There’s gold in college sports ...

... and that’s the problem

Jim Young/Reuters/File
Officials from the National Labor Relations Board are seen leaving the Northwestern University campus in Evanston, Ill., after football players voted April 25 to determine if they want to form a union.

It can be argued that amateurism vanished quite some time ago in big-time college football and basketball. Today the major conferences serve as feeder systems into the professional National Football League and National Basketball Association; the most talented athletes see playing for these top college teams as the best route to a professional career.

A better way would have been a system of professional minor leagues, such as employed by Major League Baseball. There, talented players are drafted just out of high school; they hone their skills under professional coaches, finish maturing physically, and are modestly paid (for top prospects, generously paid) for their efforts. Some pro prospects still come out of college baseball programs, but even they spend time playing in the minor leagues.

Not so for college football and basketball. There, the geese began laying their golden eggs long ago, especially after the rise of cable TV and sports networks hungry for programming that would attract young and middle-aged male viewers to beer or truck commercials. Now these two college sports have become huge moneymakers for their universities, entertainment machines that have very little to do with education.

If fans want to see players taking the field or court strictly for the joy of athletic competition, or just for the honor of playing for the dear old alma mater, they should attend Division 3 small college games, where athletics is part of a rounded college experience and where few athletes harbor reasonable hopes of turning professional.

For years college athletes in big-time programs have seen the piles of cash their universities earn from the players’ essentially unpaid labor. (Athletic scholarships certainly count as some kind of compensation, but their value may vary widely from player to player. If a player learns little from his academic studies, fails to earn a degree, and fails to become a professional, has playing the sport measurably improved his future job prospects or quality of life?)

These athletes have a legitimate right to ask why they are not sharing in the financial bounty. The effort last spring at Northwestern University to form a college football players union has been one result. Last week a federal judge ruled in the so-called O’Bannon case that athletes in major college football and basketball programs have a right to be paid for the use of their names and images. While the ruling has a limited scope, it is likely only a harbinger of more to come.

How has the National Collegiate Athletic Association responded? Not by trying to end the madness of a “moneyball” era in college sports but by trying to manage it. If its new rules are approved by member schools, universities in the so-called Big 5 conferences – schools with the biggest budgets and highest sports revenues – could boost the value of athletic scholarships (in essence, give players a raise), offer better health insurance, and permit players to consult sports agents on the course of their careers.

Whether these concessions would end up satisfying top collegiate athletes remains to be see. But they do nothing to bring back the idea of the “student athlete,” a concept that now seems as quaint as raccoon coats and Model T’s.

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