Since the WIAA state tournaments are being held this month, it's a good time to remind ourselves in this college town what a true "student-athlete" is. A student-athlete is any one of the high school kids participating in the gymnastics, wrestling, hockey and basketball tournaments taking place here. What separates them from Division 1 college athletes in revenue-producing sports (mostly men's football and basketball) is, in a word, money. None of these high school athletic programs are raking in millions in TV deals, paid attendance and merchandise. None of the coaches are millionaires. In fact, chances are they're teaching something like social studies in addition to their coaching duties. And at the other end of the spectrum, there are professional sports with athletes and coaches being paid millions, which is only fair since their club owners are making plenty of money as well. The awkward middle is in the big-money college ranks, like the University of Wisconsin men's football and basketball programs. That's where things have gone awry. They have gone really wrong for Syracuse University's basketball coach Jim Boeheim. Boeheim -- who has won more games than only one other current coach -- and his program were found to have violated a series of rules by that citadel of hypocrisy, the NCAA.
Among other infractions, under Boeheim's watch his athletes were found to have had class assignments done for them, and five players received cash payments and other benefits totaling $8,335 over 14 months. That comes out to $119 per player per month. Boeheim makes $1.8 million a year or $150,000 per month.
My problem isn't with Boeheim's pay. If the TV networks and the fans are willing to fork over a bunch of money to televise and watch games he coaches, why shouldn't the guy who produces the team get a good share of the profits?
Our problem should be with how the athletes are getting ripped off in this equation. They produce on the court and yet they can't take so much as $119 a month in odds and ends while their coach becomes a millionaire.
And as for the cheating on coursework, the real problem is with the pretense that these are student-athletes at all. They are athletes first and foremost, and they should be compensated like the high-performing university employees that they are.
The hypocrisy comes when highly compensated officials at the NCAA, who have athletes to thank for their big paydays, insist on defending the "student-athlete" myth as a way to cynically line their own pockets. NCAA officials have admitted that they want to keep up the student-athlete pretense to help them fight lawsuits claiming, correctly, that these athletes aren't primarily students but employees who deserve just compensation for their work.
According to a 2010 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education, the top 14 NCAA officials received $6 million, or an average of $428,000, in salary. And that was five years ago; no doubt it's more today. If the athletes were paid, it's just possible that the increase in pay for NCAA administrators would slow. If the actual producers of the wealth were to get their fair slice of the pie, it's possible that the pie couldn't expand fast enough to keep the guys at the top happy.
Of course, you can point to some excellent athletes who are also good students. But don't get fogged by the smoke screen that somehow being a fairly compensated university athlete is incompatible with being a good student. There's no reason gifted athletes who also happen to be good students can't get their degrees while they earn a decent living playing sports. Think of students on work-study. It would be like that except that the players should get their fair share of the athletic program profits, which will make them very well-compensated work-study students indeed -- and good for them!
And for good athletes who don't have the intellectual firepower or the inclination to succeed academically at the college level, let's drop the charade that forces the creation of no-show courses and cheating on tests and other classwork, which just cheapens the entire academic setting. Let's recognize the big programs for the semi-professional athletic clubs that they are, pay the players what they're worth, and drop the requirement that they actually attend the university.
If we did that we'd have an honest system that recognized the reality that professional sports is all about money, the big-time college programs are all about money and player development for the professional ranks, and high school is for the true student-athlete.
And let's hope we don't get the traditional (and largely apocryphal) snowstorm during the boys basketball tournament later this month.