I played college basketball. I never got paid a nickel. Now, apparently, some college athletes will cash in on playing college sports.
A landmark law signed by California Gov. Gavin Newsom in September would allow college athletes to get paid for endorsements, signing autographs, social media advertising, or striking deals with businesses, such as sneaker companies or soft drink makers. Now the NCAA, which heretofore has vigorously beat back any cries to pay college athletes, instead extending scholarships to them in return for their skills, now will sanction payments, voting last Tuesday to allow college athletes to “benefit from the use of their name, likeness and image” but only if it is “consistent with the values of college sports and education," whatever that means.
The NCAA, the largest governing entity for college sports and a $1.1 billion enterprise, in the past has rested its argument against paying college athletes on the shameful and sham-full claim that college sports operates in an amateur arena. But the under-the table payouts to elite college athletes in football and men’s basketball, the illegal recruitment practices, the huge divide between academics and athletics on campuses, and the pricey television contracts contravene all claims of amateurism. And it has only proliferated over the years. Big time college football and basketball are part of a $10 billion entertainment business, fully commercialized and committed to filling the coffers of schools.
It’s all about the institutions making money and burnishing the win at-any ethical or moral cost craze. The intensity to win in our society has become like a blister festering in the noon-day sun --- in sports, in our educational pursuits, in the boardrooms, in politics, in the legal system, even in the bedroom. There is this fatal pooling of contradiction, and it raises this question: Are we building our values simply on winning?
There’s also an exploitation factor here: There are egregious inequities between those who generate the enormous revenue of big-time college sports -- the players -- and those who keep the money -- the schools and the NCAA. The institutions generate millions and millions of dollars off players’ skills. As well, the athletic directors and coaches (particularly coaches in men’s football and basketball) enjoy multi-million dollar salaries. Yet, and let’s not kid ourselves, isn’t it a fact that it’s the athletes who win games, not the institutions or the athletic directors or the coaches?
That’s why, as a former college-student athlete, I endorse athletes getting paid. Let there be transparency. Permitting college athletes to earn money would save the NCAA a lot of energy and embarrassment. And allow college athletes to earn money just as any other student entrepreneur on campus.
The scholarship that I received for playing basketball was enough, was fine by me. I just loved to play the game. I loved the purity of it; I loved the creative, artsy energy of it. Basketball was always a kind of overarching theology that seemed to order things in my life. The court was the one place where I felt flawlessly at ease, where I could define myself in a quick-as-a-snakebite reverse spin dribble past a belly-up defender or in a high, arching, freewheeling spinning shot that dropped through the hole as if some geometric justice were being carried out — splendid poetry in action that held me hostage to basketball the way ballet did Baryshnikov.
But I don’t feel that way about today’s game, or college sports in general.
One way to make them more fair: It’s time for a play-for-pay scheme that’s legal and aboveboard. The money’s already there in the millions that these athletes bring in to their institutions.
A Philadelphia writer, B.G. Kelley played basketball for Temple University.