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June 6, 2011

Stop the NCAA Madness

Richard B. Weldon Jr.

Madness is an overused term that describes the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s (NCAA) annual basketball tournament in March of each year. Madness seems to be a fitting jump-off point for a discussion about the nature of amateur athletes and higher education.


For decades, headlines on sports pages across the country have featured the resignations of coaches, suspensions of players and criminal prosecution of alumni involved in under-the-table compensation of athletes.


It matters that our institutions of higher learning teach a sense of ethics and morality along with the more traditional courses of study. We’d really like our student athletes to actually obtain an education, preferably a degree in the bargain.


This seemingly noble goal is almost laughable in light of how major college sports program actually work.


The Division I scholarship program is no longer a path toward an education as much as it is the intake valve for a multi-billion dollar mega-industry built on sold-out stadiums, packed arenas and all manner of fan merchandising opportunities.


None of this works if not for the young superstar athletes at the front end. These children, many plucked right out of poverty, are courted and cajoled by an almost overwhelming onslaught of media, coaches and influential alumni.


In spite of aggressive rules enforcement over the years, investigators continue to turn up serious violations by all involved.


The latest example simply continues the pathetic trend. Ohio State University head football coach Jim Tressel has resigned under a cloud of suspicion and allegation. Several of his current players, including superstar quarterback Terrelle Pryor, are accused of selling or trading game-worn gear for cash. My favorite example is exchanging jerseys for tattoos, both painful and apparently profitable.


Coach Tressel’s sin, beyond getting caught, is that he lied to the NCAA and possibly attempted to cover up his lie. If true, he should be punished.


The larger question remains unanswered. How long will we allow this nonsense to go on? Do we really believe that the problem here is the greed of college-age student athletes, as opposed to the institutional thirst for the billions flooding into Division I schools?


A sad story is in order. A few years ago, a college football star pawned his national collegiate championship ring, presented to him by the same NCAA that would classify that sale as a violation of their conduct policy. Another illustrative example: Last year, one of the leading early candidates for a Heisman Trophy showed a reporter his jersey, being sold in a campus bookstore for $85. The athlete explained to the reporter that he couldn’t afford to purchase his own jersey.


This is not some lame attempt to engender sympathy for young people who run fast, throw a ball, or jump really high. Economic theory suggests that they’ll get their eventual reward, although they probably won’t get a degree. This is intended as an indictment of a system that creates the performance-driven ego of student athletes in order to sell tickets, jerseys and million-dollar luxury suites.


Is it Cam Newton or Terrelle Pryor’s fault that both Auburn or Ohio State universities feed off their particular football skills while raking in buckets of cash? Of course it isn’t.


So, who’s the real villain here?


Is it the young student/athlete literally overwhelmed by the privilege and bounty heaped on him by donors and sponsors?


Is it the coach, driven by the athletic director who demands victory, who passes up great students to pay for great performers to attend college?


Is it the university, so desperate to tap into those big television contracts and sponsorship deals that they wink and nod knowing that their institutions are rotting from the inside?


How about the NCAA itself? Part ethical watchdog, part negotiating representative trying to protect the huge financial investment that college sports has become.


The answer is to treat collegiate athletics for what it really is; a stepping stone to professional sports for many of the most talented and least scholastically inclined out there. Instead of pretending these children won’t be tempted by the underhanded dealings, cars, trips and cash, pay them a salary for their athletic performance along with the chance to get a degree. Let the universities tap into the broadcast contracts and gate receipts to cover the player’s salaries.


We might end this madness, once and for all.


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