Further Review: It pays to have amateur athletes
Column by Ken Cohen
August 30, 2013 I heard two ESPN broadcasters, Tony Kornheiser (whose knowledge and opinions I respect) and Keith Olbermann (who continues to waste a perfectly intelligent mind) talking about paying college athletes. Both agreed the time is long overdue. Their argument, like many before them, essentially singles out the athletes as the only ones not profiting from big-time college sports. The schools, the coaches, the leagues, the NCAA, the towns and cities virtually everyone and anything connected to college athletics seem to be making something.
A very valid point, one that has been profferred many times before. While I understand the premise and concur that big money is being made off them, I still believe college athletes should remain unpaid amateurs. Here's why:
First, it's not exactly true that college athletes don't get paid. Those on scholarships receive four years of college for free. At some places, that's equivalent to $200,000. I can tell you there are many, many kids and parents who would like to get "paid" those scholarships.
Kornheiser and Olbermann maintain that scholarships are worthless for the vast majority because they are not interested in a degree. They have to go to college because that is the minor leagues for football and basketball. While sad, it's probably true. But only for a very small number. Ninety-eight percent of college athletes do not go on to professional ball. They need jobs. That $200,000 education is very worthwhile.
As for the small percentage that do find work as a professional athlete, they get paid extremely well. Millions and millions of dollars. The internship they serve in college is more than rewarded when they turn pro. You could say their time in college is not unpaid, but simply deferred.
My big question to Kornheiser, Olbermann and other proponents of paying college athletes is how would you do it? First, where is the money coming from the colleges themselves? Would it apply to all sports or just football and basketball the big money-makers. Would all players from all teams be compensated or just those schools that derive money from their programs?
Let's face it, not every Division 1 football and basketball team turns a profit. In fact, it could be argued there are just as many that lose money as make. How can you ask schools that are losing money on sports, even football and basketball, to pay their players?
Even within the big income-producing programs, would you pay every player on the team? Some never see a minute of action why should they be compensated for not playing? If I'm a taxpayer supporting a public institution, I would have a big problem watching my tax dollars going into the pocket of an 18-year old benchwarmer who is already receiving a free education on me.
How much do you pay the players and who determines their salary or stipend or whatever you want to call it? Can they negotiate their pay? Can they unionize? Would they be considered employees of the college? If so, are there now labor laws and tax implications that come into play?
I can raise many more questions about simply the execution and administration of paying college athletes, never mind the morality of it. Perhaps my biggest fear is that the last true bastion of amateur sports would vanish. The Olympics has already been stripped of its amateur roots. There really is no other sacred ground for amateurism than college athletics. There is still something very noble and equitable to me about theoretically playing high-level sports with no compensation involved. Bobby Jones, don't you agree?
Ken Cohen brings 30 years of publishing experience, many covering sports and working for sports companies, His column, “Further Review” appears every Friday.