You'd be surprised if you didn't get an unorthodox opinion or two from a guy with a law degree who earns his living cutting hair while serving in his state's legislature.
State Sen. Ernest Chambers of Omaha won't surprise you. The opinion he is trying to push into law is this: big-time college athletes ought to be paid for what they do.
He was pushing it before you heard the name of Herschel Walker, the University of Georgia football player who left college to turn pro. He is still pushing it, although the Nebraska state assembly recently turned down his proposal for the third time.
"Maybe they won't pass it," he told me the other day. "But if we can get enough schools--particularly the big schools--talking about it, something like what I'm proposing will be done. There will be some sort of compensation for big-time college athletes."
Chambers begins where we all do: with acknowledgment of the night- and-day differences between friendly athletic rivalry of the sort that used to be and major basketball and football programs that now make huge amounts of money for the Top 20 schools. But unlike the rest of us, who argue halfheartedly for a return to the days of the student-athlete as amateur in the literal meaning of the word; who worry about the number of players who fail to graduate, or who graduate with essentially useless degrees; who wax indignant over the "exploitation" of college players and the under-the-table compensation that seems to be more rule than exception, Ernie Chambers is willing to take the next logical step.
Pay them, he says. You pay kids who work in the college dining hall, on the ground that they are performing a service for the school, he argues. Why is it considered scandalous to pay kids who serve their schools and also enrich them, by playing football and basketball?
"Everybody knows the truth of what I'm talking about," he says. "The National Football League acknowledges that colleges represent a farm system for the professional leagues. Everybody acknowledges that big-time college athletics is a money-making proposition. Everybody acknowledges that athletes at most of the schools are given little incentive to be scholars." And everybody knows that most star athletes get unofficial "perks" that aren't available to the average student: TV and stereo sets in their rooms; stipends in lieu of meals; travel allowances; access to automobiles.
Why not cut the charade and pay them? Chambers asks. His thrice-defeated bill, which he says he will bring up again, would say: "Any person who competes in the sport of football for the University of Nebraska at Lincoln shall be an employee of the University of Nebraska and shall be compensated and entitled to the same rights and benefits as other university employees," while providing that nothing in the legislation "shall be construed to make such a person a professional athlete."
Much of what he proposes is already accepted: payment in lieu of meals, various cash allowances, insurance policies against career-threatening injury, in addition to the unofficial--and often illegal--benefits made available by alumni associations and booster clubs. "Compensation depends on how the National Collegiate Athletic Associatiaion defines it," says the barber- legislator. "Let's just pay the athletes and be honest about it. I don't really care what they call it, so long as they no longer force the athletes to be dishonest about it."