More than 15 years ago, Caron Butler stood in a drafty hallway at Gampel Pavilion in the moments after UConn had been selected for the NCAA Tournament and he was chatting with the nation’s basketball writers about his past and his future.
The past was prison. The future was millions.
In between, he was playing college basketball and riding to practices stuffed inside Taliek Brown’s ancient used Camry. That battered old car transported millions of dollars of basketball talent to and from practices in wintry Storrs. Butler, Ben Gordon, Emeka Okafor, and Hilton Armstrong — future millionaires all — crammed themselves into Brown’s rusted automobile.
Anyway, Butler was standing there, and somebody asked him if college athletes should be paid. He declined to answer the question directly but instead looked around and said, simply, “a lot of people are making money, but I don’t see them on the floor.”
This was true. His coaches were well compensated. The fans who wore his jersey were forking out thousands of dollars in donations in order to gain season-ticket positioning, which meant something back when the Huskies were in the Big East. The kids could pretend to be Caron Butler on a March Madness video game, which made millions for somebody, but not for him. The players got per diem meal money on road games, which they hoarded by going to McDonald’s and eating cheap.
All these years later, after scandals have rocked the college basketball establishment, the times seem to be changing. California has forced a reckoning upon the NCAA, which has steadfastly opposed any model of collegiate sports that offers compensation for players, by passing legislation that allows college athletes to profit off their likeness. Senator Chris Murphy, long a proponent of paying college athletes, has urged Connecticut legislators to follow suit.
The NCAA says it’s the end of the world. Those who have advocated for pay-for-play for college athletes are shouting “hooray.” Neither is right. Few college athletes can profit off their likeness and, except in this state, fewer still will be women. At the same time, allowing athletes to profit off their likeness will not benefit the backup point guard, who works just as hard, and will still be banking her per diem and hoping to make it through the day on fast food.
The NCAA, of course, believes that a college scholarship is just compensation. The athletes get a free education for their labor. This is hypocrisy of a most cynical nature. The NCAA basketball tournaments could be scheduled entirely on Saturdays and Sundays. The athletes could show up and play a game on Saturday and the winners would stick around for Sunday. That way, the student-athletes, as the NCAA insists on calling them, wouldn’t have to miss class. But TV wants the games spread out. A weekend tournament wouldn’t generate billions in revenue. So, the NCAA requires student-athletes to attend press conferences the day before and the day between games, which means a student-athlete in a Thursday bracket leaves Tuesday afternoon and misses all his classes for at least three days. Not exactly the stuff of “To Sir, With Love.”
Those suggesting players should be paid as if they had a part-time job have logistical problems, too. The argument on sports talk radio always focuses on football players at Alabama or basketball players at Duke. Programs that make money. But arranging a system where only football players or men’s basketball players are paid may be unworkable. The most successful legislation in the last 40 years other than the Americans with Disabilities Act, has been Title IX, which has cleared a path in this state for Rebecca Lobo, Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, Breanna Stewart, and so many more.
And there is an argument, at least, that Title IX would require equal pay for men’s programs and women’s programs. Thus, if Alabama wants to pay Heisman Trophy candidate Tua Tagovailoa to play football it would have to figure out how to pay Chloe Maize, its junior forward on the women’s soccer team, as well.
To be clear, there is a legal argument against such an interpretation — federal courts have upheld higher pay for men’s basketball coaches, for example, based upon the notion that men’s programs traditionally bring in greater revenue. Would such a precedent apply to players? Don’t know. The NCAA has traditionally fixed players’ salaries at $0.
For now, the momentum is building to allow student-athletes to use their fame to make some money. This will benefit the few, but few is better than none. The legislature should pass such a law. Let Christyn Williams sell some No. 13 jerseys. The thorny work for the future will be trying to figure out how to get money in the pockets of the not-so-famous.
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