Mark Story: With NCAA weakened, is there a way to pay the athletes and save college sports?

Herald-Leader Sports ColumnistJanuary 24, 2013 

What if major-college sports dropped all pretense of amateurism, adopted the Olympics model and allowed athletes to make whatever amount of money that the free market will yield?

After the latest fiasco — the compromised Miami Hurricanes/Nevin Shapiro investigation — in what has been a very bad stretch for the credibility of NCAA enforcement, some of the sharpest minds in the sports commentariat are calling for a cataclysmic upheaval in the way college athletes are governed.

Dan Wetzel, the Yahoo Sports columnist who is exceedingly well-versed on the financial structure of big-time college sports, argues that the defining issue undermining the NCAA is the attempt to deny college athletes the one thing pretty much all other Americans take for granted:

The right to make whatever the market will bear.

His proposed solution is to do what the Olympic movement eventually did: Allow athletes to accept corporate sponsorships, make commercials, take cash from interested fans, essentially earn money however they legally can from their sports celebrity.

What that is not is a proposal that colleges pay players.

Under this particular plan, the universities themselves would continue to provide all their athletes scholarships only. The star football quarterback and the backup volleyball libero would get the same financial aid from the school. That, in theory, could meet Title IX gender equity requirements without sabotaging the paying of a market rate to star players.

The football quarterback could do advertisements for a local car dealer, sign a clothing deal or eat free at the best restaurant in town. The same opportunity would be available the backup libero and to all other of a school's scholarship athletes — depending on their commercial appeal.

Would standout athletes in popular sports, mostly football and men's basketball, end up making more than most other scholarship players? Yes.

Would a school like, oh, Alabama have boosters willing and able to pay its players far more than, say, UAB would? Absolutely.

In the "real world," we accept such inequality as a by-product of freedom.

Such a proposal puts the students in college sports on the same economic plane as the adults.

As Charlie Strong and his new $3.7 million contract remind us, the big-time college coaches are reaping a vast economic bonanza. Yet we continue to try to hold the players to an idea of amateurism that was outdated in the 1920s.

An "Olympic-style" approach to player remuneration would also allow the NCAA — or whatever college sports governing body takes its place — to radically reshape its approach to enforcement.

Some things that are now NCAA violations are ethically dubious. Cheating on a college entrance exam to get the star basketball player eligible or having the football recruiting coordinator writing papers for a player's classes violate the academic integrity of a school and are wrong.

Conversely, a booster sending a star player $1,000 is against NCAA rules, but in a broader context, it is not "wrong."

In a free economy, one has the right to spend one's money as one sees fit.

Of course, the reason there are so many NCAA rules is the desire to create "a level playing field." Those advocating for an Olympic-style approach in college athletics seem to envision a world without any "equalization standard."

That could be interesting.

In a college sports world with no limits on outside player income, job one for every athletics director in the country becomes finding deep-pocketed boosters to pay players in as many different sports as possible.

Can you imagine the bidding war between Oklahoma State uber booster T. Boone Pickens and Kentucky financial backer Joe Craft if a top high school hoops star was picking between the Cowboys and the Wildcats?

Arkansas mega-booster Jerry Jones might end up paying the football Razorbacks almost as much as his Dallas Cowboys.

All three of the major American pro sports leagues have some kind of salary cap trying to maintain financial competitiveness. The Yankees need the Royals and the Indians to at least be credible opponents.

It's not certain you could remove amateurism from big-time college sports without some mechanism that ensures there is a level of reasonable competition, at least within conferences, in how players are paid.

I am sure that the current model of major college sports — a multi-billion-dollar industry in which the adults can make all they can but the students have their economic rights restricted — is unfair and needs to change.

Mark Story: (859) 231-3230. Email: mstory@herald-leader.com. Twitter: @markcstory. Blog: markstory.bloginky.com

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