NCAA, Pay-for-play and the search for sympathetic victims

Monday night the Kentucky Wildcats men’s basketball team vanquished the Kansas Jayhawks to win their first national championship in 14 years and tie together several compelling subplots.

There’s the one about high-profile coach John Calipari delivering an NCAA crown to long-suffering fans who expect Sweet 16 appearances like the rest of us expect taxes.

And there’s the two-sided storyline about a Kentucky starting five stacked with stars a year or two out of high school. They’re either drive-through students who exemplify everything that’s wrong with college sports as they use UK to fast-track to the NBA, or they’re talented but raw youngsters who formed a cohesive team under Calipari’s wise guidance.

Either way, they’re winners who helped Calipari shed his reputation as a great recruiter and very good coach who can’t win when it counts.

Underpinning every one of those subplots, of course, is money.

A lot of it.

March Madness generated TV revenue in the high nine figures for the NCAA and winning the title capped a season in which Calipari collected $750,000 in bonuses.

In the lead-up to the championship game a growing number of well-informed, well-placed commentators pointed out the inherent unfairness in  system that lavishes cash on TV channels, cartels and coaches, yet punishes players for receiving payments.

National Football League Players’ Association executive director DeMaurice Smith recently told the New York Times his union is considering how to support the NCAA’s unpaid student-athletes, and as Bomani Jones wrote last January, the issue isn’t just about economics but also civil rights.

So what’s stopping a mass movement to compensate NCAA athletes from taking off?

Support is slowly growing, but given intense attention and big time college sports generates why isn’t the general public rallying for NCAA revenue reform the way the clamoured to ban steroids in Major League Baseball or mobilized online to stop Joseph Kony?

It’s probably the players themselves.

This isn’t to blame them for not getting paid. The athletes didn’t create the system that exploits them.

The problem is a lot of people don’t respond to right and wrong as much as they react to villains and victims, and the movement to compensate NCAA athletes doesn’t fit neatly into a good vs. evil, Russell vs. Kony construct. For many people, acting to fix an unjust situation demands not just easily identifiable sides to choose but a helpless and pristine victim around whom to rally.

NCAA athletes are neither. They have scholarships and break NCAA rules. They have tutors and miss class to travel to games. They strut around campus in team-issued gear and get coaches fired when they underperform or misbehave.

Simply put, jocks aren’t the sympathetic figures behind which mass movements quickly coalesce.

That doesn’t change the principle behind paying them, but it alters people’s perception of whether paying them is just.

Point out to people that college football and basketball players deserve payment for the obscene sums of money they generate, and the counterpoint often focuses on the non-monetary compensation they already enjoy.

Unlike other folks, most football and basketball players will leave school debt-free. They have profile on campus and nationwide, early registration to whatever class they choose and a springboard to pro careers, the argument goes. All these points may be true, but none of them affects the bigger principle that anyone whose hard work brings in revenue for others deserves a cut of that money for him or herself.

But for some reason we don’t recognize the principle itself, but only the extreme and unambiguous examples that highlight it.

So while the revelation that former Ohio State football stars like Terrelle Pryor traded autographs and merchandise for money and tattoos polarized sports fans and media, just about everyone with a pulse and passing interest and college sports agrees Jamar Samuels deserved a little money and a chance to play in March Madness.

Samuels is the Kansas State senior who, minutes before his team’s second-round tournament game, was ruled ineligible over illicit payments he had received from his AAU coach back home in Washington D.C.

It didn’t matter to the NCAA that the sum involved was trivial ($200), or that his former coach wired Samuels the money so Samuels’ mother could buy groceries.

For the NCAA a rule is a rule and violation is a violation. The NCAA’s strict controls on player income make no distinction between $200 and $2 million. And as far as the NCAA is concerned the longtime family friend who gave Samuels money for groceries may as well have been Nevin Shapiro handing him a stack of hundreds to buy lap dances.

Either way a player was paid, and the NCAA says paying players is wrong.

Except that preventing folks like Samuels to receive any cash from anywhere is indefensibly cruel, and we all realize it when right and wrong are so boldly delineated. But a closer examination of why we all agree Samuels deserves some money highlights the ridiculousness of the situation we’re in.

The near-unanimity of opinion that Samuels was entitled to some money stems not from the fact that he works 20-plus hours a week to help make Kansas State basketball a contender and a cash cow, but from the fact that his family’s broke. College athletes as a group may not be sympathetic figures but Samuels as an individual is — a young man from a poor family bullied and unjustly punished over $200. The seven-figure salaried suits running the multibillion-dollar NCAA can probably find more money than that between the cushions of their couches.

We perceive the disparity instantly, and against that backdrop paying Samuels isn’t a problem for most of us.

And that’s exactly what makes the issue so frustrating.

If we can accept paying players because they’re poor, why can’t we stomach paying them on principle? Whether a kid’s family is on food stamps or lives in a seven-bedroom house shouldn’t stop us from recognizing he’s entitled to payment for his effort, and his scholarship and free books don’t make him any less deserving of cash payment.

You might, for example, argue that Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez is overpaid, that doctors, teachers and social workers contribute much more to society for much lower salaries. But you can’t make the case that he doesn’t deserve a salary at all. His presence and performance generate revenue for Yankees’ ownership, so they pay him for his contribution to the bottom line.

Whether or not Rodriguez already has money doesn’t matter. Nobody asks him to play the second half of his career for free because the first half included a $252 million contract from the Texas Rangers. And nobody thinks his off-the-field income eliminates his team’s responsibility to pay him.

He’s part of a money-making machine, so he deserves make money. We understand that idea as it applies to pro athletes, corporate consultants, and WalMart employees, yet we hold NCAA athletes to a different standard.

Before we can accept the idea of paying them they have to prove to us they’re destitute. Otherwise we expect them to conform to a strict and arbitrary standard of amateurism imposed and enforced by the folks with the most to gain from free labour.

Truth is, NCAA athletes deserve payment because they generate revenue for athletic departments, boost brand equity for sponsors and move merchandise for licensees.

Scholarships, fame and the prospect of a pro career help create the impression that college athletes live entitled lives, and alter the perception of whether they should be paid. But whether or not we consider NCAA athletes sympathetic figures, the principle stands.

And it’s on us to stand behind it.

Follow Morgan Campbell on Twitter

One Response to “NCAA, Pay-for-play and the search for sympathetic victims”
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  1. […] isn’t to label the NCAA’s model superior. I’ve been pretty explicit in my criticism of the play-for-no-pay system these schools have set up. I’m just not sure Canada has much footing on the moral high […]

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