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Monson: Pay student-athletes because it’s the right thing to do

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(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Utah Utes walk off of the field after the game at Reser Stadium Saturday October 20, 2012. Oregon State won the game 21-7.

By Gordon Monson

Tribune Columnist

First published Aug 01 2013 01:02PM
Updated Feb 14, 2014 11:31PM

One of the hot — and getting hotter — issues of college football and basketball is: Should student-athletes be paid beyond a scholarship?

The right answer is easy, even if its implementation is not: Yes.

Plenty of people disagree with that easy answer. But … why? It’s time for the classical dissenters to look within themselves, to re-examine the issue and even rearrange their thinking.

With the NCAA making big money, with major college football conferences making big money, with individual schools making big money, with administrators and especially coaches making big money, who’s being left out in this equation? Yeah, the so-called student-athletes without whom none of the billions of dollars generated by their practice and play would be possible.

More power brokers are coming around to that idea, nodding with BYU athletic director Tom Holmoe, who said: "Philosophically, I’m in agreement with the concept of providing some form of an additional stipend to student-athletes. I understand parts of both sides of the argument, but I would be willing to commit to the concept if it were legislated by the NCAA."

Time to make that happen.

It’s always cruelly amusing to hear college football coaches talk to their players about those players sacrificing themselves for the betterment of the team, caring not about their own glory, but the glory of all … and, then, in the end, if the team is successful, it’s the coach who benefits the most from that selfless play. It’s the coach who moves on to a huge contract, either exactly where he is or at a program that will pay him more money in one season than most of his student-athletes will make in a lifetime.

Former LSU basketball coach Dale Brown once called administrators and coaches "whoremasters" for profiting off unpaid student-athletes.

That kind of hypocrisy runs all through big-dollar college sports. Go to any major conference, and even to some lesser programs, and what is found? Institutions raking in cash from television deals, ticket sales, merchandising, concessions, shoe and apparel contracts, video games, DVD sales and booster donations. In many cases, the business is big, the stacks of cash bigger. By comparison, the remuneration for athletes is little.

Think about that for a minute within the context of American life, the American way.

Institutions pull in millions of dollars. The workers who perform for them, generating those millions are paid in … what? The cost of their studies.

From a theoretical standpoint, the arguments against paying student-athletes usually fall into two categories: 1) They are already being compensated by way of their scholarships, and 2) some antiquated notion about the glory of amateurism and its more noble standing.

Stanford football coach David Shaw, at the Pac-12 football media day, answered questions about the growing sentiment to extend additional $2,000 to $4,000 stipends to athletes. His response resonated with those who are holding out:

"If the NCAA does pass this rule, we will comply, but my big comment is we’re also giving these guys a $58,000-per-year education and unbelievable contacts and summer jobs and great opportunities, as well, and it’s our job to make sure that these guys take advantage of these opportunities. I like to say that our job is to teach these guys how to make a living and not have them make a living in college."

He added: "We always have to remember that [student-athletes] are still amateurs."

Some of what Shaw said makes sense, at least at Stanford. But at a lot of schools, it’s not quite that way, not quite that … pure. And even if it were, it still wouldn’t make right the bastardized principle of institutions pocketing huge money and the workers upon whose efforts they are pocketing it getting no real cash in return. It’s worth noting that those athletes, many of whom come from limited economic backgrounds, can’t spend for their needs the promise of an education.

Moreover, how does allotting student-athletes more money compromise the ideals of education and what opportunities that education could bring individuals?

It doesn’t. It just pays the bills today.

The practice of schools not paying athletes has its roots decades ago not in some grand notion of higher thinking. It springs from schools wanting to position themselves to gain their own advantages without being responsible or liable for inconveniences such as compensation in the case of injuries. It’s been just as much a legal defense as it’s been a crowning bit of ideology.

Meanwhile, through the years, big-time programs have gone on making their money, and continue to do so. Not only do they not remunerate athletes with cash, they curtail their control even more by limiting them to scholarships that are renewed only one year at time, pretty much regardless of circumstances. If an athlete misses "voluntary" offseason workouts, for instance, he’s toast. A coach who has to win is going to be all over that kind of student-athlete, even if that student-athlete has honorable reasons to miss. If that student-athlete wants to transfer because of issues beyond his reach, he has to sit out a year. In other words, power and financial benefits lie with coaches and institutions, not with players. The American way, indeed.

There are moves in the courts to rearrange some of that power and money, including former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon’s now-infamous lawsuit, joined by many other current and former college athletes, that could blow the top off of the way the NCAA does business.

Meanwhile, the powers of college football and basketball should take the necessary steps, as they reap their collective billions, to share with the young people who enable that reaping. There already are enough inequitable, shadowy, under-the-table benefits passed along.

There are complexities and complications in the way that can be accomplished, including handling concerns about a widening gap between college football’s haves and have-nots, but shouldn’t a majority at least get to the point where they fundamentally agree there’s nothing morally wrong with giving student-athletes additional stipends?

The public’s glorification of amateurism is probably a last stand, a backlash, against the excesses of pro sports and the resultant adverse effects on some professional players, along with an institutional excuse to keep costs down as schools collect their rewards.

But the Olympics went the way of real sense and reality, allowing athletes to be paid and compete, and that endeavor hasn’t collapsed.

The truth is, selected student-athletes have always been paid beyond their scholarship, in one form or another. Big-time college athletics might as well share its wealth with those who create it, and make the payments level and legitimate. It’s the right thing to do.

Gordon Monson hosts "The Big Show" with Spence Checketts weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM/1280 and 960 AM The Zone. Twitter: @GordonMonson.

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