Jonathan Weiss via shutterstock
The National Collegiate Athletic Association’s headquarters in Indianapolis in 2018. (Jonathan Weiss via shutterstock)
TERRY COWGILL

What do Rev. Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall, and Chris Murphy have in common? They’re all civil rights leaders.

Well, not quite. Perhaps it’s more accurate to say that Murphy is leading on a matter of public policy that he has cleverly cast as a civil rights issue: making the case that some college athletes should be paid for their services.

Timed by Murphy’s marketing team to coincide with NCAA basketball’s annual March Madness tournament, the senator last week released what he calls “Madness Inc.,” a report that calls on the NCAA “to come up with a way to compensate student-athletes, at least in the sports that demand the most time and make the most money.”

“College sports has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry where everyone’s getting rich except the students actually doing the work,” Murphy said in a statement accompanying the report. “Frankly, it’s a civil rights issue that no one is talking about.”

I’m not convinced that it’s a civil rights issue, unless you want to hang your hat on the fact that most of the athletes in the money-making sports (i.e. football and basketball) are people of color. But I won’t quibble too much on the branding. On the substance, Murphy is right: the idea that college athletes make money for their organizations and — apart from their scholarships — don’t share in the bounty, is an outrage. It may not be a civil rights issue, but surely it’s a workplace issue.

Yes, you can make the case that a full scholarship, which in some cases is worth $60,000 to $70,000 per year, is nothing to sneeze at. There are two problems with that reasoning: First, the weekly commitment to play Division I sports on a high level is so great that it’s all but impossible to take full advantage of a university’s academic offerings, either in terms of the time needed or the inclination to select challenging courses.

I know a fellow whose daughter played Division I lacrosse at a highly selective college. He told me that during the season she routinely put in 70 hours a week toward her sport. Even out-of-season, between her training and conditioning regimens and time spent on other team obligations, the daughter clocked in at least 30 to 40 hours per week. And this is women’s lacrosse in the Ivies, not men’s basketball at Louisville.

How on earth does a starting running back at the University of Alabama find the wherewithal to complete the homework in a demanding course? The point is that few of these athletes, especially in high-level men’s basketball or football, have the time to take advantage of the challenging courses and other experiences college offers. So they often chose easy courses designed for athletes, get poor grades in regular courses, or simply drop out. In any case, too many student-athletes get little of value from their scholarships.

The other problem is most of these athletes don’t have substantial insurance polices and so are only one step away from a catastrophic injury that could leave them without a future in sports and without much of an education either — thanks to what Murphy calls the “College Sports Industrial Complex,” whose revenues last year were estimated by the U.S. Department of Education at $14 billion.

In addressing these injustices, I would go a step farther than Murphy. Why not ditch the pretense and stop requiring these athletes to enroll as students? In the most time-consuming Division I sports (again, I’m thinking mostly football and basketball), they could be awarded a full athletic scholarship and get paid a salary. Or they can just be paid to play as professionals would — no class attendance and homework required and no diploma awarded.

And while we’re at it, here’s another thought. We’ve all seen how big money corrupts men’s basketball and football in particular. Why are the scandals largely limited to those two sports, you might ask? After all, as Bryce Harper’s new record-setting 13-year, $330 million contract with the Philadelphia Phillies reminds us, big money is hardly limited to the gridiron or the basketball court.

The reason is actually quite simple. If you’re a gifted football or basketball senior in high school and you want to play professionally, you really need to play on a college team first. It is the rare player — Moses Malone, Ray Seals — who can vault into the NBA or NFL without at least a year of college.

But if you want to play in the National Hockey League or in Major League Baseball, you essentially have two choices: you can apply to college and play there; or you can make yourself eligible for the draft in 12th grade, in which case you will likely play in the minor-league farm system of the major league franchise that drafted you. Either of those strategies offers a path to the big leagues for a gifted high-school baseball or hockey player.

The current system for basketball and football results in thousands of athletes attending colleges — in some case, major research universities — who have no business being there, either because their sport will take up too much time for them to do well academically or because they have neither the ability nor the inclination to succeed. Hence, the corruption in the college recruiting process.

Of course, that will never happen, right? The colleges would lose revenues and prestige, and the NBA and NFL would lose what is essentially a minor-league system that they don’t have to pay for.

Well, at least the the NBA is headed in the right direction. Its G League is looking more and more like a true minor league system every year. It has been touted in Bloomberg as a league that “could become a new destination for young talent, bring in millions in revenue, and help college basketball rid itself of recruiting scandals.”

In contrast, while there are several semi-professional football leagues, none has any official affiliation with the NFL.

It’s time for the NFL and the NCAA to step up and address the questions of minor leagues and athlete compensation head-on. Murphy is to be commended for reigniting this conversation, though I’m not sure it will go anywhere. But hey, a guy can dream can’t he?

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill lives in Lakeville, blogs at CTDevilsAdvocate.com and is managing editor of The Berkshire Edge in Great Barrington, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill or email him at thenews@hotmail.com.

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