Paying athletes for what they are worth

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For years, college athletics have been organized around the notion that participants in various sports are amateurs and “student athletes” whose main priorities are acing microbiology and discerning the finer points of Descartes.


And even the most casual followers of college and university sports, particularly at its highest levels, have long known that this is unadulterated balderdash. A quarterback at, say, the University of Georgia, or a point guard at Vanderbilt University, are almost certainly not overly preoccupied with how they fare in the classroom, but how they perform on the turf or the court; they’re putting all their chips there, hoping that gridiron or hoops success will lead to lucrative professional contracts and even greater glory.


That’s not how it unfolds for most college athletes, however. After their time providing bread and circuses for students and alumni comes to an end, they frequently end up walking away from the institutions for which they have been laboring without a degree, without any prospects, and with pockets that are completely empty.


A ruling by a federal judge last week promises to change that, though.


Coming down on the side of Ed O’Bannon, a former UCLA basketball star who was miffed to see his image in a video game for which he received not a cent in compensation, Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland, Calif., determined that O’Bannon, and other college players, deserved something more than scholarships and tuition reimbursement for the hours they put in for their schools and the megabucks TV contracts their feats generate.


She suggested the NCAA could cap the amount of money each athlete gets, but set the floor at $5,000, and that the money would be placed in a trust fund that could not be accessed until their time at a college or university is finished.


The NCAA said it will appeal, so this won’t be a settled issue for a while. But Wilken’s ruling, on anti-trust grounds, represents an overdue acknowledgement that extraordinarily profitable college athletic programs have, until now, been making money on the backs of students whose sweat fuels the system in the first place.


If the ruling stands, it assures that athletes will walk away with, at least, a small amount to show for their work.


In the course of the trial, O’Bannon, who now sells cars in Las Vegas after his professional career failed to catch fire, stated the obvious in his testimony: “I was an athlete masquerading as a student,” he said. “I was there strictly to play basketball. I did basically the minimum to make sure I kept my eligibility academically so I could continue to play.”


William Rhoden, a sports columnist for The New York Times, was even more blunt, saying that objections by Big 10 schools to paying athletes “reflects the hypocrisy of a system that uses young labor but prevents those laborers from profiting from their work.”


He continued, “This decision will prove revolutionary for college sports. The highly commercialized intercollegiate sports system that masquerades as an educational enterprise has been ordered to share its profits.”


Some who are crying foul have suggested that it would turn college sports into minor-league programs for professional football and basketball. But, c’mon, isn’t that just what they’ve been all along? That they have played an all-too-outsized role in the life of many schools – as we’ve witnessed over the last several years with the Jerry Sandusky scandal at Penn State – is something to mull over as football season gets under way in a couple of weeks.


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