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Let College Athletes Rake It In

Vivek Rao

Anybody who followed college basketball in the early 1990s will have no trouble conjuring up images of the “Fab Five.” A quintet of University of Michigan freshmen, led by future NBA stars Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, and Juwan Howard, transformed their program into a national powerhouse, using their exuberance, flair, and skill to put the Wolverines on the proverbial map. You might be surprised to know, then, that today, a visit to Ann Arbor or a simple glance through a team media guide would yield little evidence that the Fab Five even existed, with absolutely no mention of the team’s Final Four appearances, current Sacramento Kings megastar Webber, or the massive number of victories accrued during Michigan basketball’s most glorious era.

The cause of all this disregard for history are a number of National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) violations committed by Webber and other Michigan players, many of who received large sums of money from outside parties during their college days. Under the current system, the NCAA enforces a wide array of strict rules intended to keep college sports as “amateur” as possible. The effects of these rules range from preventing any sports-related income for college athletes to making sure they do all their coursework on their own. Yet as completely entrenched as this system is, a recent proposal in Nebraska’s unicameral state legislature could open the floodgates for major changes.

On Jan. 22, state senator Ernie Chambers backed a bill that would demand that football players at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln be payed a monthly stipend and be treated as university employees. That football program happens to be one of the most successful in the country, with several national championships, and maximum exposure. Many of the players who don a Cornhuskers jersey and step on the field will eventually earn paychecks for doing the same thing at the professional level in the NFL, but being paid for games and practices in college would be a revolutionary policy.

This is clearly an issue that has weighed on Chambers’ mind for some time. He proposed a similar bill in 1980, and in 1988, yet another manifestation of the proposal succeeded in gaining the approval of the state legislature, only to be struck down by a governor’s veto. There is evidence to indicate, however, that this time around may be different, especially after current governor Mike Johanns indicated last week that he was in favor of the bill.

Whether or not the Nebraska bill passes, it is an important reminder of an issue that merits serious discussion in other states around the country, and perhaps even at the national level. Major college sports has become a massive industry, generating large amounts of revenue, and for some teams, major profit. There is a growing segment of the population that feels that the players, as the ones who score the touchdowns, hit the home runs, and most importantly of all, draw the fans to the seats and televisions, should see some fraction of the profit.

The reasons cited by many of these people, including Chambers, are numerous. For starters, many college players, like Chris Webber and some of his Michigan Wolverine teammates, receive money under the table anyway. Also, a number of athletes come from poor families, many of which even with a full-tuition scholarship cannot afford the costs of a college education. The reason perhaps most stressed by Chambers is that so many non-athletes are profiting off of college sports.

While awarding sportsmen a monthly stipend certainly seems like a good idea, these are not the right reasons for changing the status quo. The only real issue to be considered here is time. Given the amount of time that some collegiate athletes spend practicing, traveling, and competing for their respective teams, it is almost absurd to demand them to expect nothing financial in return.

These young men and women are at college to learn first, play sports second. While there are those select few who will end up signing multimillion dollar contracts and shoe deals, the vast majority of Division I athletes will never even catch a whiff of professional sports. If colleges plan to continue to force student-athletes to place such a high emphasis on commitment to sports -- a separate debate for a later date -- they should at very least pay them as if it is a regular job.

In an ideal world, major college sports could be far simpler. The time commitment involved should not really exceed several hours of practice a day, games, and the occasional road trip for away games. Practically speaking, however, this is far from what happens. With long preseasons, holiday tournaments, and extensive regular season and postseason traveling, sports inevitably ends up as the primary focus of a Division I athlete’s life, at least in-season. Given that colleges seem determined to continue their quest for profit through sports, they should at least be required to award a stipend to the men and women who devote such a large portion of their valuable college years to their teams.