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Unchain Those College Ballplayers

January 15, 2002|WILLIAM F. DEVINE Jr. | William F. Devine Jr., a Menlo Park attorney, is author of "Women, Men and Money" (Random House, 1998).

In the rush to declare a national holiday because there's a new million-dollar coach who's not a white male, people overlook the conditions under which the young players produce the product of college football.

Take Luke Powell, who scored seven touchdowns and averaged 19 yards per catch at Stanford for Coach Tyrone Willingham, perhaps helping to attract Willingham's lucrative offer from the University of Notre Dame.

Powell's talents can help a team win games and capture a large slice of college football's multibillion-dollar pie. In theory, he should be able to capitalize on his talents by negotiating a compensation package with his school and by striking a deal with Adidas, a car company or anyone else who wants him to endorse a product.

In practice, he can't make any economic move because if he accepts a penny more than his scholarship, the National Collegiate Athletic Assn., college football's money police, will revoke his eligibility. Apparently the NCAA thinks Powell should be grateful for his free education.

Yet how much of a player's opportunity for non-football education is lost to the hundreds of hours he spends practicing, playing and recovering from football? A lot--which means the education is worth less than the NCAA thinks. And if Duke or Nike or Albert's Chevrolet wants to pay for a player's abilities, why shouldn't he be able to take the money?

As Willingham demonstrated so adroitly, coaches can pocket whatever the market will pay. So can university presidents, athletic directors, NCAA officials and television executives. But not the players. The industry makes clear they are not created equal.

Why does this discrimination against college athletes persist? The rules fix production expenses at a low number--a player only costs a scholarship. The people who run college football like fixed costs because fixed costs maximize the profits from which to pay the people who run college football.

And then there's the comfort factor. Division I-A college football's television networks, stadiums, coaches and revenue stream--and many players--are of the highest caliber. Nonetheless, college presidents can tell themselves they are educating youth, not running professional football franchises in the world's largest sports league. Lose the rules that prohibit paying the players and the delusion is harder to maintain.

This discrimination persists because no one acknowledges it. Players are too young to perceive their exploitation, plus they love to play, so they sound no rebellion. Fans don't notice the shackles on the players' cleats. Universities rest behind mission statements like Notre Dame's, which declares an intention to cultivate "educated, skilled and free human beings." They don't mention that they belong to a confederacy of schools that subject athletes to quasi-antebellum restraints.

Perhaps an athlete with intelligence, cussedness and good advice on antitrust and civil rights violations will sue a school and the NCAA someday. Or perhaps the Collegiate Athletes Coalition or a union will give players enough organization to strike over this discrimination. College football bosses may then be forced to grant athletes the freedoms everyone else in the industry enjoys.

Meanwhile, the responsible way to react to Notre Dame's announcement is to see the transaction for what it is: an institution with a $3-billion endowment hired a guy already making more than $500,000 a year and agreed to pay him even more money to run the institution's entry in a multibillion-dollar industry that exploits its laborers' talents, endangers their ligaments, denies them economic freedoms, funds large salaries for university presidents, athletic directors, coaches and NCAA officials, caters to television and gives gambling interests a means by which to earn a terrific profit.

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