The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

An easy fix for the rapacious abuse of student athletes

Let's stop pretending college athletes are amateurs and pay them.

Taking aim: Shabazz Napier. (Charles Rex Arbogast/AP)
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“You’re not there to get an education — you’re there to make revenue for the college,” Rashad McCants, a former basketball star for the University of North Carolina, told ESPN recently. He got A’s in classes he says he never attended — courses that required just one written paper, which tutors often wrote for him and other star players. Championship-winning coach Roy Williams knew about this “paper-class” system, McCants says, an allegation that Williams denies.

No one should be surprised by McCants’s comments; we know many star student-athletes study little more than their sports.

But as a former NCAA athlete and coach, college professor and current administrator, I believe the real fraud is that big-time college athletics are characterized as amateur.

Athletes need a system that enables them to play their 15 minutes of fame for long-term prosperity. And they could have that if elite athletes leveraged their on-the-field star power to transform “amateur” football and basketball programs into semiprofessional clubs.

Currently, we have a sports entertainment system that uses bright stars that mostly fade after four years. Coaches treat athletes like employees without giving them commensurate benefits and wages. For example, after winning this year’s NCAA national basketball championship, Shabazz Napier, a starting point guard for University of Connecticut, said he goes to bed “starving” because he can’t afford food. Athletes are demanding fairness. The Northwestern University football players’ upcoming vote on whether to form a union is just the tip of the iceberg.

Conferences enter lucrative contracts that benefit everyone except the players. Two months after Napier’s declaration, one-time NCAA champion basketball coach John Calipari, as well as Nick Saban, four-time NCAA champion football coach, signed $7 million-per-year deals. Both Calipari and Saban are the highest-paid public employees in their respective states.

The NCAA effectually offered a mea culpa for how athletes are treated when it announced that it will pay $20 million to former football and basketball players whose images were used in video games produced by EA Sports. Athletes involved with the suit, brought by former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon and other plaintiffs, will be paid without the penalty of a NCAA violation. The settlement is an obvious attempt to maintain the illusion of an amateur status that was a fragile as the NCAA’s defense.

There is, however, a way to acknowledge athletes as a special class of employee/student while minimizing their exploitation. Recently, SEC Commissioner Mike Slive threatened to appeal for a “Division IV” if the NCAA doesn’t grant the Big Five power conferences — the SEC, ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12 — the autonomy to pay the full cost of college attendance, provide long-term medical coverage and offer incentives for former athletes to complete degrees.

I believe Slive and others want to respond to the obvious: Students deserve more. Exactly how much is limited when they’re “amateurs.” Naturally Slive and other higher education officials want to maximize profits for their institutions. Therefore, we need a system that allows the Big Five to maximize athletes’ commitment, investment and potential earnings while the rest of athletic programs across the country hold to true standards of amateurism.

When going to the pros became the American Dream, going to college became incidental. The NCAA should lay bare the real danger that athletic recruitment, media socialization and sports fanaticism create a pipeline from black and brown communities to the athletic fields in a way that benefits colleges and universities far more than student-athletes. Being honest will at least let families and athletes know early that if you don’t make a semiprofessional club team, you better major in something that will prepare you for a longer-term career. Stripping away the romanticism of sports also sends a message that one should be an athlete so your children don’t have to.

The Big Five should formalize what basketball and football programs in major conferences have become: auxiliary, semiprofessional club teams.

A semiprofessional club team wouldn’t look any different than college teams look now. The difference would be that athletes would receive biweekly stipends as well as delayed compensation packages, which include an academic scholarship, after four years of competition.

Society loses potential contributions from people who should have studied areas that have longer-term benefits beyond entertainment — and football and basketball players, as well as other athletes, are really majoring in their sports. If more jobs existed for professional athletes, universities could treat athletics like conservatories while maintaining a certain degree of amateurism. However, the NFL and NBA draft fewer than 2 percent of college football and basketball athletes each year.

But jobs do exist at the university level, and athletes should earn what their local markets bear. LSU’s football program is as much about Baton Rouge as it is the university. Individual students should not have agents, but collectively students need a union to help them secure fair compensation packages. Funds earned in that market should be sheltered via trust fund to provide for an education if their investments in the basketball lottery don’t pan out. If the athlete signs a professional contract, he or she could forfeit the fund.

Trust funds should pay out equitably among individual athletes or among athletes in different sports. Athletes can use these funds to pay for the educations they would have received if they were not athletes. Let’s assume that many athletes who’ve made it to elite basketball and football programs have committed to their sports since middle school. Consequently, I would suggest an academic scholarship of eight years beyond their playing days.

Colleges and universities invest in coaches’ futures for similar time frames to the point where coaches are the highest-paid public employees in 39 states. Why can’t universities make similar commitments to athletes?

If the NCAA and its member institutions can’t make these changes, former athletes like Ed O’Bannon will.