By Ken Reed

Well, as you might imagine, my Huffington Post column from a few days ago about the positive change that could happen if players on the Final Four teams boycotted this weekend’s games caused quite a reaction. A lot of it angry in nature.

One person said something to the effect of, “If you don’t think a full-ride scholarship worth $200,000, or so, over four years has value you’re nuts.” I’m not nuts, maybe a little crazy, but not nuts. I truly do appreciate the value of a full-ride scholarship, not only for its immediate value but for its long-term value over the course of an individual’s working life. But things in life are relative. For example, Kentucky men’s basketball coach John Calipari is making $7.1 million in basic compensation this year. How many people pay to watch Calipari coach from the sidelines? I would venture to guess very few. But 20,000 people pack Kentucky’s Rupp Arena every game to watch his players perform.

Another reader told me something along the lines of “College sports is no different than the real world. At big companies, the CEOs make a ton more money than the average worker, just like college coaches are compensated a lot more than the players.” Here’s the difference: Joe the Accountant and Sarah the Human Resources Manager are paid on a free market basis. Company A and Company B are free to bid for the services of both Joe and Sarah. There is no compensation cap. In the NCAA, the players compensation is capped at tuition, room and board (and at some schools a small cost-of-living stipend).

That’s how cartels work. It’s not how things are supposed to work in a market-based capitalistic society.

Someone else said, “Sure, these athletes only get a scholarship in college but they’ll make a ton of money in the pros.” Some will, of course. But the vast majority of college basketball and football players will never receive a dime from pro sports leagues. This is their one chance to be part of a huge money-making sports enterprise. Only a tiny minority of college basketball players are good enough to draw an NBA salary, or even to play in Australian or Chinese pro leagues.

Admittedly, figuring out a way to more fairly compensate student athletes in football and men’s basketball (and a few other revenue sports for men and women) is complicated — especially considering Title IX requirements. But one fairly simple way to do it is by adopting the Olympic model. For decades, the Olympics were supposed to be strictly for true amateurs. People said the Olympics would never be the same and would lose popularity if the athletes were paid. Well, eventually, the rules changed and Olympic athletes were allowed to receive sponsorship money and revenue from other sources. The Olympics didn’t go away. They got bigger and more popular. And the athletic competition remained just as spirited.

A similar approach could be taken with college athletes if the NCAA adopted the Olympic model of compensation. Let athletes benefit from their fame and likeness like every other student at our colleges and universities. Let them take endorsement money like the coaches that lead them. If the local auto parts store wants to pay a college athlete to sign autographs for two hours during a store sale, why shouldn’t the athlete be allowed to take that opportunity? If someone wants to give an athlete a gift — be it cash or tattoos — why should that be banned? Music students in college are free to accept cash or gifts for playing a weekend gig at the local club. What makes athletes different?

“Is it so ignoble for a college athlete to make money off his her talent and fame?” asks sports and culture writer Patrick Hruby.

I don’t think so, What’s ignoble is this dishonest charade the NCAA tries to pull off in which they try to ignore the fact that big-time college sports is big-time business. This isn’t Division III football or basketball, where maybe a couple hundred students, friends and family members come out on a Saturday to watch students play for their school. In fact, the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament is a lot closer to the NBA Finals than it is to Division III sports.

Folks, it’s inevitable that the cap on compensation for big-time college athletes will disappear. The current model just won’t continue to hold up, ethically or legally. The question is why wait? A lot of kids from disadvantaged backgrounds could benefit the sooner the amateur myth is blown up.

There’s one big bottom line here: Athletes deserve to share in the wealth created due to their efforts on the courts and fields of our universities.

It’s the only fair, ethical and decent outcome.

— Ken Reed, Sports Policy Director, League of Fans


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