How to fix college athletics? Let them make their own money

by | Mar 4, 2018 | Detroit Free Press, Comment, Sports | 0 comments

As we grapple with the evils of money and college sports, we might want to remember Jodie Foster. The actress, who enrolled at Yale University when she was 17, had already been nominated for an Oscar, been paid for many Disney movies, and even hosted “Saturday Night Live.”

At Yale, she studied drama, and in her freshman year, she appeared in a school theater production. Then during her summer break, she went off to make another movie.

And guess what? No one got fired or investigated. No one declared she would never act in a school play again.

So why is college sports so different? Why is it that if a basketball player lets an agent buy him lunch, he has violated rules and put his program in hot water? Why can’t a college quarterback make his own milk commercial?

Why is it OK for a college flute player, on a music scholarship, to play in the school band, then get paid for a nightclub gig — but if “student-athletes” take money for playing five minutes somewhere, they’ve sacrificed their college eligibility forever?

The answer lies in the NCAA and its antiquated yet profitable adherence to amateurism. But given the insanity over a recent FBI probe that suggests major NCAA violations by many well-known schools (and why the FBI is wasting taxpayer money on these mostly non-criminal activities is beyond me), perhaps we should rethink the idea of amateurism and college sports.

Especially since it’s been dead for years.

Amateurism? More like a sham

If you are new to the topic, you need know only this. The president of the NCAA, Mark Emmert, makes $3 million a year. The coach of the Duke Blue Devils, Mike Krzyzewski, makes around $9 million a year. The TV broadcasting rights for college hoops were recently extended for over $1 billion a year.

And the players get paid nothing.

That’s not amateurism. That’s a sham.

Even Emmert, under increasing pressure, seems to recognize things can’t go on this way. “We’ve got these very serious issues which require serious change,” he told the AP Friday — although his idea of “change” is questionable.

But instead of schools shaking in their boots over who paid for a player’s pizza, we should rethink the whole model. Let’s try it here:

The first thing people say is “Pay the players.” After all, there’s billions coming in from TV rights and shoe deals, right? The problem is, college sports are ruled by Title IX, a federal law which demands equal treatment for men and women’s sports programs at schools. Which means if you paid the men’s football players, you might well have to pay the women’s lacrosse players — and at the same rate

That’s not likely to happen. However, if the schools and the NCAA — an organization that has no parallel anywhere in the world — are going to get rich, they should at least allow athletes to do the same on their own.

Which brings us to the model that Olympic sports have been using. Don’t pay for participation in competition, but allow athletes to earn money outside of it. So if a figure skater wants to do a Hertz commercial or an autograph session, he or she can.

If we just allowed this for college players, and stopped policing if they met with future managers or agents, you’d eliminate a good chunk of the wasted time, money and sweaty nerves our current system produces.

But there’s more.

It’s time for radical change

How about getting paid for non-college competition? If there are sanctioned All-Star games in the summer, why can’t an athlete get paid the way Foster got paid to make a movie?

If a college kid wants to go to a camp and charge for it, why not?

It may all seem radical, but that’s because we’ve gotten used to the system as it is. We’ve bought into the notion that being given a scholarship should be enough.

But one side can’t be told, “That’s enough,” while the other side keeps saying, “Give us more.” This chasing of phone calls, lunch bills and bus tickets is such a colossal waste of resources. And given how rich the NCAA is, it’s hypocrisy.

Yes, there is a huge issue with the shoe companies. That’s where much of this scandal begins. But the model of school-gets-millions-to-force-players-to-wear-shoes is wrong from the start. Until that is changed, you will have problems and inequity.

As I see it, the only policing we should worry about is if a player is directly paid by someone to attend a school. That’s wrong, and is still a challenge to enforce.

Plus, the NBA needs to change its rules to allow players to enter directly from high school. Forcing kids to play at college who don’t belong or want to be there is both folly and injustice. The NBA used to allow it (that’s how LeBron James got there) and the reasons it stopped are no longer strong.

Meanwhile, a huge gap could be closed if the Olympic model were adopted right now. It would at least allow players some income. And who bought whom lunch wouldn’t be a federal issue.

Contact Mitch Albom: Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Friday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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