Let Them Play for Pay, But Not in College

Why young ballers shouldn't be forced into the NCAA in the first place.

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finalfour2

University of Kentucky freshmen John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins didn't make it to the Final Four, where they could've played at least one more college basketball game before possibly bolting for the NBA. Otherwise, the young Wildcat players reached the pinnacle of their field, becoming the first freshmen teammates selected to the Associated Press All-America team. Along with another freshman, Derrick Favors of Georgia Tech, they're near-certain Top 5 picks if they decide to leave school for the NBA Draft. 

Who could blame them if they did? Well, you can always find someone spouting the same old, tired, politically-correct nonsense. For instance, take Washington Post education blogger Valerie Strauss. She wrote in March that "staying in school, and graduating, and then starting a career would be the best thing for every player. Suggesting otherwise is harmful."

No, what's harmful is the intellectually dishonest argument that signing multimillion dollar contracts is inherently a bad thing for young basketball (and football) players, but not for young golfers, tennis players, hockey players or baseball players. Numerous athletes in those sports begin their pro careers right after high school, which was the case in the NBA until the league colluded with its players' union to force teens into a one-year pit stop on campus. 

Of course we want every child to grow and develop. But not every child chooses higher education as part of the process, not even some who easily could graduate with honors. There are plenty of bright, high school grads who, for whatever reason, choose to make money instead of grades after the prom. Surely our society has room and a need for those skilled in trades and sales, degreed or not. And imagine if Broadway, Hollywood and the recording industry arbitrarily decided not to sign entertainers - no matter how gifted - under the same conditions. Imagine if Wal-Mart or McDonald's refused to hire workers who weren't at least one year out of high school. Imagine any employer, in any industry, refusing to hire fully capable individuals who had completed their compulsory education. 

We shouldn't deny that young men who are intelligent, honest and earnest can consider their options, weigh the plusses and minuses, and then decide that turning pro is the smart way to go. They can reach that decision coolly and rationally, with approval from their parents, some of whom own degrees themselves. You don't need an MBA to grasp the potential windfall. Last year's No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, Blake Griffin, signed a three-year deal worth $16 million guaranteed; No. 10 pick Brandon Jennings signed for three years and $6.9 million. (The NFL payouts are even greater, with last year's No. 1 pick Matthew Stafford guaranteed $41.7 million and No. 5 pick Mark Sanchez guaranteed $28 million). "I'd take the money," then-Fort Myers (Fla.) High boys' basketball coach Ed O'Brien told me a few years ago, asked what a high school star should do if he were a lottery pick. "With that money you can buy yourself a college. To me it's a no-brainer." 

I know it's hard to get worked up over basketball players waiting an extra year before they enter the NBA. You probably think it's no big deal that Wall, Cousins and Favors were banned from entering directly out of high school - the route taken by Kobe Bryant and LeBron James, among other All-Stars. So what if players have to spend a year in college, forced to delay cashing fat NBA paychecks? Well, it's a matter of principle, not to be blurred by the issue of principal. 

But don't get it twisted: Principle also makes me a staunch opponent of paying athletes who are in college. I know the sentiment seems noble, full of compassion and altruism, embedded with a sense of what's fair, what's just and what's right. However, it's as wrong as two left shoes. Consider this: Athletes already are paid via scholarships that cover room, board and tuition. That can amount to more than $212,000 over four years at Duke University, $141,000 at Michigan State, $133,000 at Bradley and $108,000 at West Virginia. And don't forget the price tag on airfare, hotel accommodations, personal training, equipment and enhanced meal plans. Never mind that, according to the NCAA, less than six percent of Division I athletic departments generated more revenue than expenses between 2004 and 2008.  

Besides all that, there's no suitable, equitable formula for paying college athletes. In 2003, Nebraska State Sen. Ernie Chambers introduced a bill that would require Cornhusker football players to be paid, which might make sense on the surface because football foot the bill for most powerhouse athletic departments. But what about at schools such as Georgetown and Villanova, where men hoopsters are the main breadwinners? And you certainly can't tell the amazing UConn women's basketball players that they don't deserve a check.

The same goes for pitchers, hurdlers and goalies in the "non-revenue" sports, who work just as hard as tailbacks and point guards, and need pocket money just as much. Even if you wrongly focus on football and men's basketball, problems persist. The star quarterback and the third-string tackle commit equal amounts of time and effort during the week. Could you really justify paying one of these students more than the other? And if an athletic program is in the red, do players have to refund the money? 

Thankfully, the old rip-off in which athletic departments withheld portions of the Pell Grant funds earmarked for qualified athletes ended in the early 1990s. Since then, the NCAA has softened its stance on positions such as allowing athletes to hold jobs, buy insurance and explore their draft status without losing eligibility. As long as the NCAA allows players to earn extra money like other students, the athletic scholarships and accompanying benefits are compensation enough. That's the fairest, most equitable way to "pay" all student-athletes on every campus. 

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