Calling it was it really is

By Bob Kravitz
Updated: August 6, 2010

INDIANAPOLIS — When it comes to college athletics, everybody is allowed to make money, and the more of it, the better. Except for one group, the folks whose blood and sweat produce those cash bonanzas — the athletes. Consider what has happened in the past year or two: The conferences are expanding, adding millions of dollars to league coffers.

Conferences, led by the Big Ten, have developed television networks to buttress the bottom line. The Big Ten and Pac-10 — which will change its name to the Pac-12 — have enough teams to create a league title game, another financial windfall.

Basketball’s NCAA Tournament keeps getting bigger, and it’s only a matter of time before the jump from 64 teams to 68 teams turns into a come-one, come-all, free-for-all, further bolstering the NCAA’s and schools’ war chests.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with improving the bottom line and finding new ways to help pay for sports like water polo and volleyball.

There is, however, something very wrong, even criminally hypocritical, about denying the athletes — sorry, student-athletes — the chance to exploit the free market. Capitalism is fine for the plantation owners, but the workers are tethered to their overseers by restrictive rules and notions of “amateurism.”

How it is: Athletes are remunerated with scholarships.

How it should be: Athletes should be given the choice of a scholarship or a salary. Let’s say the average annual tuition in all colleges is $25,000 a year. Make that the number, then. I can guarantee you that 99 percent of all athletes would take scholarships, and less than a handful in each athletic department — the one-and-done basketball players, for instance — would take the cash. They wouldn’t be required to take classes. If the salaried players want to take some classes, fine. Pay for it out of your own pocket.

When I first offered this suggestion a few years back, then-NCAA chief Dr. Myles Brand took issue with the column in The Star. In part, he wrote, “Paying even only a few student-athletes would turn universities into entertainment corporations . . .”

Excuse me, but I think my head just exploded. What?

And what are they now? The expanded conferences, the TV deals, the enlarged NCAA basketball tournament, the billions of dollars flowing through the system . . .

looks like an entertainment corporation to me.

Maybe the incoming president, Dr. Mark Emmert, will be more enlightened, but given his charge to do the universities’ bidding, I rather doubt it.

How it is: Athletes can speak to advisers, but cannot have any financial relationship with agents, and cannot use an adviser/agent to help them navigate their way through college sports and into the pros.

How it should be: Athletes should be given the freedom to hire an agent without fear of losing eligibility, and that agent should be allowed to do what agents are supposed to do. Why can a grown adult hire an attorney to do his professional legwork, but a young man with so many options must rely solely on his parents and high school coaches — and maybe some unpaid agent who might not have his best interests at heart?

Understand, I wouldn’t want agents running after eighth-grade prodigies, then showering them with cash and gifts (Reggie Bush, et al) in the hope he will sign with the agency when he turns professional.

It’s already the Wild West out there, and it would only get worse. But I thought SEC commissioner Mike Slive made a good point recently, saying the NCAA rules “may be as much a part of the problem as they are the solution.”

In other words, stop the witch hunt and give athletes an opportunity to fairly avail themselves of an agent’s services.

I found it hilarious to hear Nick Saban, Alabama’s football coach and part-time paragon of virtue — I’m not going to be the coach at Alabama — dismiss agents as “pimps.” Pimps, by my definition, are people who use others’ labors to enrich themselves. And what are college coaches, exactly?

Sonny Vaccaro, the shoe-company impresario who has been a steadfast NCAA critic for years, put it pretty bluntly in an interview with AOL Fanhouse:

“What’s the difference between an agent and a runner, and a college coach and an assistant coach?” he wondered. “No difference, except the agent and the runner are going to make money off the individual, but the individual is going to get paid by a shoe contract or a pro contract. With the college coach and assistant coach, the player they’re recruiting gets nothing. But the coach gets a $3 million raise.”

Let’s put it all on the table here, on the table as opposed to under the table. We’re talking about minor-league sports, an entertainment enterprise, grown-up stuff.

Amateurism has been dead for decades.

Walter Byers, the longtime NCAA director who found religion on his way out the door, properly decried the “neo-plantation” that permeates college sports.

The NCAA and its member schools claim to be in the business of helping student-athletes. I’m hoping to receive a memo when that effort begins in earnest.