UNPAID PROFESSIONALS

Commercialism and Conflict in

Big-Time College Sports

By Andrew Zimbalist

Princeton Univ. 252 pp. $24.95

Reviewed by John Greenya

Zimbalist got game! An economics professor at Smith College and a prolific writer of books (12) and articles (including op-ed pieces in this newspaper as well as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today), about a decade ago he got interested in the economics of college sports, especially on the highest levels where schools' actions often seem more corporate than collegiate. This book is a product of that study, and while at times it reads like a thesis on steroids, the end result is a solid analysis of a segment of American life that Zimbalist claims is in dire need of reform.

After reading this book you'll find it hard to disagree with him. One of the virtues is its tone. Zimbalist's wry sense of humor is evident throughout, beginning with the last line of the very first paragraph: "On page one of the 1997-98 NCAA Manual the basic purpose of the National Collegiate Athletic Association is written: to maintain inter-collegiate athletics as an integral part of the education program and the athlete as an integral part of the student body and, by doing so, retain a clear line of demarcation between intercollegiate athletics and professional sports. Some may wonder whom do they think they are kidding."

Early on, he uses an extra point to make his point, citing the 1996 Notre Dame-University of Southern California game in which the Notre Dame placekicker missed an extra point late in the fourth quarter, sending the game into overtime and a 27-21 USC win. It also cost the Fighting Irish an invitation to one of the Alliance Bowl games which would have guaranteed the school a huge payment. As the author puts it, "The placekicker blew an $8 million extra point!"

In 1990 Zimbalist started teaching a seminar on the economics of professional sports since the turn of the century, which led him to the conclusion that "whether they paid their players or not, college sports had become professional," so he added them to his syllabus. "After reading about it for several years and still being baffled, I chose to commit myself to deciphering what was going on and what needed to change."

In explaining his findings, Zimbalist takes careful looks at: what it means to be a "student-athlete" these days; gender equity (a term he considers oxymoronic) both for athletes and coaches; the huge influence of the media and the corporate world; the difficulty of getting a true picture of the bottom line; the NCAA; and, finally, some prognostications and suggested reforms.

One of his main points is that a star athlete at a major school . . . which means a football or a basketball player at a major NCAA Division I school, and more often than not an African-American male . . . "earns" so much money for the school that the return to him is wildly disproportionate.

Zimbalist, a great man with a quote, reprints former longtime NCAA executive director Walter Byers's observation that "collegiate amateurism is not a moral issue. It is an economic camouflage for monopoly practice" and LSU basketball coach Dale Brown's remark, "This one-billion-dollar TV contract is the paramount example of the injustices in the game. Look at the money we make off predominately poor black kids. We're the whoremasters."

Zimbalist's chapter on commercial exploitation is first-rate, especially its information on the policies of shoe manufacturers Nike (which has had clauses restricting free speech, meaning public criticism, in its contracts with academic insttions) and others. And his information on the salary packages of not just coaches but also association execs (like the NCAA's Cedric Dempsey, whose total take two years ago was $647,332) is mind-boggling.

After all the hard-hitting data that precede them, it's a bit of letdown when you get to the recommendations because, as Zimbalist readily admits, "College sports are too popular and too ingrained in our culture to re-engineer them from the ground up." His 10-step program for reform includes: changing the relationship between professional and college sports, "professionalizing" the teams or allowing a quota of athletes who are not degree-seeking students, beefing up enforcement of NCAA rules eliminating freshman eligibility, shortening seasons and hours, giving coaches long-term contracts and no "sneaker money," and assigning more resources to promoting the goals of Title IX so that women athletes (and their coaches) get a fairer shake.

Lots of food for thought here. And if you've any doubt about the topicality of Andrew Zimbalist's suggested reforms, note the fact that on the day after the NCAA inked a record TV deal with CBS ($6 billion), it floated the idea of paying college athletes to play ball.

John Greenya writes frequently about crime, the law, and sports.