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OP-ED | Historic Championships Won: Now Pay the Players

by Susan Bigelow | Apr 11, 2014 9:00am
(12) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Education, Opinion, Sports

Peter Casolino / New Haven Register

Shabazz Napier and his teammates with the UConn men’s basketball team are honored with a ceremony in Gampel Pavilion after returning home with the NCAA Basketball Championship title on Wednesday.


It’s been an amazing year for Connecticut basketball. Both the men and women won national championships, making our little state the center of the basketball world. The tournaments were incredibly lucrative for everyone involved — except the actual players.

That needs to change.

I should admit that Huskymania is one of those things that somehow passed me by. I’ve watched some of the games, but college basketball never grabbed me. It probably has something to do with the fact that we moved here from out of state, no one in the family went to UConn for undergrad, and our sports habits were pretty firmly rooted elsewhere.

But college football? That I get. It makes no sense to outsiders that 110,000 people will cram themselves into cold, uncomfortable stadiums to watch Penn State crush Bowling Green, but they do. For years, I was one of them. I went every year, sometimes twice, to see them play.

The team’s fortunes waxed and waned, but there was always some new way to squeeze more money from fans and sponsors. Additions were built on to the stadium, new luxury boxes were created, and ticket prices went up. Pennsylvania State University was making fistfuls of money off of the Nittany Lions, but the young men on the field saw none of it.

The reason why has to do with the NCAA itself, which basically exists to keep the money flowing and preserve the ideal of “amateurism” in college sports. This is a noble goal, and ostensibly that’s why college players don’t get paid.

However, there’s a couple of massive holes in the theory.

First, the NCAA pulls in astonishing amounts of revenue. The television rights for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament alone generated $680 million this year. College sports in this country generate literally billions of dollars for universities, leagues, marketers, retailers and more. The players may be “amateurs,” but nobody else around them is.

This isn’t to say the players get nothing, though. They get scholarships to universities, often a full ride. That’s pretty decent in an age of rising tuition costs.

But do they get much of an education? And if so, how much is that education really worth to them? There’s plenty of stories out there of academic fraud, where players take no-show or laughably easy courses in order to remain eligible. So what happens to players who take those classes when they graduate, if they don’t make it to the pros?

A full scholarship doesn’t necessarily cover all costs, either. What really gets me is a story from star UConn point guard Shabazz Napier, who says that he would go to bed “starving” because he couldn’t afford food. This is just monstrous; he brings in millions for the university and has to live in poverty? His coach is one of the highest-paid state employees.

What the NCAA’s insistence on amateurism does more than anything else is enable a shadow culture of corruption. If players get desperate, they will find ways to get what they need, and since they’re surrounded by wealthy coaches and boosters it’s not hard to do.

I’m eerily reminded of how members of our part-time, underpaid legislature are prone to corruption scandals. They don’t get much money for tons of work, and yet they’re surrounded by a glitzy lobbying culture that’s all too willing to throw money at them.

The best way to create corruption is to make people who need actual compensation pretend that the only reason they’re doing back-breaking work is for the sheer love of the game. The ideals of a part-time, citizen legislature and amateurism in big-time college sports make us feel good about sports and democracy, but they are both relics of the past that cause more problems than they solve.

That can change. Rep. Pat Dillon, D-New Haven, is studying whether the state should allow college athletes to unionize. Shabazz Napier thought a ruling allowing players at Northwestern University to unionize was “kind of great,” adding, “. . . When you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.”

Connecticut’s legislature should move forward with pro-player legislation. Unions may not be the best way to go, but the mere suggestion of them may be a way to force some change on an institution that desperately needs it. In what might be the most telling statement of all, NCAA president Mark Emmert said unions would “. . . blow up everything about the collegiate model of athletics.”

Good.

Susan Bigelow is an award-winning columnist and the founder of CTLocalPolitics. She lives in Enfield with her wife and their cats.

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(12) Comments

posted by: robn | April 11, 2014  11:31am

I guessed the union captive legislature would get around to this. There’s no pile of money that they aren’t salivating over. How about NO.

