College athletes cannot be paid. Every American knows this. The concept is as entrenched in our bloodstreams as cholesterol. We have accepted it for so long, and gone along with the NCAA's definition of right and wrong for so many years, that we don't even remember the reasons anymore.
They can't be paid because they can't be paid, because they just can't, because it's not allowed, because if it were allowed, then they could be paid. And they can't. Because it's not allowed. Got it?
So when Cam Newton allegedly earns $180,000 playing college football to help repair his father's church, he is a villain. When Terrelle Pryor and A.J. Green sell memorabilia, they get suspended, even though their schools openly sell memorabilia.
When Robert Traylor, the poor son of a crack-addicted mother and absentee father, takes money from a booster, he gets exiled. When Reggie Bush accepts thousands of dollars from somebody who sees his pro potential, he has to return his Heisman Trophy.
Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, who probably would have been the No. 1 pick in last April's NFL Draft, turned down millions to return for his senior season. Given his worth, shouldn't he be able to make money while in college?
Look, cheating is wrong. The point here is not to excuse the cheaters. I hate cheating. The point is to re-define cheating.
The 2010-2011 NCAA manual says the "Principle of Amateurism" is important because college athletics are an "avocation" and ... hang on, here comes the punchline: "student-athletes should be protected from exploitation by professional and commercial enterprise."
Really? When an athlete sells his jersey so he can pay rent, and the NCAA suspends him, is the NCAA really protecting him? Who is the NCAA kidding?
If major college sports did not exist, nobody would try to create them -- not as we know them today. The entire enterprise is preposterous. If there were no college sports, 100 school presidents would never issue the following press release:
"We have decided to create sports teams to represent our universities. We will have to admit a lot of students with inferior academic records solely because they can play football or basketball, but hey, we're cool with that. Anyway, what matters here is that we can make billions of dollars doing this, and we're not going to let the players have anything beyond room, board, meals and a few other sundries. Not only that, but we will not allow ANYBODY to give them money. We have decided money is bad for them. It ... uh ... corrupts! Yes. It corrupts. Now: Who wants to buy a personal-seat license?"
We have a system where coaches are worth $5 million a year but star players are worth $40,000 -- a structure completely incongruous with the rest of the sports landscape.
It's time to start over. College sports have so many redeeming qualities -- the sense of community, the thrill of competition, and goshdarnit, I'll even throw "life lessons for young people" in there. Why are we so obsessed with restraining the income of players? Who is winning here? What are we protecting?
That NCAA manual devotes 16 pages to amateurism. We can cut it down to one, with one principle:
Athletes may not be paid directly with university funds.
That's it. One rule. There is your "amateurism." This way, universities can spend their booster donations, TV money and sponsorship dollars subsidizing facilities, staff, operating costs and athletic scholarships. College athletics will continue to thrive across dozens of sports.
But those who can cash in on their fame and success will be able to do it. If a wealthy South Carolina alum wants to give $50,000 a year to every Gamecock, he can do it.
Is this fair? No, not really. If we wanted to be completely fair, then football and basketball players would not be forced to subsidize non-revenue athletes. But this is a start. It's a way to keep what we love about college athletics without unduly penalizing athletes.
Some day, we will look back on this era of college sports the way we look back on Prohibition. We'll see that there were some good intentions behind it, along with some misguided fears. The problem with amateurism in college sports is the same problem the nation had with Prohibition: It is impossible to enforce.
The simple fact is that college athletes want to get paid (who wouldn't?) and there are literally thousands of people out there who would like to pay them. Why are we stopping this? What is the big deal? What do you think would happen if your starting quarterback was allowed to take $100,000 from somebody who enjoyed watching him play? Would the Earth crash into the sun?
I once had a remarkably circular conversation with former NCAA president Myles Brand about the NCAA's amateurism rules. One of his chief arguments was this:
"The fact is we don't pay students in other areas when they are engaged in activities as part of their education."
That may be (mostly) true. But colleges don't prevent their students from making additional money either. If a student at the University of Southern California School of Cinematic Arts is offered $2 million to direct a major-studio movie, that student would still be allowed to take his film classes. USC wouldn't say "Hey, that's no good. Give us your money so we can pay a professor seven figures."
This is not about whether college athletes are "exploited." That argument is a canard. Yes, they get a free education, and get to eat free meals, and get tutors and great weightlifting facilities. So does Kobe Bryant. (Well, he did, until last month.)
With every booster scandal, we confirm what we already suspect: Many people who eager to pay these young men for their work, and the NCAA cabal won't allow it.
Should college athletes be paid? That's not really the question. No, the question is this: Should college athletes be allowed to be paid? Should they be allowed to take money for doing something perfectly legal?
Of course they should. In America in 2011, why are we even debating this?
Colleges have assigned themselves the role of Robin Hood: they take the earnings of football and basketball players and give most of it to swimmers, soccer players and other not-so-popular athletes.
That's not terrible. But it is still wrong. And yet ... well, progress comes in small steps, and for now, I'm willing to let schools keep on doing that. Really. Just loosen the rules so the most popular athletes can cash in on their fame and success. Let them sign endorsement deals, take money from boosters and get free tattoos and meals.
Then the NCAA can stop slapping every hand that is out and focus its energy and money on academic fraud and education standards for athletes.
The republic will survive. Fans will still watch the NCAA tournament. Double-reverses will still be thrilling. Alabama will still hate Auburn. Everybody will still hate Duke. Let's do what's right and re-examine what we think is wrong.