Pay for top college athletes makes sense

May 09, 2012

In his recent column ("Student-athletes need a degree, not a paycheck," May 6),Robert L. Ehrlich Jr.makes a persuasive case for the bargain available to students who are talented enough to win an athletic scholarship to a college or university. They, as Mr. Ehrlich was, are in college primarily to prepare for a career in something other than professional sports.

However, for the student-athletes with professional prospects, I believe that we can design a better system. Although some might find this approach a radical change, I believe that it is practical in they way it effectively utilizes the existing infrastructure and would actually make the jobs of coaches and athletes clearer and simpler. As a former Division I athlete who many years ago benefited from essentially the same system, as well as a current high-school coach, I have a modest proposal which I believe avoids hypocrisy and insures equitability.

Schools that believe they can profit from the "big-time athletic programs" that Mr. Ehrlich says produce $6 billion in annual income could simply finance a team in the same way as they might finance a research lab, a university press, a museum, or an art gallery. As university employees, athletes would be paid based upon their value to the sports operation, no longer "cheated out of their fair share of an ever-growing revenue stream." Coaches would simply look for the best players possible, just as athletes would look for the best schools possible to further their professional goals and ambitions.

Schools would not have to compromise their academic standards, just as athletes would not have to embellish their academic records — no more cheating scandals. Any athlete who also wanted to attend the school as a student would have to meet normal academic requirements and could work out a separate arrangement. Those who didn't "make it to the pros" would still have been fairly compensated and could use that money to fund alternative plans, perhaps including higher education. With this kind of arrangement, schools could not be charged with having taken advantage of athletes, as some certainly do now.

From talking to coaches, players, former teammates, and academics (including an economist), I have not heard anyone express doubts about the obvious improvements that would result. One not-so-obvious but an absolutely essential improvement would be to eliminate the "problem of moral responsibility too often forfeited in the glitter of big-time athletics" that Mr. Ehrlich correctly identifies. By honestly and transparently separating the moral imperative from the financial, big-time athletic programs would be able to concentrate on a "glitter" that we can all feel good about.

Al Whitaker, Baltimore

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