by | Apr 2, 1995 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

SEATTLE — It always surprises me when a college basketball player gets to major in economics. After all, economics teaches supply and demand. And why would a school want its star athletes to figure that out?

Eventually, even the most dimwitted ballplayer could see that enough people demand to watch college basketball that a single TV network would pay $1.7 billion for the rights to supply it. With that kind of money floating down the river, someone must be getting rich.

And it sure isn’t the players.

Over the years, the Final Four has swelled into this fire- breathing, corporate monster, kicking up dollars in everything from $100 sweatshirts to on-line computer coaches. It is dripping in revenues, from one blue-blazered cocktail party to another. And the athletes? They get what they always got. A free trip out, free meals, their moment in the spotlight, and a free trip back.

What they don’t get is this: bonus checks, shoe contracts, airfare for family. A piece of the pie. That goes to the school itself — which makes more money the further its team goes — and the coaches, whose salaries and shoe deals are unlimited, and of course, CBS, which can fly in anyone it wants, while collecting ungodly amounts for commercials.

Oh. And the NCAA. Biggest hypocrite of all. NCAA rides in style

I love this defense you hear from NCAA officials. “We can’t pay college players. It’s much too complex.”

They say this as they grab dollars from the air. If things have gotten complex, it’s because the NCAA has encouraged the complexity. It pounds the table with one fist, saying athletes are students and must be treated like students! Meanwhile, the other fist is knocking on every door with a corporate logo, asking if it wants to get in on the action.

Consider this: The NCAA will make $215 million this year from CBS — just for basketball. The cost of putting on the whole tournament is $10 million. That leaves $205 million. This goes to the schools, the conferences, and of course, the NCAA itself, which, conveniently, is a nonprofit corporation, so it doesn’t pay taxes.

This nonprofit status doesn’t stop NCAA officials from riding in limousines

and staying in the nicest hotels here in Seattle — while the families of the athletes, many of them poor, get no plane tickets, nor hotel rooms, and are forbidden to accept any as gifts. Sound fair?

Here are the NCAA’s standard defenses:

1) Athletes are paid. They get a free education. True. This is worth, at its highest, maybe $23,000 a year. If a star player hits a winning shot in any tournament game, he’s already earned that back for his school.

2) Should we pay football and basketball players and not other college athletes? Well, some might say, yes. Those are the sports that generate money
— not lacrosse. When CBS wants college hoops, does the NCAA say, “Only if you televise women’s softball”? No. It takes the money.

Still, for argument’s sake — and for legal purposes, thanks to Title IX — let’s say you couldn’t pay one athlete without paying another. OK. Then allow college athletes to do what every other person in America can do. Make his own deals. If he’s a big enough star to get a shoe contract, why not let him? If he can get paid for doing a TV show, or appearing at a mall, why not let him?

And if you say, “They’re too young for that money” — well, it didn’t stop Michael Jackson or McCauley Caulkin. Supply and demand. It would help players stay in school

Under current rules, athletes are forbidden to work during the school year, and forbidden to even take a sandwich from an agent. As a result, many are leaving school as early as sophomore year, jumping to the NBA or NFL.

Still, the NCAA and many coaches fight the idea of even a stipend — say,
$100 a week — to the kids who bring them fortunes.

“It sends a bad message” says Georgetown coach John Thompson. “I tell them to work hard, go to class, you tell them the scholarship is worthless.”

Come on. What kind of message is Thompson sending by taking big money for his shoe contract? And ask Big John if one of his star players has ever missed a game because he had a test the next day? If these universities were only concerned about education, they would only travel on weekends, so the kids wouldn’t miss class.

And that’s the point. If the NCAA would say, hey, we are colleges, not minor leagues, and turn down the millions for broadcast rights, and disallow late night games, and say no thanks to corporate tie-ins — then they could defend not paying the players.

But that’s not what they do. They take the money, they create the monster. They are Dr. Frankenstein, and they can’t just hide behind their creation and say, “It’s out of control” while still charging admission.


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