By B.G. Kelley
Cam Newton, who accepted the Heisman Trophy on Saturday, offers a case study in why colleges should start paying their top football and basketball players.
The Auburn quarterback's father allegedly demanded a pay-for-play arrangement worth between $100,000 and $180,000 from Mississippi State University, and then chose Auburn University because "the money was too much," his son was reported to have told a college recruiter. FoxSports.com also reported that Newton was caught cheating three times in the 2008-09 season, when he was attending the University of Florida and facing the possibility of expulsion. Newton transferred to Blinn College, a two-year school in Texas, before his talents were allegedly put up for purchase.
Newton's transgressions are not the only reasons colleges and the NCAA should drop the virtuous front of amateurism and start paying their athletes. Colleges are in essence the minor leagues of the NFL and NBA. Elite college football and basketball players typically stay in college only until they're ready to play professionally - maybe a year, at the most two.
As a result, many top athletes invest little time and effort in their education, and there's a huge divide between academics and athletics on campus. Professors surveyed on the subject ranked athletics 12th among 13 faculty priorities, just ahead of fraternity and sorority life.
Football players graduate college at a rate of 69 percent, and men's basketball players at 66 percent, according to the most recent NCAA figures. Twelve of the top 25 men's basketball teams last year had graduation rates of 50 percent or worse. Such rates wouldn't reflect so poorly on schools if their athletes were being paid to play.
The current system has also encouraged the emergence of predatory agents, who ply elite college athletes with illicit money for the favor of representing them and getting fat cuts of their pro contracts.
Then there's the exploitation factor. There are egregious inequities between those who generate the enormous revenues of big-time college football and basketball - the players - and those who keep that money - the schools and the NCAA. (This is true even if the money enables the majority of a school's athletes to participate in minor college sports - rowing, gymnastics, track and field, swimming, lacrosse, and the like.)
Let's not kid ourselves: Elite high school athletes are admitted to college for their skills on the field or court - to help colleges win. And winning brings with it pricey television contracts that deliver even more dollars to a school's coffers. To wit: the NCAA's $11 billion, 14-year contract with CBS and Turner Sports for the right to televise its men's basketball tournament.
When athletes' benefits are compared with the six- and seven-figure compensation packages of head coaches in the top college football and basketball programs, the inequity and exploitation seem even more profound. After all, players win games, not coaches.
Factor in the revenue reaped by schools for having their athletes advertise certain logos on their uniforms and sneakers, as well as sales of school shirts, jackets, and caps, and it's obvious that college football and basketball are more business than game.
Big-time college football and basketball are part of the entertainment industry - a $10 billion-a-year sports business, fully commercialized and committed to filling the coffers of the schools. Paying college athletes to play would save the NCAA a lot of energy and embarrassment by acknowledging that fact.
It's time for a pay-for-play scheme that's legal and aboveboard. The money's already there.