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Paying college players is an inherently bad idea

BILL PLASCHKE

As allegations swirl around Auburn's Newton, the concept gains traction. But to do so would mean contracts would replace scholarships, and forget the illusion anyone would go to class.

November 18, 2010|Bill Plaschke

I see you queasily watching college football's latest financial collapse. I feel that glint of recognition as you witness the impending NCAA-led destruction of Cam Newton and the Auburn Tigers. I know you are nodding your head and thinking the same thing.

For Bush's sake, wouldn't this all be a lot simpler if colleges just started paying their athletes?

It's a universal notion, an accepted wisdom, a common question for which there can only be one answer.

No, no, no.

Colleges should not play players. Colleges cannot pay players. To do so would hurt the very athletes supposedly being helped, devaluing intercollegiate sports until they're not worth the paper that a freshman linebacker's contract is printed upon.

With coaches making millions while players can barely afford dinner, is this fair? No. With universities building libraries on the spines of their studs, is this just? Absolutely not.

But the beauty of college athletics lies directly in this paradox, a nation drawn to the idea of professional games played by amateurs, millions cheering for superstars in letter sweaters, inspiration bathed in innocence.

If you pay the players, that aura is gone, and with it, a sports experience that is singularly passionate and uniquely American.

"Rationally, it would make sense to pay college athletes," said Dr. Murray Sperber. "But college athletics is one of the most irrational parts of American life."

Sperber, you might remember, is the former University of Indiana professor who was once vilified for being the lone critical public voice against former basketball tyrant Bobby Knight. Sperber has written several books about the problems of big-time collegiate athletics, and is now a visiting professor in the graduate school of education at UC Berkeley.

I phoned him Thursday as the allegations mounted that the father of Heisman-favored Newton sought money for his son's collegiate enrollment.

We know that, when leaving junior college after last season, Newton's first choice was to play for his former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen at Mississippi State.

We know that, at the last minute, based on the influence of his father, Cecil, Newton changed his mind and committed to Auburn.

We have been told by various sources through various media outlets that Newton's father had asked Mississippi State for $180,000 to sign Newton, and that the Bulldogs refused.

At this point, it is impossible to guess anything other than somebody connected with Auburn did not refuse.

"I would bet my house on it," said Sperber with a laugh. "Are you kidding me?"

And if that guess is wrong, blame a system where even the most scrutinized player on America's most scrutinized team — yeah, Reggie Bush — could not stay clean.

To which critics have devised a simple solution — just pay the kids already. Give them salaries commensurate with their value to the university. Compensate them for the 40-hour workweek that is college sports. Heck, could somebody just throw them a bone?

It's a concept that has been gaining so much traction, even Sperber admitted that "I have gone back and forth on it for several years."

But at the end of the school day, Sperber agrees that it's impossible.

"Many people love the idea, but there are many reasons it just wouldn't work," he said.

First, the kids are already paid. It's called a scholarship. In some cases, that's a salary of more than $50,000 a year.

OK, fine, big-time athletes bring in big money, they deserve more than just tuition and a dorm room. But which athletes do you pay? Do USC basketball players really deserve as much as USC football players? And if you don't think USC female athletes would demand — and receive — equal money, then you don't understand the concepts of gender equity.

"With so many athletic departments losing money, there is no way schools could afford to pay everybody," said Sperber.

All right, so lines are drawn and lawsuits are won and only male football and basketball players are paid. Well, now, the problems are only beginning.

This would mean the end of recruiting, the end of high school stars choosing their college. With so much money being thrown around to so many athletes, the schools would eventually halt the madness the way Major League Baseball finally did.

Welcome to the 2014 College Football Draft.

"Can you imagine how big that would be?" said Sperber. " ESPN would put it on TV and it would be bigger than any draft ever, including the NFL."

Once players were drafted, they would obviously sign contracts that would replace scholarships. And with no scholarships, forget even the illusion that anyone would go to class.

With those contracts, of course, come agents, and negotiations, and are you ready for an Ohio State linebacker to stage a two-month holdout in hopes of getting traded back to his USC roots? Of course, the ability to make such trades would have to be ratified by the union.

What, you thought you could pay college kids and they wouldn't unionize?

"This would get real interesting, really fast," said Sperber.

All except the actual games. With the players possessing no sense of alma mater loyalty, college football fans would eventually feel as if they were watching an extended NFL pregame show. With the players having no association with the school other than a contract, college basketball would feel like a winter version of minor league baseball.

Was there nothing cooler than hearing that, on the day of the national championship basketball game last spring, some Butler University kids actually went to class? Pay the players, and it's class dismissed.

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

twitter.com/billplaschke

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