CHARLIE MITCHELL: Recipe for destruction: Pay college athletes

“It’s Time To Pay College Athletes,” TIME magazine declares on its cover this week. Here’s another statement: “It’s Time To End Intercollegiate Sports.”

Think about it.The two sound different.Fundamentally, though, they’re the same.

Look at the Olympics.

There are those of us old enough to remember before 1992 when all events featured amateur competitors only.

These days, multimillionaire competitors represent the United States, usually arriving in their own private jets and their events are, well, yawners.

Now please know that this is being written from the perspective of a devoted fan, not a wonk who thinks athletics “dilute” the university mission. The pageantry associated with college sports is amazing, invigorating. The best institutions of higher learning challenge their students to dig deep, do their best in calculus. So it’s certainly not inconsistent to encourage young people to develop both the mental and physical prowess needed in football, basketball, tennis, soccer, volleyball, swimming … and the list goes on. Strong minds, strong bodies.

Mississippians love this stuff.

TIME’s argument for paying college athletes cash in addition to their free room, board and tuition at most schools is, essentially fairness.

Everybody’s for fairness, right?

The article by Sean Gregory cites an economic analysis showing that in terms of cash benefits conferred, if the National Football League payroll model were applied, universities would owe each average player $225,000 per year.

And, of course, many players are not “average.” Their super-athleticism, especially in football, is what puts fans in the stands and drives TV contracts ever higher.

Visiting the University of Mississippi last year, Johnny Rodgers, who won the Heisman Trophy while a stellar runningback at the University of Nebraska in 1972, was adamant that college athletes are actually penalized by the extra financial scrutiny they receive. A professor who has an extra textbook and gives it to a “normal” student has done the student a favor. A professor who has an extra textbook and gives it to a student-athlete has opened the door to an NCAA investigation. The athlete could lose eligibility to play plus his or her scholarship through accepting a favor any other student could accept with no consequences.

Rodgers seemed to favor a flat stipend, at least, for athletes – $500 or $1,000 per month in addition to being able to attend college free.

That “middle ground” argument is compelling.

But the other end of the spectrum – compensation based on “value” to a team is fraught with complications, including legal obstacles. Title IX, for example, creates a federal imperative to eliminate gender bias on campuses, including in athletics. But doesn’t it mean a university would have to justify why a star quarterback was paid more than a backup goalie in women’s soccer?

Truth is, there are complications with pay for play and without it. Unfairnesses, too. There’s the famous case of Jim Thorpe whose 1912 Olympic medals were taken away after it was discovered he’d been paid to play semi-pro baseball in a summer league. That would be akin, if the Olympics were still for amateurs, to a gynmast today being disqualified because somebody bought her a post-meet cheeseburger when she was in the sixth grade.

It’s not easy for any talented person to remain financially pure. Every major university these days has a “compliance staff” working independently to make sure NCAA rules are followed. It’s tricky, often flawed. Many try to beat the system. Some succeed.

But to disband that effort – to go whole hog into pay for play – would essentially sever the relationship between universities and their athletics departments. It would say, tacitly, “Money is the most important thing and the only reason we have college sports.”

TIME says it’s time.

If so, then go ahead and create a Junior NFL. But also go ahead and break all ties (at least the few that remain) between college sports and colleges.

Because such a transition – putting money front and center – will kill intercollegiate competition. And there’s absolutely no guarantee that anything will become more “fair.”

CHARLIE MITCHELL is a Mississippi journalist. Write to him at Box 1, University, MS 38677, or e-mail

  • Kevin

    The system that exists now is a farce. “Student-athletes” who play football or basketball are not students by any stretch of the imagination (with exception of a few). Moreover, their coaches encourage them to take “gimme” classes and many are told what to major in. The typical athlete approaches the college part of their playing years as a distraction. They know why they’re there and their coaches emphasize it. Everyone around them does. They are laborers and entertainers. So the spectacle that is college football and basketball definitely undermines the mission of the university. Mitchell should read Murray Sperber’s 1999 book on the subject, Beer and Circus: How Big Time College Athletics Undermines Undergraduate Education. Both higher ed and the NCAA need massive reform. If they don’t pay the players, then they should gut the scholarship system and make the footballers and basketballers true amateurs. The NCAA can’t have it both ways. Eventually teams at the big time colleges will refuse to pay unless paid and then the universities will cave because of the pressure to pay an honest wage for honest work.