Stop the sham: Pay college athletes

Jim Fain

March 25, 1991|By Jim Fain

Washington -- THEY'RE STILL trying to reform college sports -- as they have, off and on, for more than a century.

Meanwhile, the problems multiply. In the 1890s, reformers fretted only about reducing the mayhem on the gridiron. Now that seems impossibly quaint. Football and basketball have become huge entertainment conglomerates, operated pretty much independently of faculty and administration except as they continue to masquerade their performers as students.

No one is fooled by this fiction, not students, alumni, public, athletes, coaches or God. Any relationship between ball players and students on most campuses is coincidental. Athletes in the big-buck sports are a breed apart, recruited, pampered in some ways, cheated in others. They engage in a specialized, highly hyped business separate from anything going on around them. Most neither graduate nor get into the pros.

Everyone knows this but no one talks about it. Such transparent dishonesty sets a certain tone for institutions of higher learning. When we boast about our values, we ought to give the sports one some thought.

The latest in a long line of breast-beating about all this comes from the Knight Foundation on Intercollegiate Athletics. Its recommendations are corrective and mild: Let the presidents run the universities, make athletes maintain a passing average and give the boodle from the sneaker-endorsement racket to the school, not the coach.

Even such modest improvements have less than a "Hail Mary" chance, however, simply because virtually all participants in the present system like it exactly the way it is.

This includes, but is by no means limited to, handsomely paid coaches and underpaid players, who pray against all odds that they will emerge from their camouflaged farm system as million-dollar darlings of the NFL or NBA.

Not to overlook the universities themselves which relish their booty from TV networks and gate receipts. Many finance their entire sports programs out of these.

All enjoy the box-office prestige which keeps students applying and alumni ponying up.

Alumni revel in the sports festivals. The public consumes them as TV programming. Who besides wild-haired reporters and academic study groups would tamper with such a joy-breeding system?

Why not just leave it in place and amputate the hypocrisy? Nobody believes the amateurism jive anyway. Let the colleges that want to produce big-time entertainment employ their coaches and athletes on a cash basis and knock off the nonsense about studies. If a player wants to go to college on the side, that's his business. Most don't.

The universities resist this idea because it will run up their costs. They hide behind amateur rules to hold down payrolls. A cash system would be fairer to players and eliminate the cant.

Some colleges would like to quit show business, and this would give them an opening. My school (Emory University) gave up intercollegiate sports more than 100 years ago. It had a full intramural program when I was there. You could play on a team in any sport. If all you wanted was to watch, you could go across town where Georgia Tech played in the major leagues.

There's no middle ground between student and spectator sport. Surely, we've been searching long enough to say that with some conviction.

Jim Fain is a columnist for Cox News Service.

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