By Michael Wilbon
Friday, September 10, 2010; 1:12 AM
If you log on to the official online store of the University of Georgia Bulldogs you'll be bombarded by images of a No. 8 football jersey. A wide receiver named A.J. Green wears that particular jersey now. Mel Kiper rates him as the No. 4 prospect in all of college football, which means he's a big deal in Georgia and so is his jersey.
There's a black replica that goes for $59.95; a red, a black and a white replica youth jersey, each of which goes for $43.95. Scroll down a bit and you'll see a red "twilled" jersey that sells for $74.95 and then there are preschool jerseys (black or white, take your pick) that sell for $41.95 apiece. And don't let me forget the "authentic" No. 8 jerseys, in black or red, that go for $150 each.
In all, counting the pink jerseys presumably for women, there are 17 options for sale.
Green is the biggest star in a state where the college football team matters more than anything except, possibly, one's place of worship. Thousands of those No. 8 jerseys, which Green wears on Saturdays, have been sold. And all proceeds, according to the official Web site, benefit Georgia athletics.
This has become enormously important the last couple of days, of course, because the NCAA has suspended Green for the first four games for selling one of his game-worn jerseys. Probably got $500, $600 for it . . . we're told it was less than $1,000. But while the kid is sitting out the next three games the university can keep right on selling his jersey and reaping the financial rewards.
As a head coach of a major Division I program so accurately said to me recently on the subject of the behavior of big-time athletic leagues and their big-time programs, "They're now fully engaged in robbing the poor to give to the rich."
The person who most needs the money, Green, is prohibited from reaping a dime, even though he's the one who spends more than 40 hours a week working at being a college football player, even though he's the one who risks head injuries that could shorten his life. Not a dime for him, and all of it, 100 percent, for the school's athletic department.
The suspension of Green doesn't just point to the greed that permeates college athletics; it's shameful that the rules are set up to punish a kid this severely because he sees he's the only person not making any money off his labor and wants to sneak a few hundred bucks for himself.
We seem to have reached a point where kids who play revenue-producing college sports - and that means division I men's basketball and football - are more determined than ever to get what's coming to them, whether that means associating with agents or taking some money to live better right now. Damn the consequences.
And they can better justify it because everywhere they look people are making money off of them. I'd argue that university presidents and the people who run the biggest conferences have never been more openly greedy. Since the end of the last college football season, the dominant story in college sports has been to find a better conference deal and get more money. Your school gets $15 million for being on television? Try for $25 million.
Right now, the Pac-10 is trying to figure out how to realign its 12-team conference, and the whole affair is made more complex by television revenue sharing, which is how Colorado and Utah got into the Pac-10 in the first place. They wanted exposure to the Los Angeles area to recruit and take advantage of L.A.'s great capacity for television revenue.
The Big Ten's addition of Nebraska was done solely so that Nebraska and the Big Ten will make more money, largely through the Big Ten Network. But be certain that if a kid playing for Nebraska accepts $100 to fill his jalopy with gas and take his girlfriend to dinner after the game, the NCAA will take him down.
The hypocrisy is stunning, and nowhere more than Southern California, where the school wants to keep its 2004 national championship that Reggie Bush helped win, while the Heisman Trophy he earned on the field that season is being pried away.
Bush, as you know by now, reportedly might be stripped of the Heisman for accepting improper benefits . . . as if he's the first Heisman Trophy winner to take anything improper in 75 years. As my friend Bryan Burwell pointed out in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, many Heisman winners have been tainted by scandal - and not just O.J. Simpson.
Paul Hornung, the 1956 winner, was later suspended by the NFL for gambling. Charles White, the 1979 winner, admitted being a cocaine abuser while playing in the NFL. Johnny Rodgers, the 1972 winner, was convicted of robbing a gas station while at Nebraska. Billy Cannon went to federal prison for counterfeiting. None has been asked to give back his prize.
The thread here that seems to connect Bush with Georgia's A.J. Green is that more and more often, at least anecdotally, talented athletes are willing to risk whatever the punishment to get something now, something more than tuition, room, board and books. For decades I went along with the folks who reasoned that was compensation enough, that the price of an education isn't "nothing."
But the constant pursuit of more money by the schools and conferences themselves is making me change my tune.
Sorry if the kids who play women's basketball or lacrosse or water polo don't stand to gain from any compensation plan; the kids whose jerseys produce tens of thousands of dollars for athletic departments need to see at least a fraction of that money themselves. (CNBC's Darren Rovell tweeted this week, "In 2005, Myles Brand told me the NCAA would look at compensating star players for sales of their jerseys. Guess they're still looking.")
If Green can't sell his jersey directly, then the NCAA or the University of Georgia ought to cut him a check. Please, don't cite me the NCAA rules. Change the damn rules to stop taking advantage of the poorest people in the equation.
If I'd been standing in front of A.J. Green when he whipped off his game-worn jersey and tried to sell it, I'd have paid him myself, and told the kid to keep his mouth shut.