BOSTON — While most college students dread putting on aprons and punching time clocks, in past years athletes on scholarship some-times considered working students fortunate.
That's because the athletes were forbidden from working during the academic year by National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) rules. That all changed, though, when at last month's NCAA convention in Nashville, Tenn., the members voted to allow athletes to hold part-time jobs in their off-seasons, beginning in August
The ruling, passed by a narrow 169-to-150 margin, was a major breakthrough for the usually conservative NCAA.
Since 1956, student-athletes at Division I schools have been eligible to receive full scholarships, or full rides. This was more than generous, conventional thinking went, and therefore athletes could not receive other benefits outside of certain necessities.
Wayne Turner, a sophomore basketball player at the University of Kentucky, applauds the change. "I wouldn't mind holding an office job after the season, or even during the season, to make some extra money."
Another advantage of giving college athletes an opportunity to work is that it will give them something to put on a resume. While having a 40-inch vertical leap or 400-pound bench press comes in handy on the court or playing field, it is of little use to potential employers.
Bo Schembechler, emeritus football coach, athletic director, and professor at the University of Michigan, agrees. "It's time we stop punishing student-athletes," he says. All students, he adds, should have the opportunity to decide whether or not they wish to take on the responsibilities of a part-time job.
Maybe the two most influential advocates for change at the convention were NCAA executive director Cedric Dempsey and Bridget Niland, a track athlete pursuing a law degree at Buffalo State. Niland chairs the nonvoting student advisory committee that was formed in 1989.
In his keynote address, Dempsey told delegates that without limitations on part-time work, one university might be concerned that another in a better job market would succeed in recruiting better athletes.
"I fully recognize [change] might bring some minor imbalance to that level playing field," he said. Still, the NCAA's highest purpose, he asserted, is "the development and education of young people." Niland, meanwhile, urged that the "welfare of the student-athlete" transcend the "fear of abuse."
The NCAA's legislation may have addressed one issue of concern for athletes, but a more complex one remains unresolved: pay for play.
To many, paying students for their athletic accomplishments seems a radical concept, especially given the actual dollar value of a full scholarship plus its potential for increasing one's lifetime earnings. But from an athlete's perspective, the large profits made by successful, big-time sports programs, including high-profile coaches with endorsement contracts, can't be overlooked.
For participating in one of the major postseason bowl games this past season, football teams were rewarded roughly $8 million a team, with some of this going to their respective conferences. In basketball, the NCAA's contract with CBS is reportedly worth $1.75 billion over eight years.
Since a team needs to succeed to earn major football bowl berths or regular TV basketball dates, is it any wonder that recruiters pull out all the stops when an exceptional high school talent comes along?
Several years ago, Derrick Brooks, a Florida State football player looked at the money flowing to athletic departments and said that the students responsible for generating this income might someday walk out or boycott if something wasn't done.
"That wouldn't be a bad idea," Turner says of taking collective action. "Student athletes should be paid, maybe once a year because of the amount of money the schools make from them. Probably in the next generation, [college] athletes will be paid."
Walter Byers, a major defender of amateur principles during 36 years as the NCAA's executive director, has in retirement said he favors athlete compensation. "In light of the hypercommercialization of today's college athletics," he said, "dramatic changes are necessary to permit athletes to participate in the enormous proceeds."
First, however, many tough questions must be answered, including:
* Should every athlete be paid the same? Whether bench warmer or star, man or woman? Whether playing a major (revenue-producing) sport or a minor (non-revenue-producing) one?
* Would paying athletes deplete funds for equipment, capital improvements, facilities management, and other areas?
* Could professionalized athletes retain agents and sign endorsement contracts?
* If a school could not afford to pay the "going rate," would it lose out in recruiting, causing the gulf between the have and have-not schools to grow wider?