Published Aug 10, 2006

College football season’s on its way, which means, naturally, that the sports pages are full of stories of NCAA violations. Some, such as Oklahoma quarterback Rhett Bomar’s accepting money for a job he didn’t do are relatively serious. Others, such as USC reciever Dwayne Jarrett’s roommate’s father paying for a luxury apartment are simply a sign that the existing system, which effectively prohibits most Division I scholar-athletes from holding any useful job, is badly broken and needs to be fixed. Specifically, it needs to be possible for Division I schools to pay their athletes for playing sports.

Now, this sounds to a lot of people like a crazy solution — turning kids who should be students into pro athletes. But, in fact, a measured application of this principle can help kids who play sports focus on being in college. And a measured applicaton is just what I’m talking about — pay levels on the order of $15,000 a year ought to be more or less sufficient for many purposes, with specific extra allowances for special cases.

To understand why, let’s look at the context in which most college students work and earn money. Your average college student is, by definition, unqualified for most any job. They’ve got little to no work experience, they haven’t yet learned knowledge that would otherwise be required for most white-collar positions, they lack the skills that are desirable for any blue-collar job, they’re unavailable on any 9-to-5 schedule — it just goes on and on. Anyone who’s hired someone straight out of college knows how hard it is to get good work out of them, especially during the first few months. But, at the same time, college students get hired. They get hired because:

  • Their parents know someone who know someone
  • Their friends’ parents have a company
  • They’re on the newspaper or in the bioethics club or Amnesty International
  • One retail drone is easily replaced by any other retail drone, if there’s a problem with first retail drone.

But most of these prospects don’t exist for a scholar-athlete playing Divison I sports. Bullets one through three above are all NCAA violations, under most circumstances. Bullet four actually might be a violation — the NCAA prohibits giving any exceptional discounts to athletes, and most retail workers get discounts — but the point of the example is to show that a retail or similar job is really the only one open to scholar-athletes, and even that is limited because, during the season and pre-season training, the athlete probably can’t find the time for work, practice, and school — two out of three, maybe, but not all three. It’s hard to get a college job if you’ll disappear not only during the summer but also during another, specific time of year. Not impossible, but definitely difficult.

The result is that it’s, obviously, difficult for Division I scholar-athletes to earn a useful rate of income. Every college student needs some income — there may be tons of football groupies, but I guarantee you that even the studliest player wants to take his girl out on a date. From whatever background, scholar-athletes need a little income of their own. Worse, however, some scholar-athletes are among the most economically-disadvantaged students in their schools. A full ride to an out-of-state Divison I school can be a kid’s big shot at college, and even a partial scholarship can attract people from disadvantaged backgrounds who would otherwise go to a junior college and live with their parents. These students, among many others, can’t expect any spending money from the parents, and yet they’re often living in a city that’s more expensive than where they grew up, with more attractions, and surrounded by people with more stuff. How do they get money? Well, they get involved in some NCAA violation, or they hang out with the wrong crowd, or they go pro too early, just for a shot at some income.

So, college kids have a hard enough time getting a real job, and it’s virtually impossible for a Division I athlete to get a job, given NCAA regulations. But things get worse. Looking again at the Dwayne Jarrett violation, we see that even normal arrangements are suspect. Jarrett roomed with former USC (now Arizona Cardinals) quarterback Matt Leinart, in an apartment rented by Leinart’s father. Jarrett payed a reasonable (for LA) rent to Leinart’s father — but, the trick is, they lived in an expensive luxury apartment, one that cost many times what Jarrett paid.

Now, it’s not unreasonable for two students to have lived there — I used to work at a company that owned several complexes like the one Jarrett and Leinart lived in, and we were filled with local college students, people from prosperous families who wanted to live in a nice place. Notably, we were also filled with celebrities, people who appreciated the secure property, staffed by people who couldn’t too easily be bribed to let a reporter or stalker inside. Leinart, as a major local celeb, needed such a place if he was to have any privacy at all. Now, it’s normal, perhaps even typical, for a star wide receiver to room with the quarterback, because the whole winning the game thing goes better if these two can be on the same page. Not only that, but it’s pretty normal for more affluent students to pay a disproportionate share of their rent in order to live with their friends. Yet, although many other USC students live in the Medici, and many other college students nationwide pay too little rent for their apartments, for Dwayne Jarrett, it’s a violation.

Meanwhile, USC — like the vast majority of Division I football schools — makes bank off of their program. How is this fair? How does this help anybody?

The goal of NCAA regulations are to prevent cheating, prevent boosters from offering fake jobs that are, in effect, extra scholarships for the school they support, prevent boosters from taking advantage of college kids, and ensure that scholar-athletes have normal experiences that help them to learn all of the life lessons that other college students learn. We can all be for all that, but the ultimate effect here is to prevent students from earning an income with which to support themselves reasonably in school. That’s why colleges just need to pay their scholar-athletes. What could they make a year? $15,000 at a retail drone job? OK, so pay them that and most scholar-athletes will be happy. For celebs like Leinart — and many athletes at top programs can be bothered by their celebrity, especially in small college towns — let the school pay extra to ensure that they have a secure, private place to live. For people living in more expensive towns, offer a cost-of-living adjustment, and maybe a travel allowance for people far from home, like Floridians playing football in Oregon. Make it all above-board, obvious, and base it all on an system that delivers fairness and equality in its results. Then fans won’t have to worry about these rinky-dink violations every year, and, even better, scholar-athletes can concentrate on playing sports and studying, which is the whole point anyway.

1 Comment

Will you accuse me of being a grouch if I suggest that the obvious solution is for colleges to get the hell out of the sports business? It’s a distraction from their actual mission. If people want to create intramural leagues — with tryouts and tournaments so on — fine. But why exactly is the university any more involved in this than they are with the local improv or acting troupe, or College Dems/Repubs, or whatever?