. Seems that $1,000 was on its way from an assistant Kentucky basketball coach to the father of a top high school basketball prospect in California. Strictly against the rules.
Although no such payoff prompted the University of Maryland's exile, only the naive would be shocked to discover that illegal payments have been made to Maryland players over the years.
The fact is that college athletics are big business -- for the colleges. The top 200 schools take in over $1 billion annually. The next few days are worth millions to the 64 tournament teams and CBS. Obviously, student athletes have a market value that exceeds the monetary worth of the tuition, board, books and laundry money that the NCAA permits them to receive.
So, why not -- and I know this is heresy -- pay the athletes their market value?
Only a tiny fraction of college players have enough talent to make money after graduation in the professional leagues. As for the other players, who comprise the vast majority, their skills have significant market value only during their college years. Fans are willing to pay fat ticket prices to see these players play, television and radio networks vie to broadcast their games and myriad companies stand ready to offer commercial endorsement contracts.
But athletes who obey the NCAA rules get only a tiny slice of this economic bonanza. They end up on graduation day (if they graduate) with a scrapbook full of headlines and an empty bank account.
The players deserve to be paid their market value. They earn it by the work they do. The proof of their value lies in the massive revenues received by the colleges that exploit them. To insist that players be grateful just to receive a subsistence wage is unjust and hypocritical. The fact that many athletes come from poor families makes this anti-wealth attitude even more disgraceful.
Suppose a player at a large university could earn $200,000 over four years. That sum could be used as the initial capital to start a business after college, for remedial college work, to compensate for time missed due to the frenzy of daily practice and competition, for the purchase of a house or for the start of an
education savings account for the athlete's children.
To ensure that this money is not wasted due to an athlete's immaturity or vice, colleges could and should work closely with each athlete's parents. If an athlete lacks ability to handle the money, colleges should insist that it go into a trust fund, administered by more responsible adults.
Immediately on implementing this reform, the moralistic finger-pointing and tiresome scandals over secret payoffs to athletes would cease mercifully. The players would feel no more guilt over receiving their paychecks than do Larry Bird or Magic Johnson. It would all be out in the open, as it should be.
It's not as if these athletes would be the first students to be openly paid for working while in school. Colleges themselves often pay students to work as librarians, journalists, actors, kitchen help and the like. Without question, these students' market value pales beside that of their athletic peers. But should we say to athletes that they are too talented, too attractive, too popular and that as punishment for these sins they are to be deprived of the money that fans are willing to give them? That would be morally reprehensible.
Some fans say that money taints their enjoyment of sports, but paying college athletes would not destroy amateur athletics. There will always be hordes of athletes who, although not talented enough to demand a salary or attract many paying spectators, would nevertheless gladly perform for anyone willing show up and cheer.
As for the rest of us fans, I believe we will come to accept the idea of college athletes earning good money. But it is unfair to expect the young student athletes to defend their money-making ability against those who resent that ability. Those who will enjoy watching these athletes perform over the next few days should take up the battle on their behalf.
Thomas A. Bowden is a Baltimore lawyer.