To Play Or Pay?

By Michael-Louis Ingram
Updated: December 27, 2007

PHILADELPHIA — While in major shopping mode during the Christmas, I happened to come upon an interesting item.

In one of the bargain bins was a University of Michigan basketball jersey w/the number 4 emblazoned in the Maize & Blue front and back, selling for the sale price of $19.99.

Given the fanfare of the recruitment of the “Fab Five” freshmen – Juwan Howard, Ray Jackson, Jimmy King, Jalen Rose, and, No. 4, Chris Webber in the early 1990s, it’s safe to say no one else could ever be connected with that number other than the enigmatic and gifted power forward, who left school early and had a successful pro career.

But before Webber left, he and his talented tandem of teammates would bring the Wolverines to the NCAA’s Final Four twice, winning 56 games in the process and making the school a shit load of money with seemingly every Saturday afternoon television appearance.

Actually, according to figures calculated by the Collegiate Licensing Company cited in a USA Today article, the University made $18.9 million dollars in athletic royalties during the Fab Fives’ stay. Even when Webber left after two years, Michigan had accrued $6.8 million.

But in 2002, an indictment in a Detroit federal court charged a former University of Michigan booster with running an illegal gambling operation and money laundering. It claims he handed Webber over $250,000 in illicit loans (going back to when Webber was in high school as well as college), with more monies allegedly going to other former players as well.

Later, as a member of the Washington Wizards (nee Bullets), Chris Webber was ordered to pay back $100,000 U.S. to a booster that financially intervened on his behalf while at the University of Michigan.

A Wolverine teammate and fellow pro, Maurice Taylor, was later revealed to also be on a similar tab. Ultimately, Michigan ended up forfeiting all loot earned from post-season tournaments during that period.

In 1996, Denver Nugget forward/center Marcus Camby was found to have prematurely solicited an agent before his collegiate eligibility had lapsed. Camby’s school, the University of Massachusetts, was penalized with a fine and a revoking of their Final Four appearance. Cash advances to Camby were at the heart of the investigation.

While items like these make conversation for mass media sports consumption, the issue that always seems to be avoided is the financial compensation of student – athletes at whatever college or university.

Even Stevie Wonder can see collegiate athletics has become big business, and that’s no B.C.S. So big, in fact, the athletic departments are the cash cows for many of the schools across North America.

Revenue earned by a good Division I football or basketball team can fund a new microbiology lab or new law library and keep a school from drowning in red ink. With television and cable fighting for more sports programming, the search for talent has demeaned and distorted the concept of giving scholarships to deserving young people.

The most disturbing trend has been the commercialization of college athletics. There is a severe lack of concern as to whether student — athletes graduate or not — as long as the school’s brand makes money.

Admitting young men who make no illusion of what their intent is based on the National Basketball Association’s new rules on age requirement don’t help either. To receive a scholarship for college and enroll as a “one-and-done” before moving on to the pros virtually obliterates the concept of student- athlete.

But I’m not hatin’ here – just call it what it is. For all intents and purposes, when those stadiums and gyms fill up on game nights, everyone attended ain’t there to see the robotics division of their respective schools’ science departments toss test tubes at each other.

The attitudes of the schools have changed, as well. Some see these young people as nothing but cheap labor. Some college coaches, already under the gun to produce, turn a blind eye to academics in order to further their own personal agendas.

Even worse, if the young man or woman doesn’t have a good support system behind him, he or she can fall prey to people who wouldn’t ordinarily give them the time of day if they didn’t have the potential to make them lots of dough-re-mi, further making them vulnerable to rules violations and the scorn of media myrmidons poised to pounce on their shortcomings.

With the system as badly flawed as it is, you would think the governing bodies running collegiate sports would be working overtime to fix it, but their rhetoric smacks more of protecting an image than of finding a solution to the problem.

So until someone comes up with something better, let’s try this on for size. If a student athlete is given a scholarship to attend college, it’s supposed to be a win-win deal. When these kids are playing before thousands in the stands and millions on TV, they are not just student athletes; they are employees of the school because they are making money for the school.

In this aspect, they should be afforded the same benefits as anyone else working; like getting paid. Getting paid a significant stipend and being given a travel allowance or vouchers to visit family or a loved one during holidays will go a long way towards curbing corruption.

The kid that rushes 200 yards on Saturday afternoon but gets busted on Sunday because he stole an I-Phone to sell for food would no longer exist. Give sliding scale percentages based on a starting player to a supporting player to those team members who help the school win bowl games or tournaments.

Keep said cash in escrow, on the condition the money stays there earning interest until the student graduates, giving him or her that nest egg to help out with once they’re in the real world.

Giving student-athletes extra paid time for every completed year as a lettered athlete would help the student to better focus on his/her studies by taking fewer, but maybe better, courses per semester.

So even after eligibility ends, the student can now focus on their academic goal with less pressure. This may well encourage an increase in the number of graduate students still desiring to play and represent their school with genuine pride. Most important, both sides can take credit for fulfilling their obligation to each other.

That C-Webb would still be indirectly making money for the school after all this time in spite of his fine tells me all I need to know. I would dare say the University of Michigan had marked increases in enrollment and made a lot more than $100,000 during Chris Webber’s stay there.

I would further state that Michigan made much more than that selling his #4 Wolverine jersey 15 years later at $19.99 U.S. a pop.

So to all the schools that would have a problem with paying student-athletes, I say, open your books — the ledger books, that is — or shut up and do right by the kids by sharing the wealth and implementing some real change.

Before the next big scandal hits — and everyone starts talking bullshit and blaming the student-athletes that don’t get paid.