Dan K. Thomasson: Labor turmoil in college athletics

04/01/2014 5:44 PM

04/01/2014 5:44 PM

Bob was a dirt-poor kid from Pensacola, Fla., when he won a scholarship for football at a Division 1 school in Mississippi. He had grown up in the kind of poverty most of us can hardly imagine and the scholarship was a godsend – the only way he could imagine going to college.

There was only one hitch. He had absolutely no money, beyond the room and board provided by the university, and he had no legal way of getting it. He couldn’t buy a hamburger nor afford to go to a movie nor to get his bad teeth fixed. His family had nothing, and the time he spent on the football field and keeping up his grades and the restrictions imposed by the NCAA precluded him from working.

While others around him were enjoying at least some semblance of college social life, the small amount of free time afforded him was spent in his dorm room. He increasingly believed he was in prison. He saw only one way out. He quit the team and dropped out of school. He found a job and enrolled in a much-cheaper community college program. He was frugal, living in a tiny room and washing dishes at an all-night restaurant for his food.

It took Bob three years and working two jobs to complete a two-year course at the community college. But he saved enough money to enroll at a large university in his home state and complete his education in journalism with honors. He had a substantial career and ultimately made it as a correspondent for a major newspaper.

This story, as sad or inspirational as it may seem depending on one’s point of view, goes to the heart of the increasing turmoil over whether college athletes should be compensated beyond the cost of their education for their contribution to the millions of dollars in revenues their hard work produces for their universities. It is one of the thorniest issues college administrators and the NCAA face. A ruling from a regional National Labor Relations Board member that football players at prestigious Northwestern University are actually employees of the institution and can legally unionize has opened the door to a full-blown debate and more.

As the father of three boys who received “full ride” football scholarships at Division 1 schools, I sometimes wonder who is exploiting whom – the universities or the athletes, especially when basketball players frequently parlay a semester and a half into a fortune in the NBA.

But those who manage to make it to the professional ranks in football, basketball, baseball and hockey and now soccer are still a small percentage compared with the number competing at the top-tier schools where the money flows often in torrents from sold-out stadiums and arenas, concessions and television mainly from football and basketball. That doesn’t count what a winning athletic team stimulates from alums for other programs. The “welfare sports,” including most women’s and men’s programs, even baseball, don’t pay their own ways. Some schools are dropping them.

The NCAA’s attitude about all this is that “student athletes” are substantially rewarded for their efforts by the payment of tuition and room and board, particularly now when college costs rise every year. That’s a legitimate argument, but is it a moral one?

Would a small stipend to Bob – even $5 a week at that time – have kept him in school and made a huge difference in his life? And what about the delayed expenses later in life because of injuries sustained on the playing field? Should a fund be established to compensate for these injuries? Should all participants in the revenue sports be paid the same? Or should they be paid on a sliding scale of their importance?

On the other hand, athletes who stay the education course and graduate do so without the huge loans that saddle so many of today’s college graduates. Also, paying college athletes beyond their classroom benefits changes the system radically, officially professionalizing them. The spillover into other areas of the university, particularly in the collective-bargaining process, could be economically disastrous.

These questions and a thousand more are looming in the highly charged atmosphere of big-time college athletics. I would like to ask Bob about this, but sadly he passed away at a far too early age a number of years ago.

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