Etan Thomas: Colleges should not exploit ‘student-athletes’

04/03/2014 12:00 AM

04/02/2014 6:01 PM

Talk-show host Bill Maher recently tweeted that “March Madness really is a stirring reminder of what America was founded on – making tons of money off the labor of unpaid black people.”

Although there are some parallels, college athletes do receive scholarships and are not forced to play. A more accurate comparison would be when a company builds a factory in an economically underdeveloped country, paying its workers pennies but making millions while claiming to be doing them a favor by providing a tremendous opportunity they wouldn’t otherwise have.

Let’s look at the facts: The NCAA is a $6 billion-a-year industry. The average annual pay for coaches in this year’s NCAA Tournament field is $1.47 million. The popularity and profits of the NCAA bowl games and March Madness continue to skyrocket.

But players don’t share in the spoils, and the more money universities make, the more tightfisted they become.

But now, in the wake of a National Labor Relations Board ruling that Northwestern University’s football players are, in fact, employees of the university, student-athletes can form a union, and this could change the entire NCAA dynamic as we know it.

There are those, however, who are still completely against the thought of college players not only unionizing, but also being compensated in any form beyond their scholarships.

Some are naive enough to believe that the reason the NCAA doesn’t want to pay college athletes is because it is 100 percent committed to the value placed on educational and intellectual enlightenment. Some are actually convinced that the very fiber of our institutions of higher learning would be compromised and the focus of scholastic achievement would quickly dissipate.

Many do not realize, though, that if you have a career-ending injury, you’re no longer of any use to the university and can be sold up the river or, in modern terms, lose your scholarship. I know this firsthand because it almost happened to my wife (then girlfriend), Nichole Oliver Thomas, who, like me, played basketball for Syracuse University.

After her third knee surgery, Nichole was told by the Syracuse specialist that if she wanted to be able to walk without a cane and play with her kids in the future, she had to stop playing basketball. She was devastated because as athletes, we are programmed to run through walls, ignore pain and never quit. But after much convincing from the people who cared about her – mostly her mother – Nichole made the right decision.

Her coaches weren’t pleased, however, and she had to get a lawyer and threaten to sue the school in order to keep her scholarship her senior year.

If their main concern was education, this wouldn’t have happened. The bottom line is that it’s a business. When you play Division 1 sports, you’re not treated as a “student-athlete” – as colleges love to profess to the world – you’re an “athlete-student,” and you’re there for one reason and one reason only. You can keep your grades up enough to remain eligible, but then again, that’s only so you can be able to play – and earn more money for the university.

The argument against paying college athletes is quickly exposed as one of the most hypocritical, self-serving positions in modern sports. Whether college athletes are actually being exploited shouldn’t even be a question. The only question is how we can rectify this problem.

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