I've been sitting on a post about the possibility of paying college athletes for quite some time. Joe Nocera, an op-ed columnist for the NY Times, wrote a fairly lengthy article on December 30th about the idea of paying the student athletes who generate the most revenue, particularly the men's football and basketball teams. If you are interested in reading his justifications and proposed pay scale, you can find it here. However, my take-away after 6 pages of reading was that, in my book, it's impossible.
First of all, Title IX would never let sports officials get away with not paying the women. And, let's face it, the women would never get paid. The cold, hard truth is that even during Pat Summit's heyday at the University of Tennessee, when the women were winning national championships, they still didn't bring in 1/3 of the money that the men's NCAA championship does. Is it fair or right? No. Does it happen? You bet your balls it does. Forget the University of Kentucky's women's gymnastics team, who has won more national championships than I can even count. No one is hyping them or offering limited posters leaving thousands of fans wanting more. But I guarantee they have an Anthony Davis-level athlete on that team. As a Kinesiology major, I attended class with and worked out next to student athletes across all sports. The cheerleaders did so many lunges that I don't know how their quadriceps didn't just fall right off the bone. The gymnasts could suspend themselves, upside down, in mid-air for as long as they desired. No one can argue with me that those athletes deserve anything less than what the football and basketball teams are getting.
I was saving this soapbox monologue until after March Madness, when all of the star athletes would be trading in their books for Beamers and heading off to the siren call of the NBA. But then Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, one of UK's fabulous five, made an announcement during a post-game press conference last week. He said, "I will graduate from the University of Kentucky." Uh...maybe he said UK, I can't remember. But the statement silenced a growing suspicion that he and Anthony Davis would go skipping off into the NBA sunset, hand-in-hand. It also made the press chortle. Aloud. To which he replied, "I'm serious!" And everyone in Big Blue Country says We'll see about that, babycakes.
But it raises a deeper question. Why are we so quick to dismiss a star athlete's decision to graduate from college? When did we become so cynical about students staying after such a stellar season? Perhaps because they are one and done. All. the. time. Before the parking lots are even empty, they are planning for the draft, seeing dollar signs in the stoplights, and buying their mommas that big fancy house she has always wanted on credit. The idea of a "free" college education...a chance they were given because they have a talent that is in demand...is easily sacrificed. Throwing away a higher education in the pursuit of money. It seems counter-intuitive but it happens after every season.
Until last week, I was honestly on the fence about paying college athletes. Gender and "lesser" sports teams aside, it seemed fair that those who bring in the most revenue should see a little of it in their bank accounts. After all, any student athlete will tell you that playing a sport in college is a job. It's almost a full-time job. And then to remain eligible, they have to keep their grades up, too. I will never tell an athlete, regardless of what sport they play and how much money their team generates, that they don't deserve to be paid in some fashion. But the idea is that a free higher education with room and board is payment. There are high school seniors who graduate and can only dream of going to college. So to be handed a full scholarship is an opportunity that shouldn't be wasted.
I think we, as sports fans and universities alike, are way out of bounds. When we assume (even encourage) our draft-worthy student athletes will walk away from a fully funded education for the chance to make millions. In my opinion, a college education, when applied, is worth millions. Of course people will argue that the longer they play for a college team, the increased likelihood that they will be injured, thus ending their NBA dreams. But more often than not, that happens anyway at some point during an athlete's career. There's a chance that athlete will make millions before he's injured...or it could happen in his first game. But what does it say about our society when we audibly scoff at a player for suggesting he'll play all 4 years instead of the one and done? We're being surpassed everyday by China, India, and Japan. Maybe it's time to get our heads back in the game.
I honestly wrote this to get your feedback. I think the idea of paying college athletes fuels a fiery debate that people find themselves definitively on one side or the other. Thoughts? Opinions? Anyone a former student athlete who would like to weigh in on what it would like to be paid?