Here’s what I found shocking about recent investigative reports from Yahoo! Sports about five SEC players receiving illegal benefits and Sports Illustrated’s exhaustive look at Oklahoma State’s rise to football prominence: Nothing.
Were the pieces troubling? Certainly. Did they expose the unseemly side of college athletes? Surely. Did they point out the corruption we know is present? Definitely.
Admit it: The notion of a true student-athlete is dead. Today’s players, especially those who play major college football and basketball, live in a world of big business, where everyone except those who actually play the game is rewarded handsomely.
Noted historian Taylor Branch said big-time college sports have become an extension of the plantation system. Even Walter Byers, who headed the NCAA for 37 years, had similar views about a system where great amounts of money end up in the hands of a few.
David Zirin, the first sports writer at The Nation magazine, shared this telling nugget with Bill Moyers on Moyers and Company last Friday. He endorsed the idea of college athletes getting paid. “I mean, think about it like this. Woody Hayes, he’s the coach over at Ohio State (from 1951 to 1978). His last year coaching there, he made $43,000 a year. Today the coach at Ohio State, Urban Meyer, makes $4 million a year as a base salary, $4 million a year.”
This is the same Ohio State University where some of the football team’s best athletes were suspended for several games because they sold the gifts they received at a bowl game to pay for tattoos. Players sell merchandise and get penalized, while a coach gets a raise equal to about 100 times the salary of his legendary predecessor, and there’s hardly a peep. Somebody, thanks to the NCAA, got a raw deal in Columbus.
College sports, especially football, have been a big – and profitable -- draw for a long time. But when new-found money entered the picture with the advent of cable television – an industry desperately in need of expanded programming – college sports teams and their conferences were anxious to cash in.
If ever there was a goose that laid golden eggs, this was it.
Everyone seemed happy with the windfall, except those providing the entertainment: the players. Their lot stayed about the same. No wonder a player like D.J. Fluker, who starred on Alabama's national championship team last season, would feel entitled to a little something in advance of his first pro paycheck. Same, in all likelihood, for Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, who must have understood the value of his autograph.
While reaching for riches, the powerful universities and their governing body – the NCAA – have created a monster. It’s a not-for-profit, big business trying to operate under an umbrella called amateurism.
The leaders of these prestigious universities, pragmatic as well as scholarly, must know that change is inevitable. Some observers call for the introduction of free market principals to benefit athletes, but that idea is fraught with problems. That system would just channel mounds of cash to the few celebrity stars at the expense of those outside the media spotlight.
Conference presidents are pressuring embattled NCAA president Mark Emmert to resolve these issues. At the same time the NCAA faces lawsuits from past and present players over the questionable marketing of their “likenesses” without compensation.
Elsewhere, some colleges are cracking down on athletes who see college ball as little more than a stepping stone to a livelihood in the pros.
In a recent article in Forbes, contributor Darren Heitner was critical of the University of Illinois for further limiting access by legitimate sports agents to athletes. If colleges were truly interested in protecting student-athletes, he argued, they wouldn’t promote behind-the-scenes communications and back-door dealings.
“But the truth is that the welfare of student-athletes is not the No. 1 priority; instead, it is the maintenance of scholarships, the preservation of wins and the ability to compete in bowl games (soon-to-be playoff games),” he wrote. “The hypocrisy runs rampant.”
College sports have traded their integrity for riches. But life hasn’t improved for the jocks. Some things just never change down on the plantation.
Tom Lindley is a sports columnist for the CNHI News Service. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.