Higher education is increasingly a racket, but the scandal lately being contrived over the refusal of colleges and universities to pay the athletes in profitable varsity sports programs is the least of it.
Yes, through the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association the schools conveniently prevent themselves from paying the athletes, thereby reserving to the schools themselves the billions of dollars in annual revenue from gate admissions, broadcasting of games, and merchandising.
But no college student has to play varsity sports and no students would play if there wasn’t something in it for them besides money, if only their love of the game.
First is the scholarship many players get.
Then there is the de-facto apprenticeship to the professional leagues that comes with a college varsity career, college sports being essentially the minor leagues for basketball and football.
For those players who aren’t good enough for the pros, there’s always a college degree, even if it’s only in silliness like sociology or shrubbery pruning.
Connecticut U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy complains that the billions in college sports revenue “disproportionately goes to coaches’ salaries and lavish facilities instead of student aid,” but that’s misleading.
Varsity sports revenue supports many college employees, and many college salaries are excessive, especially at Connecticut’s public colleges, though Murphy has never complained about them. As for “lavish facilities,” they are needed to attract students, as Connecticut has seen from the fortune it has spent improving its flagship state university in the last 20 years. Successful varsity sports programs are themselves attractions to students and sustain public support for higher education, as the basketball programs at UConn have done.
That is, while the money from college varsity sports might be more fairly distributed, it already broadly supports the sponsoring institutions.
But suppose that varsity players were to be paid. Good luck to anyone who wants to try devising such a system.
Should players all be paid equally throughout the NCAA or equally on their team or should they be paid for performance? Should they simply receive a fixed percentage of the revenue their teams earn?
Should they have contracts, and, if so, of what duration? What of competition for players among colleges? Should players be free agents? Should colleges be able to trade them?
A bigger question may be whether, if college players are to be paid and thus to become professional, they should have to be students at all.
Of course for many players their designation as “student athletes” is already a polite fiction, with the most skilled not seeking higher education as much as a short stint in the minor leagues that will advance them to the majors.
So why bother with the pretense of being a student? Why not let any athletically talented kids try out for any college team? Combined with a salary, this might be the most democratic option.
However it is done, paying college players will end what’s left of the romance of the “student athlete,” the suggestion that kids play for the love of the game and the honor of their school, though there always will be far more players like that than those who realistically can pursue a big payday.
Chris Powell is a columnist for the Journal Inquirer in Manchester, Connecticut.