Congressman thinks colleges should pay athletes

May 02, 2007|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- A Chicago congressman plans to summon university presidents to a hearing on whether college athletes should be paid, saying athletes are being exploited for their ability to help schools realize "extravagant revenues."

Rep. Bobby Rush, chairman of a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee, wants to know why college basketball and football players in particular aren't compensated for logging hundreds of hours for training, practices and games - "free labor," he calls it - that can help institutions reap millions of dollars in TV and other revenues.

"There is a problem," said Rush, 60, a Democrat and ordained Baptist minister who says he "grew up on the cement courts" of Chicago. "The question is, in terms of these extravagant revenues, is there any way that these athletes can maintain their amateur status and also get some compensation - legal compensation?" he said.

Rush said in a recent interview that he wouldn't hesitate to use legislation to compel the NCAA to act but that it's too soon. For now, his goal is to attract the attention of top university officials by holding a hearing - it hasn't been scheduled - on an issue that he believes many would rather ignore.

"I know that university presidents will probably resist to a certain extent," he said.

NCAA president Myles Brand and the chancellor of the University System of Maryland, among others, have expressed interest in allowing college athletes to receive expanded scholarships - but not pay.

Rush took over the Subcommittee on Commerce, Trade and Consumer Protection when Democrats assumed control of Congress after the November elections. The subcommittee claims jurisdiction over sports-related matters.

Rush, an eighth-term representative who represents a black-majority district, said he believes the issue affects African-Americans disproportionately because "for too many African-Americans, sports is the way out of poverty and into respectability."

The NCAA says salaries would be inappropriate for athletes in an academic setting. "The professional leagues would be the organizations where athletes who want to be paid for play can pursue that goal," said the association, representing nearly 1,300 colleges, universities, conferences and related organizations.

Brand, a former Indiana University president, and other prominent officials have been sympathetic to the idea of increasing the value of athletes' scholarships.

"If you look what the scholarship covers, it's room, board, books and tuition, but that's not the full cost of attendance," said USM chancellor William E. Kirwan, the former president of Ohio State and the University of Maryland. "I do think in the revenue sports that student-athletes should be given scholarships covering the full cost of attendance. There is travel to and from home and there are incidental expenses."

But Kirwan, recently named co-chairman of the Knight Commission, which promotes college sports reform, said he does not endorse college athletes' pay. Neither does Brand.

The NCAA receives about $500 million a year in television revenues from the men's Division I basketball tournament, parceling out most of it to member schools. Schools participating in football bowl games receive as much as $17 million, which generally must be shared with other schools in their conference.

But, without naming Rush, NCAA spokesman Bob Williams said: "Many of those calling for compensation don't have a grasp on economic reality. Less than 10 [Division I schools] actually have revenues that are in excess of expenditures. So you really have to ask yourself, is it even possible to pay all student-athletes?"

Rush said he's bound to consider salaries because he's seen too many "Teddy Grubbs and Bernard Randolphs." Both Chicago prospects played basketball for DePaul in the early 1980s and succumbed to legal difficulties afterward.

"To a certain extent, college athletes have a marketable skill, and I think we allow universities to basically exploit those marketable skills," Rush said.

"I view my role as chairman of the subcommittee as asking questions that possibly haven't been asked before - to look at this from an expanded perspective," added Rush, a former Black Panther Party member who defeated current presidential candidate Barack Obama in a 2000 Democratic congressional primary.

It's rare, although not unprecedented, for Congress to intervene and set policy for sports associations. More commonly, lawmakers suggest legislative remedies as a prod and then back off. Major League Baseball has often been threatened with the loss of its antitrust exemption when it diverged with Congress on various issues.

Congress did pass Title IX, a landmark law guaranteeing equal educational and athletic opportunities at institutions that accept federal funds.

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