If there is anyone left who still doubts that athletes should be paid by the big-time colleges and universities that hire them, let him contemplate a rather breathtaking document called "The Flutie Account." Put together by a journalist named Michael Dorning, it first appeared earlier this month in New England Monthly and last week was republished in Advertising Age. It's as devastating evidence of the exploitation of "student athletes" as one could hope -- or dread -- to see.
"On the 26th of May," Dorning wrote in advance of yesterday's event, "2,039 Boston College seniors will gather in Alumni Stadium to receive their degrees. Their most illustrious classmate, a smallish fellow named Douglas Richard Flutie, will be otherwise engaged, his current distractions postponing his own graduation until December. But this does not mean the graduates -- and, even more, the Jesuit fathers who run BC -- aren't willing to let Mr. Flutie do as he pleases. He's done a lot for them."
Douglas Richard Flutie, in case there is anyone out there who has just checked in, played quarterback for Boston College the last four years and in 1984 was awarded the Heisman Trophy as the country's outstanding collegiate football player. He left school this spring after signing a five-year contract with the New Jersey Generals, a team in the United States Football League for which he is now playing. In selling his services for $7 million-plus, Flutie did well by himself; but he didn't do nearly as well as Boston College did off him.
If you don't believe that, take a look at "The Flutie Account." It's a considerably more detailed document than will be evident here, but giving only a sample of its contents is more than enough to tell the tale. To show just how valuable Flutie was to BC, Dorning calculated various forms of revenue for the four years prior to Flutie's enrollment, and then added up the same forms for the four years during which the charismatic quarterback led BC to football success on a scale to which this northeastern institution has rarely been accustomed. This is what he found:
* Average home attendance increased 10,107 during Flutie's years. At $12 a ticket over a total of 23 home games, this put an extra $2,789,532 in the BC exchequer.
* Income from concessions purchased by these new customers added another $51,141.42 to the pot.
* BC television appearances rose from four during the pre-Flutie years to 18, the additional 14 being worth $2.5 million to BC.
* The BC football team went to three bowls during the Flutie era and will, as a direct consequence of his presence, go to the Kickoff Classic this August. Total income from these four games for BC will be at least $3,474,311.75.
* Sales of football souvenirs and paraphernalia at the BC bookstore went up $1.52 million, thanks to Flutie, for a net profit of $608,000.
* Freshman applications increased by 4,760 in Flutie's four years, resulting in a $21,420 "contribution to overhead" for the college from application fees.
* Subtract $44,300 -- that's the value, such as it is, of the four-year scholarship BC gave Flutie for his services -- and there you have it. The total amount Doug Flutie earned for Boston College was $9,400,105.17.
Flutie earned$2 million-plus more for Boston College in four years, in other words, than he will earn from the Generals during his five years playing with them. At the time he signed with the Generals there was a lot of grumbling in the press and elsewhere about the outlandish money being handed out to this kid who was probably too small to play in the pros -- a question on which the jury seems still to be out, though perhaps leaning slightly in Flutie's favor -- but "The Flutie Account" leaves no doubt that what he's getting from the pros falls far short of what he gave to good old alma mater. Was Flutie exploited by Boston College? You bet he was.
To say this is not to single out BC, which as big-time sports schools go seems to be a pretty decent place, but the system under which it and all the other football and basketball factories operate. In any number of respects it is a sordid system that reflects nothing except discredit on American higher education -- the endemic cheating and bribing in the recruitment of athletes, the corrupting influence of "booster" clubs, the debasement of academic standards first to admit athletes and then to keep them enrolled, the use of steroids and other prowess-enhancing drugs -- but surely none is more sordid than the exploitation of athletes' labor for colleges' gain.
Yes, there are all the usual arguments, and not a one of them holds water. The "payment" an athlete receives in the form of an education is scarcely commensurate with his services, especially since in most cases it is an "education" that prepares him to do little more than coach sports. The investment a college makes in an athlete is minuscule compared with the risk of injury he takes and, with it, the risk of reducing his future attractiveness as a sports professional. Playing college sports is not comparable to playing in the minor leagues; the apprenticeship may be similar, but the remuneration (over the table, that is) certainly is not. And anyone who still believes that big-time colleges play amateur sports and thus cannot pay their athletes is simply a world-class fool.
The truth is that in no respect do big-time sports exist to benefit the athletes who play them. Their beneficiaries are the colleges, which derive prestige, revenue and increased admissions when their successful teams gain beneficial publicity, and the alumni -- their numbers, alas, are legion -- whose arrested development leaves them in a lifelong state of adolescent hero-worship. In this system the athletes are simply mercenaries, except that oddly enough they don't get paid; they should, and if the National Collegiate Athletic Association is serious about cleaning out its Augean stables it will see that they do.
Sure, Doug Flutie was a once-in-a-lifetime player, a phenomenon whose performance probably surprised no one more than the people who recruited him at BC, but that is not the point. Neither is it the point to say that his years at BC and the renown he acquired therein made it possible for him to sign so lucrative a professional contract. What if he hadn't been quite so magical? What if he'd spent four years as the third-string quarterback, laboring through long practices and spending games on the bench? So what? He still would have been working, putting in his time, coming out of it all with nothing except a diploma of uncertain value in the job market.
Flutie may be sitting pretty now, but for four years he got taken for a ride. So does every young man -- and, now, young woman -- who barters his body for the dubious privilege of spending four years in an American college or university. The players should be paid as the professionals that they are -- and that higher education expects them to be.