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Friday, May 27, 2011

Pay for Play, Provided It's All-Inclusive

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Never mind what happened on a field or court last week. Several interesting news items got the Observers talking about issues of fairness, integrity and tolerance.

Frank
: Hey, buddy, you're ahead of your time.

Artie
: Hard to believe, since I lose a step every day. But enlighten me.

Frank
: Last week Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany said the conference has discussed the idea of paying student-athletes something beyond the value of their scholarships. And it didn't take long for bigwigs in other conferences to jump on board.

Artie
: Hey, you've heard me tout that for years!

Frank
: Exactly. Britton Banowsky of Conference USA had this to say: "Universities justify spending tens of millions of dollars on coaches' compensation... At the same time, a small fraction of that amount is spent on all scholarships for all student-athletes. Unless the student-athletes in the revenue-producing sports get more of the pie, the model will eventually break down."

Artie
: These schools are making so much money off these athletes! From tickets to T-shirts and whatever's in between.

Frank
: Money made on the athletes' efforts and images. As you've heard me say many times, the athletic departments at major schools are self-contained corporations whose purpose is to put out a winning—and therefore profitable—product.

Artie
: That's the America I know!

Frank
: Of course a scholarship athlete is compensated with a free education. But SEC Commissioner Mike Slive said, "We should revisit the current limitations on athletic scholarships by expanding to the full cost of attendance." At the NCAA, which presumably would have to approve this, a spokesman said the president, Mark Emmert, would favor a review.

Artie
: "Full cost of attendance." Like a new Xbox every year, ain'a?

Frank
: More like late-night pizzas or a dress shirt or travel home at Thanksgiving, I think. One conference chief, Jon Steinbrecher of the MAC, was cautious, saying, "Is this the right thing to do?... As an association the NCAA strives to differentiate intercollegiate athletics from professional sports, and it is important that we continue to maintain the collegiate model."

Artie
: Except that the "collegiate model," for many schools, is to siphon all sorts of stuff to top athletes—cars and bling and houses for their families—under the table through boosters or phony jobs or however else.

Frank
: Let's admit that these athletes are, effectively, employees of the school—or rather the athletic corporation affiliated with the school. Maybe paying them a couple of thousand bucks would reduce some of the abuses. But there are two issues of equality that must be addressed. One: Should it be based on a conference's ability to pay or enacted across the board?

Artie
: We already have six conferences dominating football revenue through the BCS. If The Big Ten, SEC and the like started paying players while the MAC and Mountain West decided they couldn't afford to, that would add to the fat cats' recruiting edge.

Frank
: Absolutely. If this happens, the NCAA needs to organize it on a countrywide basis. Sports is a business for every school.

Artie
: The NCAA is making billions from the TV rights to March Madness alone. It can spare a little of that for the kids it claims to care so much about.

Frank
: Here's the other equality issue, courtesy of ACC Commissioner John Swofford: "Could it be limited to only revenue-producing sports? I'm not sure we would want to do it. And from a legal standpoint, how does it mesh with Title IX?"

Artie
: Excellent point. The big-time schools would want to limit it to football and basketball. But that wouldn't fly.

Frank
: And it shouldn't fly. So what if an athlete is in a "minor" sport? Does a soccer player practice any less? Does a volleyball player's knee injury hurt any less? Does a rower or swimmer have any less of an academic load to balance? And as for Title IX, I can't imagine paying football players but not softball players would be legal.

Artie
: Besides, stars in the "major" sports already have big paydays coming as pros. If I were in a "minor" sport and only football or hoops guys were getting dough, I'd find a lawyer—and not a minor one.

The Road Gets Rougher

Frank: There's a new cloud of suspicion over Lance Armstrong.

Artie
: I just can't find a reason to care, but what's the latest?

Frank
: One of his former cycling teammates, Tyler Hamilton, told "60 Minutes" that Armstrong was using the so-called "blood doping" drug EPO when he started his seven straight Tour de France victories. Hamilton says he saw Armstrong inject himself with the stuff.

Artie
: Didn't another ex-teammate point the finger at him recently?

Frank
: Right. That was Floyd Landis, who was stripped of the 2006 Tour de France title for doping. As for Hamilton, the most telling thing he said about doping was, "We all did." And now he's surrendered an Olympic gold medal from 2004.

Artie
: Not exactly a couple of choir boys as witnesses.

Frank
: But CBS News also reported that a federal grand jury investigating possible drug use on the U.S. Postal Service cycling team has heard Armstrong identified as a user by George Hincapie, perhaps his best friend in cycling.

Artie
: The Postal Service has a cycling team? They could change their motto to "neither rain nor sleet nor rumors of blood doping" can stop the mail.

Frank
: Actually, the Postal Service stopped its cycling sponsorship a few years ago.

Artie
: How'd I miss that? I'm always the last to hear.

Frank
: Well, it goes to show that cycling is a niche sport, at best, in this country. And it may be the "dirtiest" sport, in terms of doping, in the world.

Artie
: Armstrong always notes that he's never flunked a doping test. But it wouldn't surprise me if he's been dirty all along.

Frank
: Marion Jones never failed a drug test, either, and always denied she cheated—until she admitted it. Mark McGwire and Alex Rodriguez eventually 'fessed up. And Armstrong's fellow cyclists have poisoned the atmosphere with their misdeeds.

Artie
: It's hard to believe that Lance would be virtually the only one of the top cyclists who didn't use. Maybe they should stop giving drug tests and go to lie-detector tests.

Frank
: It would save on lab costs.

Artie
: On the other hand, why not believe Armstrong? He's a genuine hero, a cancer-beater who's raised tons of money for research.

Frank
: True, but to me he's not especially likable. He just looks like a hard guy.

Artie
: Well, I don't care what he's like, I can't get into this at all. Bicycles! Put some baseball cards in the spokes and I'll pay attention.

Closer to the Real World

Frank: The U.S. military is moving toward implementing a law repealing the "don't ask, don't tell" policy, but big-time sports remains a place where that attitude is standard. But last week a couple of steps to change that were made.

Artie
: I know the president of the Phoenix Suns, Rick Welts, became the first major sports executive to declare that he's gay. He got strong support from Charles Barkley, who said he'd rather have a gay teammate who could play than a straight one who couldn't.

Frank
: Also, a prominent New York-area sports radio guy, Jared Max, duplicated Welts' announcement—adding that Barkley's comments "made me comfortable in doing it."

Artie
: We're getting closer to what would be the biggest sign of progress—an active player in a major men's sport coming out.

Frank
: Several former players have done so, like Dave Kopay in football and John Amaechi in basketball. In women's sports, Martina Navratilova came out in the 1980s at the height of her stardom. But there hasn't been a major men's sports star who's said during his career, "I'm here, I'm gay and I'm not going anywhere."

Artie
: It'll be a better day for everyone when that happens. If the military can see the way the world really is, the sports world should be able to.