Saturday, November 13, 2010

End the college amateur pretense

The exhibit today is Cam Newton, the remarkable Auburn QB and possible Heisman candidate. The allegation is that when he was on a recruiting trip to Mississippi State that his father or somebody purporting to represent him asked for a considerable sum of money for Cam to come to that school. No allegations of under-the-table money at Auburn yet, but it's now under investigation. Add the recent Sports Illustrated story by a former sports agent who detailed all kinds of fairly prominent athletes to whom he gave money ostensibly to secure representation (which the athletes in question sometimes just ignored when it came time to choose an agent, leaving open the question of whether they got more from some other agent) and it appears that "amateur" college athletics isn't so amateur. Then there's Reggis Bush deciding to return his Heisman Trophy even though he earned it on the field. And Enes Kanter, a Turkish-born basketball player at U Kentucky who has been ruled ineligible because he got paid while playing in a Turkish basketball league. Not that it ever has been all that pristine. Back in the day when my father got his MS from USC (late '30s) they were singing the song "Time out for old SC; the fullback wants his salary,"

The obvious solution is to stop pretending and just make it copacetic to pay college athletes to play. It would be open and above-board then. Schools that wanted a big-time athletic program would openly pay athletes to give it to them.

The cult of amateurism was invented by European aristocrats in the 19th century who figured it would be demeaning to compete against working-class stiffs (and quelle horreur, they might lose to them), so they invented an ideal of amateurism that pretty much nobody without inherited wealth could live with, since they needed some kind of money to live. Ever since it has been a source of endless hypocrisy.

The colleges that go in for athletic competition on a big-time scale make plenty of money, at least off the football and often off the basketball programs. But the athletes who make it possible get scholarships and meal money (and way back when I was at UCLA in the early '60s varsity athletes ate free in several Westwood restaurants) -- which in some ways is already a monetary inducement, but not as much as they might be worth to the schools. While attending college athletes risk a career-ending injury that could make it impossible for them ever to turn pro and get the kind of outsized return on their abilities that pro athletes get these days. Might it not be better if they got at least something while in college?

Colleges should bow a little more to reality and end this amateurism pretense. Pay the athletes who make the programs possible openly and above-board. It would be a potential boon to the thousands of athletes who are extremely good but not quite good enough to make it big in the pros. At least they would get a little something while in college.


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