Thursday, October 14, 2010

Disturbing? Yes. Shocking? No.

This week's cover story in Sports Illustrated might surprise some, and others will point to it as further proof of the deterioration of the concept of collegiate student-athletes as amateurs.

Count me among the latter.

"Confessions of an Agent," where former player agent Josh Luchs admits that he paid student-athletes throughout his career for the express purpose of signing them once they transitioned to the NFL, did not catch me off-guard. Anyone who's been watching ESPN over the past few months knows of the agent scandals at North Carolina, South Carolina and Alabama -- and those are just the schools reported on.

Anyone who's been paying attention knows Florida head football coach Urban Meyer and Alabama head football coach Nick Saban lambasted agents -- the latter even went so far as to call them pimps.

Look ... are there agents who seek to take advantage of student-athletes for their own financial and career benefit? Absolutely, and they are a pox on both big-time college athletics and the professional leagues that benefit from their talents. But things aren't nearly that cut-and-dry -- as Luchs pointed out.

We'll speak mostly about college football and basketball players, since those sports generate the majority of a school's athletic revenue and public exposure -- and those student-athletes are the ones most likely to use those talents to secure a multi-million contract (of which agents would get a healthy cut).

Let's face it: agents aren't beating down doors looking to scoop up the star field hockey goalie. They do beat down the door for the star quarterback or point guard.

When it comes to the big-time athletes in the big-time programs, you're talking about student-athletes who are far less student than athlete. They don't necessarily choose college because of a desire to receive a degree; it's because they see college as a way to hone the athletic abilities they've spent their entire young lives practicing and find a successful life in a professional league that will give them millions of dollars.

Many of these student-athletes come from rough backgrounds, growing up without much money. Growing up in poverty, some of these student-athletes see athletics as a way out -- if a child gets good enough at football, he'll get that scholarship to USC, then he'll eventually land in the NFL as a first-round pick.

One big-ass signing bonus later, the family's poverty problems are over.

Imagine yourself as one such student-athlete. You did in fact receive that full scholarship to USC. Your tuition, room and board and textbooks are all provided free of charge, but you don't have money for basic living expenses. You can't afford to buy food, you can't afford to take your girlfriend to a movie.

And because your schedule is full with classes, practices, travel dates and games, you can't go out and get a part-time job. Meanwhile, the university rakes in millions of dollars in ticket sales and merchandise sales and TV revenue -- all because of your talents on the football field.

But you never see any of that money yourself.

Now, say Luchs came up to you and said he would give you $1,500 a month until you graduate or decide to declare yourself for the NFL Draft. You know it's wrong in terms of student-athlete regulations, you know it's an NCAA violation, but your bank account is in the red and you're not sure where you'll get your next meal.

Tell me you'd turn down the money. Say to me, with as straight a face as possible, that you would honestly turn down that money.

You wouldn't. You know you wouldn't. It doesn't make you a bad person, and it doesn't make Luchs a bad guy; he's simply doing his job in a climate where that sort of thing is not only permissible, it's expected. You're not a bad person, either, because hey -- you need to eat. And after all you've given to USC, after all the money it's made off your athletic exploits, don't you think you deserve a little something too?

This is the argument made by those who feel big-time student-athletes should be paid. The argument flies in the face of the NCAA's contention that student-athletes are amateurs, but the NCAA's regulations have created an environment where that amateur status is flimsy at best.

I'm not saying give these kids $20,000 a year; you don't have to pay these student-athletes a lot. Simply add a $2,000 stipend per semester to each student-athlete's scholarship that goes toward food and other living expenses. Universities pay for everything but living expenses, so isn't it only fair if they do?

Particularly when these schools rake in millions of dollars because of their student-athletes' talents. Especially when a football team makes a BCS bowl game ($$$$!) or advance in the NCAA Tournament ($$$$!).

Coaches and athletic directors get raises when athletic success brings in millions of dollars to schools. It's time to let the student-athletes have a cut. It won't solve all the problems when it comes to agents paying athletes, but it would help.

Agents aren't bad people, and neither are student-athletes. They're merely operating in a corrupt system that is unsustainable if we are to continue the charade that student-athletes are in fact amateurs.

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