Universities are for learning and growing both physically and mentally. Compensation isn’t a solution to a lack of education; education is the solution to a lack of education. BTW, bad example Susan. Last fall 50 Nittany Lions were above 3.0, 13 made deans list, 4 had 4.0s, and the team avg GPA is consistently above school average.

If students want to make money, go pro. If you wan to go to college, go to college.

And its time for the legislature to stop regarding every income source as “capacity”.

posted by: Nutmeg87 | April 11, 2014  11:42am

This is a bad idea.

This is simply “prisoners dilemma” again - No different than what the Multi-National Corporations deal with every day in the real world.

If a few schools elect to pay…  Good for them - they will initially recruit the kids that were at the “margin” whether to go to that school…  But soon enough, more and more schools will offer $$$.  Then what?  All you are doing is starting/escallating an arms war for kids…  This is where all pro sports have gotton to - Then to realize that NOBODY ultimately makes $$$ and the small programs bow-out and a collective agreement is reached among the oligopolists to streamline salary caps & regulate recruiting & new rules will be put in place for the overall health of the sport… Otherwiswe, only the BIGGEST programs can afford to play.

This is PRO SPORTS.  College SHOULD REMAIM an inter athletic league of similarly minded ACADEMIC institutions that use the sport for college spirit and culture.  Let kids have a chance to be kids and let the majority of players WHO ARE NOT GOING PRO have an education and a chance to make something of their future.

Believe me, if Colleges must pay…  UCONN WILL NOT BE ABLE TO COMPETE WITH THE VENERABLE LIKES OF UCLA, MICHIGAN, PENN, ILLINOIS, ETC…  NEVER MIND THE PRIVATE INSTITUTIONS…

IF KIDS REALLY ARE THAT GOOD…  THEY CAN SKIP COLLEGE AND MAKE HAY (i.e., Koby Bryant)...  Unfortunately there has never been a UCONN recruit who had the talent to go PRO from High School…  These kids go to UCONN to get the ONCE-IN-A-LIFE chance to get trained by Calhoun. Without Calhoun we would of never sent that many kids to the PROs…  Ask any Hoops afficiano, UCONN rarely will get a McDonald’s All-Star EVER—-  They all go to Duke, UNC, KY, UCLA, STANFORD, MICH, etc…  Despite the 4 NCAA trophies - top kids will rather go to those schools than Storrs, CT… And they can also better afford to play an arm race too…

posted by: Greg | April 11, 2014  1:40pm

I found this to be a compelling article on the assigned topic until i read this:

“I’m eerily reminded of how members of our part-time, underpaid legislature are prone to corruption scandals. They don’t get much money for tons of work, and yet they’re surrounded by a glitzy lobbying culture that’s all too willing to throw money at them.”

This has to be satire. Has to be. 

Legislators run for office to be public servants…meaning they quite literally serve the public, the interests of their constituents, and the greater good of the citizenry.  I, nor anyone who votes and pays taxes will ever accept some excuse for poor, unethical behavior—illegal or otherwise—due to “underpayment” and the temptation of graft.  False, false, false. 

It should be the exact opposite:  No salary, no special license plates and parking privelages, no special title-related pay for “leadership” positions (read:minority deputy adjunt whip, et al), no pension.  Want to serve the public as a lawmaker, do it out of a strong sense of public service and self sacrifice for the greater good, and be subject to term limits.  Period.  And for how much this legislature has screwed up the state they should be paying the taxpayers damages for decades of corruption and outright poor public policy decisions that produced a stangant economy and the highest cost and tax burden in the country.

posted by: IOU | April 11, 2014  6:45pm

IOU

Benefits okay but no CT cash please.

posted by: Susan Bigelow | April 11, 2014  7:46pm

Greg, if people don’t get paid to serve the public, then the only people who will be able to afford to do so will be independently wealthy.

