You may have noticed that the people in college football are the tiniest bit obsessed with money, from light-fingered bowl executives to numb-voiced university presidents droning about “impermissible benefits” while pocketing seven figures. Alabama’s $4 million coach, Nick Saban, looks like he should be cruising on a yacht sipping Bacardi to the soft throb of a marine engine. No wonder players are preoccupied with compensation, and the answer to every NCAA scandal or controversy lately amounts to, “Pay us.”
Look, I know the money is indecent and the NCAA system is blatantly unfair to athletes. The Southeastern Conference made $1 billion last year, and it would be nice if some of that reached the players at No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, whose individual sweat gives Saturday’s matchup its commercial value. But there seems to be a misconception that if we pry a couple thousand out of NCAA President Mark Emmert’s personal wallet and hand it to Alabama running back Trent Richardson, that will make everything right. It won’t. Though it would be satisfying.
LSU and Alabama will play for the right to be called the best in the country in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Saturday night.
Paying players isn’t the answer — not because it’s wrong or violates some creaking old amateur code, but because we have yet to devise a fair, feasible way that won’t create more inequities, killing scholarships in other sports, not to mention creating regulatory nightmares and legal uncertainties. In the meantime, we have a much deeper, underlying problem to solve. What college athletes need from us, more than cash, is a fundamental shift in how we view them.
Pay them? We don’t even respect them.
When you watch LSU and Alabama this weekend, ask yourself what you really think about the players on the field, underneath your admiration for their physical skill. Deep down. Do you really believe they belong at a university, or does some part of you think they’re just muscled-up entertainers and users, fake students who don’t think, read or aspire academically?
In 2007, Cal-Berkeley education professor Herbert D. Simons published a study of more than 500 college athletes entitled “The Athlete Stigma in Higher Education.” Here is what he found: 62 percent of them experienced negative perceptions and stereotyping. Athletes reported that their professors made negative comments about jocks in class, as did fellow students. When they asked professors for leeway to meet their practice schedules, 61.5 percent were refused, or criticized for asking. A shocking 28.6 percent of African American athletes reported they were suspected or accused of cheating, compared to 6 percent of whites.
Generally, Simons concluded, athletes were perceived as having “low intelligence, little academic motivation, and receiving undeserved benefits and privileges,” and treated as if they harmed the academic reputation of the university. Just 15 percent felt they were positively perceived.
Before we can sort out how to close the gap in pay, we have to close this gap in perception. We can start by treating athletes as if they’re worth more than a licensing fee.