You may have noticed that the people in college football are the tiniest bit obsessed with money, from light-fingered bowl executives to numb-voiced university presidents droning about “impermissible benefits” while pocketing seven figures. Alabama’s $4 million coach, Nick Saban, looks like he should be cruising on a yacht sipping Bacardi to the soft throb of a marine engine. No wonder players are preoccupied with compensation, and the answer to every NCAA scandal or controversy lately amounts to, “Pay us.”
Look, I know the money is indecent and the NCAA system is blatantly unfair to athletes. The Southeastern Conference made $1 billion last year, and it would be nice if some of that reached the players at No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama, whose individual sweat gives Saturday’s matchup its commercial value. But there seems to be a misconception that if we pry a couple thousand out of NCAA President Mark Emmert’s personal wallet and hand it to Alabama running back Trent Richardson, that will make everything right. It won’t. Though it would be satisfying.
Paying players isn’t the answer — not because it’s wrong or violates some creaking old amateur code, but because we have yet to devise a fair, feasible way that won’t create more inequities, killing scholarships in other sports, not to mention creating regulatory nightmares and legal uncertainties. In the meantime, we have a much deeper, underlying problem to solve. What college athletes need from us, more than cash, is a fundamental shift in how we view them.
Pay them? We don’t even respect them.
When you watch LSU and Alabama this weekend, ask yourself what you really think about the players on the field, underneath your admiration for their physical skill. Deep down. Do you really believe they belong at a university, or does some part of you think they’re just muscled-up entertainers and users, fake students who don’t think, read or aspire academically?
In 2007, Cal-Berkeley education professor Herbert D. Simons published a study of more than 500 college athletes entitled “The Athlete Stigma in Higher Education.” Here is what he found: 62 percent of them experienced negative perceptions and stereotyping. Athletes reported that their professors made negative comments about jocks in class, as did fellow students. When they asked professors for leeway to meet their practice schedules, 61.5 percent were refused, or criticized for asking. A shocking 28.6 percent of African American athletes reported they were suspected or accused of cheating, compared to 6 percent of whites.
Generally, Simons concluded, athletes were perceived as having “low intelligence, little academic motivation, and receiving undeserved benefits and privileges,” and treated as if they harmed the academic reputation of the university. Just 15 percent felt they were positively perceived.
Before we can sort out how to close the gap in pay, we have to close this gap in perception. We can start by treating athletes as if they’re worth more than a licensing fee.
“There are some educational steps we could take that would be every bit as valuable, if not more, than trying to answer the problems with financial issues,” says Derek Van Rheenen, an education researcher and director of Cal’s Athletic Study Center who was an all-American soccer player.
When we watch Alabama and LSU, let’s try a thought experiment. Take a moment, at some point during the game, to think about Trent Richardson as an intelligent man with his helmet off who is majoring in business with a 3.26 grade-point average, and carrying the expectations of his family back in a Pensacola, Fla., housing project. Think of the tension he must feel, barked at by coaches if he gets too distracted by books, yet sneered at by teachers if he falls asleep in class. Consider the 40 hours a week he puts into grueling physical practice and weightlifting, followed by film study and game-planning, an intellectual load comparable to any class he takes.
“It’s an absolute skill to read the game, it requires cognitive and intellectual ability,” Van Rheenen says. Players “are literally looking at cues and prompts, like an avid reader does. People don’t give credit to athletes, because they think it’s instinctive. It’s not. It’s cognitive.”
When you watch players on both sides, imagine how it feels to do homework at midnight with head nodding and limbs throbbing from soreness or injury, a fatigue no one else understands. Yet despite this, they will graduate at a higher rate than their peers. The latest graduation success rate numbers for the ’Bama team was 69 percent last year; LSU’s 77 percent, both considerably higher than the national rate for all students.
Unmotivated? Low intelligence? Harmful to academic integrity?
The dirty little secret of college sports is not that Richardson and his teammates are on the bottom rung in compensation, driven into an underground economy. It’s that they are on the bottom rung of expectations. Too many NCAA presidents secretly believe they are unworthy of teaching, and should be grateful just to be on campus.
Ask yourself if one reason we jump at the idea of pay-for-play is because it sounds easier than actually educating them. Payment is a pain reliever; it would make some people, including athletes, feel a little better. But it’s an Anacin solution, not a cure, and we need to think more creatively.
The real crux of what plagues college athletics is this: A relatively small number of high-profile athletes, isolated in two commercial sports, enjoy scholarships (and some extracurricular benefits) while having what we consider to be weak connections to their classrooms. Division I football and basketball have become so heavily commercialized and so demanding that we worry the value of a scholarship is not an equitable or genuine repayment-in-kind for athletes any more.
But why isn’t enhancing their scholarship just as good an answer as handing them cash?
What if we gave them better tools and services, more academic credit toward degrees, and more support and incentives?
Tony Smith, the captain of the Cal football team in 1992, received his PhD in education and is now the superintendent of schools in Oakland. He suggests that instead of cash payouts we talk about putting licensing money from jersey sales in an incentive fund that every graduating member of a team gets an equal cut of. A small account might coax them toward a degree and help them transition when they leave school.
Money can be a mark of respect — or not. It can also be a form of dismissal. If you want a kid to feel less used, don’t just pay him. Try honoring him.