Paying college athletes nothing but a foul shot

$6 billion question: Talented ball players still need what higher education ought to be about.

November 25, 1999

POST-TURKEY discussions this year could well turn to CBS and its 11-year contract with the NCAA. The $6 billion basketball tournament deal will almost certainly renew the call for putting college athletes on the payroll.

Without the players, this argument goes, the universities, the networks, the shoe companies, coaches, agents and others don't make a cent. So let's be honest and fair and pay up.

The argument is bogus and conceals a corrosive agenda. If the athletes became "hired Hessians," their attention to school work would end altogether. And why not? Their schools would be telling them they are merely ball-playing cash cows. The message is too grim to bear.

Athletes can be good scholars in the same proportion that violinists and computer geeks are good scholars. To suggest otherwise is a disservice or worse.

Advocates of a collegiate payroll are driven by a well-deserved guilty conscience. They want relief from the insistence that athletes behave as if they were students. Hence their argument: Let's do away with the hypocrisy and start doing what's right.

But this approach conveniently and deliberately misses the point. Even if many more basketball players can find work in the international leagues, the percentage of those who make it to the pros will remain relatively low. So it's virtually a criminal act to suggest that young men are simply enrolled in a minor league for the NBA.

No one should dispute the importance of protecting the interests of the young players who make the NCAA's payday possible. But paying them -- and forgetting about their education -- is simply wrong. That would demean young lives. It would also demean and degrade institutions of higher learning -- institutions that pride themselves on moral leadership. To put the victims of the big-time basketball charade on salary only compounds the underlying felony -- a bad bargain imposed on young people by self-serving adults who know better.

Any university that endorses the payroll approach would be guilty of undermining its own reason for being.

The bargain has always been a good one: Athletic talent earns you an education. Too often, university administrators and coaches know the bargain was struck in bad faith: If the player's academic aptitude is too low to allow him to take advantage of his classes, he shouldn't be enrolled to begin with.

Some incremental improvements have occurred, driven by the Knight Commission, the NCAA President's Commission and the death of the University of Maryland's Len Bias. He and many teammates didn't go to class and failed almost every course. How could they have passed? They were busy building up frenzy for March Madness and $6 billion contracts.

If athletes are paid, the NCAA should change its name to the National Athletic Association. "Collegiate" will have precious little to do with it.

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