posted by: art vandelay | April 12, 2014  3:41pm

art vandelay

Susan,
I have to agree with your 100% on this one.  I attended a state university with a high profile Division 1 football & basketball program. I lived in the dorm with the football team. Believe me the athletes weren’t “students” by any stretch of the imagination. The athletic department provided tutors, and even had copies of the tests used in classes. Some students even drove around campus in new Lincolns.  It was all hush hush.  I’m sure these things go on today.  I was witness to it all.  Division I programs are nothing but free farm systems for the NFL & NBA.  The athletes should get paid for their efforts especially with the millions the athletic departments rake in year after year.  The sad thing with UCONN is that the athletic department makes millions yet the average student next year is facing another 6% increase in tuition.  That’s a travesty.

posted by: wmwallace | April 13, 2014  4:01pm

Sorry but the student athletes get a free education to one of the finest institutions in the country. To say they should be paid, just throws out the whole student athlete out the window. If this is the route you want to go then just have minor leagues sports as they get paid. Nothing can substitute what some student athlete gets from going to college. Friends for lives and stories to tell their children and grandchildren for years to come.

No pay for play.

posted by: art vandelay | April 13, 2014  8:33pm

art vandelay

@wmwallace,
I’d agree with you if they were “Student Athletes”.  Problem is most are NOT!  They are there to play sports hoping for a chance at the big times.  Academics are a distant second.  Personally I’d like to see the NCAA abolished and have the NBA & NFL pick up the tab for a farm system. That’s all Division I athletics is today, a free minor league for the pros.

posted by: robn | April 13, 2014  9:38pm

SUSAN,

Thanks. Please share your theory of adequate compensation with those in New Haven (ironically the union supermajority) who (conveniently) romanticize about unpaid citizen legislators and claim that shrinking and professionalizing the Board of Alderman is an anathema to democracy.

AV,

Your school is what the NCAA death penalty was meant for. A lack of integrity among some institutions with large and tainted athletic programs doesn’t strip meaning from the pairing of athletic and intellectual achievement that’s the bedrock of a classical western education.

posted by: justsayin | April 14, 2014  9:04am

Susan, piles of money? I remember an SI article that showed only a handful of athletic programs “made money”. Is this still the case? This is what we need to know before you drone on about paying these kids. Think tuition is high now, just wait. Wait until schools become “sport specific” and drop the outliers to fund their core competencies, ex: UCONN drop football, loosing money, to bolster BB and soccer sports where they actually compete. Paying kids is a bad idea, compensaton is possible but not thru union or pay.

posted by: Greg | April 14, 2014  5:31pm

Susan- You make a fair point, however your assertion that public officials are more prone to corruption due to inadequate compensation is downright offensive to many of us who believe our public servants should be held accountable for their actions and uphold some manner of ethical behavior regardless of how much they are paid.  Does this mean the local school boards or town councils who may or may not receive any compensation are the most corrupt of all? This logic fails. Not to mention, a good number of these folks are likely independently wealthy (as you note), fairly well compensated in their day jobs (i.e. lawyers, business owners, et al), and also have the option to become those much-hated yet well paid lobbyists after they leave public service.  OR, springboard into Congress where they’re underpaid at $176k/year, plus perks & expenses, plus pension after 5 years as one fine Senator recently asserted to the media.

Given the sheer range of state legislative compensation—with or without per diem—I can’t imagine corruption in a highly paid state (NY, CA, MI, PA all above $70k/year) is less corrupt than CT’s $26k, or even TX $7,200/yr or Gasp! New Hampshire’s $200 for a 2 year term and no per diem. 
http://ballotpedia.org/Comparison_of_state_legislative_salaries

So, how about that gun controlling State Senator Yee guy in CA who wasn’t happy with his $97k/year + comp so he felt the need to traffic guns for California gangs?  .

Allegedly.

Highest paid legislature at a touch under six figures…Shocking!

posted by: Salmo | April 15, 2014  1:12pm

“Division I programs are nothing but free farm systems for the NFL & NBA. ” Amen! And… this is where the problem is. Maybe this is what needs to change. This “boil” has been festering for a long time. Maybe it’s long past time to clean this mess up and have colleges and universities get back to the business they were intended for. I won’t be holding my breath waiting.