Skip to main content
Original Issue

An Honest Wage

When they ask for cash, college athletes should remember they're getting paid to learn

Last week The Miami Herald reported that for several years University of Miami football players routinely took money, including incentive bonuses for hits and maimings, from former Hurricane players and Luther Campbell, the leader of the rap group 2 Live Crew. The players' attitude toward accepting this prohibited largesse? Decidedly guilt-free. "They want us to be like regular students," former Miami tight end Randy Bethel told the Herald. "But regular students don't generate revenue like we do. I don't remember the last time 70,000 people packed into the Orange Bowl to watch a chemistry experiment."

Only a week earlier SI reported that seven Florida State football players had gone on an agent-funded shopping spree worth thousands of dollars at a Foot Locker store last season, and that six of them had also pocketed improper payments (SI, May 16). "You work so hard to give to that program and get nothing out of it," said Corey Sawyer, the former Seminole cornerback who partook with a clean conscience. "The most you can get out of it is a trip to the NFL. I felt I was entitled to money or clothing. Why couldn't I have it?"

This refrain of entitlement is hardly novel—in 1990 a silhouetted North Carolina State basketball player said on ABC News that he took money from gamblers to shave points because coaches, television networks and sneaker companies all profited from the game he played and he didn't—and it has become tiresome. We're being led to believe that all this wrongdoing is simply a matter of college athletes' seizing their due and that the only way to stop the cheating is to pay the players over the table. But we're forgetting that big-time college athletes are compensated handsomely, with a chance to get an education worth as much as $120,000.

"It's a pimp system," Campbell says, using the idiom of which he is a master. Yet it's a pimp system only if the athletes are willing to play the whore. Schools that make no effort to ensure their players' academic success do exploit athletes, but the NCAA, pressured by Congress, has been publishing the graduation rates of players at member schools since 1992, so if an athlete chooses Lemon U, he has only himself to blame. And tutoring and other academic support services for athletes typically dwarf the help available to the nonathlete. Yes, big-time college sports make demands on the student-athlete's time—but many schools give a former player an extra year, or years, to graduate. It's absurd for Sawyer or anyone else to suggest that college athletes "get nothing out of it."

Then we hear comments like this, from former Miami safety Charles Pharms: "We go into the bookstore, and half the stuff is football memorabilia. A Hurricane sweatshirt is $30 or $40.1 helped make that shirt popular, but I can't even afford it." In fact, a chunk of the proceeds from that sweatshirt is going back to the school, to help teach, coach or otherwise improve the lives of students, Pharms included. The training-table food, warmup suits and housing to which a typical Division I football player is accustomed could feed, clothe and shelter the citizens of a small Third World city. Remember, too, that college athletes are eligible for all sorts of financial aid. There is so much need-based grant and loan money floating around that if you can't get any, you must not be able to fill out a form—in which case you don't belong in college.

When they arrive on campus, fresh off the corrupting courtship of recruiting, freshman athletes already have such a highly developed sense of entitlement that it hardly needs more cultivation. Yet everywhere they turn they sec the system's other constituents looking out for themselves: The big school doesn't want to share its windfall from the NCAA basketball tournament with the small one; the football coach gripes if revenue his team generates winds up underwriting scholarships in women's squash; wealthy boosters believe they're entitled to purchase the best team money can buy, rules be damned.

Meanwhile, a quarterback's parents hire a lawyer because their son supposedly was promised a starting position that the coach ultimately deemed him unworthy of. The media whine if they don't get tip-off times scheduled just so. The NCAA packs hotel suites with its executives at the Final Four. Again and again the impressionable 18-year-old hears one long, shrill caterwaul of I want mine, and I want it now.

Is it O.K. to say it? Or is it hopelessly hackneyed even to suggest that an education is something to be coveted, then worked for, then cherished? That verities like diligence, a sense of community and even a little delayed gratification might find an audience? So long as sports are conducted on college campuses, let the payoff for playing be something so valuable that no sleazy booster or agent could possibly slip it into an envelope and palm it off. Let it be a degree.

Which brings up one sign that all may not be lost. Last week there was news about Shaquille O'Neal, who "got his," though he left college early. There is evidently a hole in his millionaire life. O'Neal has enrolled in summer-school courses at LSU.