College players still amateurs ... but barely

Madness is the sports clich for this time of year, when rising stars and workaday math majors share the court to determine college basketball's national champions.

More than other sporting events, the NCAA Division I tournament is a showcase of American egalitarianism, a rough and tumble meritocracy. But this year's tournament has also been marred by the encroachment of capitalism into the game: Several top players have been disciplined for accepting payments in violation of NCAA rules.

Now, as Florida and Michigan State prepare to meet in the finals tonight, the growing presence of money in college basketball - both open and surreptitious - is prompting many coaches and players to call for a change in the rules defining amateurism. The question is: Should student athletes be paid?

What many believe to be the quintessential amateur athletic event is more and more becoming a multibillion dollar industry, replete with trademarked merchandise, overzealous alumni, and unctuous sports agents offering athletes illegal perks. Television revenues will bring the NCAA $242 million this year, or 80 percent of its annual income. This is just part of the $6.2 billion contract the organization has signed with CBS, which will have exclusive rights to broadcast the March event for years to come.

The amateur ideal

With college basketball awash in such cash, many think it is only right that the students get a share of the wealth they help generate for their schools and the NCAA. Others, however, worry how this will affect not only the integrity of student athletics, but also the amateur tenor that gives college hoops its particular cultural appeal.

"When you begin paying a collegiate athlete, it begins to tread on society's perception of what is an amateur," says Michael Buckner, a Michigan attorney that advises colleges on how to comply with the complex rules of the NCAA.

Indeed, in an era when new sports and entertainment facilities are being built as fast as 19th-century gold-rush saloons, and professional athletes' salaries are reaching nine figures, the ideal of the amateur athlete may fast become a thing of the past. Even as the NBA is planning a development league for college-age players, many are clamoring for the NCAA to change the stringent rules that keep student athletes from any kind of compensation. But how should they be paid?

"Do you give them a stipend, like you give work-study students, or do you try to pay them according to their market value?" says Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in Northampton, Mass. "If you do the latter, I think that they really can't be students anymore since that violates academic culture."

But Professor Zimbalist and others believe that may not be such a bad thing. For his part, Zimbalist, who wrote "Unpaid Professionals: Commercialism and Conflict in Big-Time College Sports," believes there should be certain slots for nonmatriculating athletes who would be paid as professional minor leaguers.

"They wouldn't be students," he says, "and they wouldn't be put through some fraudulent process to make them eligible and to keep them eligible. They wouldn't be put through fraudulent academic support systems, which dilute the whole academic environment by creating vacuous courses."

The benefits of such a reform would not only be more fair to the athletes, proponents contend, they would also quell some of the current abuses within the system, like surreptitious payments.

Many point out that under the current system, college athletes face more financial difficulties than other students do. The practice and travel schedules of most high-profile sports preclude student athletes from working, and many of them have trouble paying even for small things.

"A lot of the students didn't have the money to do normal things like order pizza, go on a date, wash clothes," says Mr. Buckner. "If there were some sort of properly structured stipend system, or a way to pay players in order to cover normal student activities, that might benefit student athletes and make them more a part of the student experience."

Setting athletes further apart

But whether it's paying all athletes a modest stipend or giving stars a market-value salary, many in college sports are wary of any kind of two-tier system that officially sets apart athletes on campus.

"Right now, what they're getting in return for athletic participation is a free education," says Mark Murphy, director of college athletics at Colgate University in Hamilton, N.Y. "Maybe the best thing we can do is to figure out how we can make sure that they're getting an education, they're getting their degrees, and getting a return on the time they put in."

Jim Klapthor, a former college football player who went on to become a radio sports news director, believes athletes are already separated enough from campus life. "This is another step moving away from giving all the students on campus a broad experience of what it's like to be a college athlete," he says.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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