Players deserve payday before draft day

April 26, 2007|By Paul Marx

At last, the National Football League draft! April 28 is about to arrive - the day big-time college football players finally can throw off their chains. Soon they'll have real money in the pockets of their jeans. At long last, they'll be getting paid.

From letter-of-intent day, when they were high school seniors, until draft day, nobody has given them a paycheck. Coaches have made millions, players nothing.

When, some February past, they signed that four-page contract with 20 stipulations, the athletes agreed to go unpaid and give their colleges a monopoly on their services. In return, they get room, board and a bunch of books - what is euphemistically called "a scholarship."

For the great majority of the athletes, this is a very bad deal. The solution? Create something like a "minor leagues" of football - associated with universities but allowing athletes to devote themselves to what they do best and care about most: sports.

Most of these players could not care less about being scholars. They signed that letter of intent because that's what they had to do to move up. For a possible opportunity to become a professional football player, they agreed to help their athletic departments, coaches and administrators make big money.

While the University of Maryland's football and basketball coaches make more than a million dollars a year, the athletes cannot even accept gifts from anyone who wants to offer one, for doing so might give the football operation a professional tinge. While playing in games before a full stadium is exciting, and may get someone noticed by a professional scout, all those practices and meetings are not exciting. Nor are the early morning workouts and the year-round weight training.

After a year or two, many athletes at big-time schools - those eligible for the Bowl Championship Series - realize they're being exploited. While the coaches drive the best cars, the players have to scrounge. They do get a couple of hundred dollars' worth of books. But what good do the books do them? You can't tear a page out of an economics textbook and trade it for a slice of pizza.

Being a typical football player at a BCS school is like being an employee of a giant corporation. You're expected to be thankful just to have the job. If you complain, you'll be let go - and lose your chance at the draft day jackpot.

Sure, they'll feed you and give you a nice place to sleep, but even on a bowl-bound team, there's no paycheck.

And there's more they have to put up with: all that nagging about progress toward a degree. A degree is not what most of them are at college for. They're there because it's the only way they stand a chance of getting picked on draft day.

That's why, as soon as their last college football game is over, so many of them stop attending classes and sell the books. They do what's most important and head for training camps, where they can sharpen the skills that might lead to a high pick on draft day.

Most big-time college football players just want to be football players. That's their line of work. They're not interested in becoming teachers or accountants or lawyers. So why not forget those letters of intent and "scholarships" - the whole pretense of academic eligibility?

Instead, let coaches and athletic directors find the players they'd like playing for them - and pay the wage that would bring those players to town. The players could go to the colleges that would pay them the most, and be more than happy to represent the school. They'd wear the same uniforms and play as hard as they could. If a few of the guys wanted to take classes, that would be fine - so long as they got to practice on time.

How different is that from the way it is now? Aside from the money, the big difference would be that the players wouldn't have to sit through the classes, faking most of the time. And the schools? They could be honest and quit pretending players are there to burn the midnight oil and get up for early classes.

Do minor-league baseball players have to go to classes? Of course not. They do their baseball thing, and after that their time is their own.

So let football players earn some money before draft day. Let the college coaches go after the players they want, as they do now. But when the contracts are signed, the players would get something they need: money. They would wear the school's uniform, live in the college town - or even a dorm - and on Saturday play their best.

If the team won, all those rich alumni would love whoever was on the team, as they do now. When have alumni ever cared about players' progress toward a degree?

Paul Marx, a Towson resident, is professor emeritus of English at the University of New Haven and author of "The Modern Rules of Style." His e-mail is pppmarx@comcast.net.

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