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College Athletes Take it on the Chin!

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Thursday, September 29th, 20011

Baton Rouge, Louisiana



With TV income at an all time high, and with attendance breaking records nationwide, the college football season is off to the most successful start in its history. Football in my home state of Louisiana is the major subject of discussion as the LSU Tigers were ranked number one in the nation by the Associated Press poll for this week.  But out of the euphoria and excitement, scandals seem to be breaking out at new schools weekly, with top players being accused of selling memorabilia, and taking cash from adoring fans for a little spending money. Is there something wrong with the present system?

There certainly is a rapidly growing pot of money throughout the college system. Fans pay through the nose to attend major college athletic events.  As an LSU football season ticket holder, I personally pay $840 just for the right to buy my season tickets. The seat ticket, itself, is $54 per game. Similar surcharges are also applied to basketball tickets.  So there are big bucks coming into major college programs all over the country. Top-level college sports are big business.  LSU, for example, receives some $100 million in revenue each year from ticket sales, television rights, concessions, parking, and logo sales, which is about five times what the school receives from tuition.

In a recent edition of The New York Times, conservative columnist David Brooks, who generally is on the mark with his observations, yearns for a return of what was portrayed as “the golden age of the amateur ideal.”Â  According to Brooks, “The amateur ideal was a restraining code that emphasized fair play and honor.  It held that those blessed with special gifts have a special responsibility to hew to a chivalric code.  The idea was to make sport a part of the nation’s moral education.”

Well and good, as long as the athlete who is trying to pay for honor, and is also the sole producer of the huge college athletic income, can pay the bills.  All this income comes from one source”¦the athletes. Yet these young men and women are paid only enough to cover the basic college expenses “” room, food, tuition and books. No pocket money to go to the movies, no gas money, no extras whatsoever. So we have college athletic programs raking in millions on the backs of talented, disciplined, hardworking athletes, without sharing the revenue with those responsible for generating it.  Such a system is ill-defined at best and hypocritical at worst.  The universities, administrators, and coaches are reaping great value “” even luxury “” provided by their recruits, and the players, themselves, are given only a Spartan subsistence.

In this month’s Atlantic Magazine cover story, Taylor Branch writes superbly of “The Shame of College Sports.”Â  He refers to the Knight Commission, an unsympathetic group set up by the NCAA to review possible compensation ideas for college athletes. “Scholarship athletes are already paid,” declared the skeptical Knight Commission members, “in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education.” Branch bemoans their attitude, writing that “this evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.”

Branch goes on to conclude that it should be a no brainer to go ahead and pay some stipend to college athletics.  But like Hamlet, Brooks’ New York Times article struggles with imposing questions that trouble him. “How would you pay the athletes?  Would the stars get millions while the rest get hardly nothing?”Â  He then surmises that “The lingering vestiges of the amateur ideal are worth preserving.”Â  So he is OK with everyone in the system profiting but the athletes. Me thinks Brooks doth protest too much.  Most of the reasonable advocates of athlete compensation are talking about merely some additional spending money.

It was a little better than 40 years ago when I was lucky enough to attend the University of North Carolina on an athletic scholarship. I was given a housing and food allowance that exceeded my costs, as well as “laundry money” that allowed for weekend dates, gas, and a few frills above the basic scholarship costs. What I received then was equivalent to some $250 in pocket money if the same were allowed today.

But the NCAA tightened up the rules, and college athletes get less today than athletes like me received some years back.  Most college athletes live off campus, and are given a monthly stipend for their room and board.  I’m merely suggesting upping the ante and increasing this monthly amount by a couple of hundred bucks.  Is that really going to corrupt the system?  Or are we merely going to allow a little breathing room for an athlete to buy a few essentials and maybe fill up their car with gas.  Would such a small compensation really “corrupt the world of amateur athletics” as Brooks concludes?

Supporters of the present system will argue that there is the opportunity for these athletes to move on to the pros and make big financial returns.  But we all know that very few make it to that level.  They may not even end up with the basic skills necessary to succeed in other workplaces, since only a minority of student-athletes in major sports even graduate.  LSU football and basketball players generally graduate at a rate of less than 40%.

The system in place now allows our young college athletes to be exploited, and the exploitation is being committed by their adult mentors.  What a deal “” your body in exchange for a pittance of basic expenses.  A little monthly expense money is not about to corrupt the system. Providing $300 a month to all athletes on full athletic scholarship seems reasonable.  March Madness, as is always the case, turned out to be a financial bonanza “” but not for the kids that many of us paid to watch.  They deserve a better shake and a small piece of this huge financial pie.


“Look I get it, there are tickets, jerseys, video games, souvenirs, and concessions being sold largely because of the players on the field.  “Everyone,” so to speak, is making money except the players.             Sports writer Donnie Blackhawk

Peace and Justice

Jim Brown

Jim Brown’s syndicated column appears each week in numerous newspapers and websites throughout the South.  You can read all his past columns and see continuing updates at www.jimbrownla.com.  You can also hear Jim’s nationally syndicated radio show each Sunday morning from 9 am till 11:00 am, central time, on the Genesis Radio Network, with a live stream at http://www.jimbrownla.com.   (F)



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