For three years at the University of Cincinnati, I taught a class in Advanced Reporting to juniors and seniors interested in writing about sports for a living. We met late in the morning, plenty of time for 20-year-olds to shake the cobwebs from their brains and show up ready to learn. So it was disconcerting to see a few of them every semester arrive in my classroom and nod off.
"Don't you like what I'm teaching?'' I'd ask. "Am I boring you? How can I help?'' Adjunct professors actually care about such things.
"No, the class is good,'' is what I'd hear. "I had to work late last night.''
They'd be stocking supermarket shelves until 4 in the morning. They'd be tending bar. One worked as a security guard at an apartment building. They'd fall into bed six hours before they had to be in my class.
I think about these kids now, whenever the siren sounds for college athletes to be paid. What about my students? What does it say to them?
These were not people who asked to be paid to attend college. These were folks who paid for the privilege. And let's be clear: College is a privilege. It is earned, not bestowed.
Some, in fact, are still paying. It's one thing to go to school for free and to leave free of debt. It's quite another to work your way through and depart with a five-figure yoke around your neck.
Should college athletes be paid? Why?
At the highest levels, here is what they endure. Here's some of the hardship involved if you are an athlete, attending a university for free:
A four-year audition for prospective employers. Or three years, or two. Or basically, whenever you and your pro league of choice agree you've passed the audition. I don't know about you, but when I was a college junior, schlepping to town council meetings on Tuesday nights for my Journalism 301 class, no newspaper editor was there to praise my fascinating reporting on zoning changes in a residential subdivision.
When you agree to a full, free ride at a university and you are a football or basketball player, you do so knowing that if you're good enough at what you do, you will get noticed. It's not as if you'll need to spend any time assembling a resume. Your game is your resume.
You will burnish your resume while flying to away games, often in chartered jets, and staying in first-class hotels. If you play basketball, it's likely you will visit a tropical island at least once in your four, free years. If you play football, you could spend a week at a bowl site, where you will get nice gifts from the game's sponsors.
Meantime, if scholarship is among your goals, there will be no shortage of attendants at your beck and call. You will have tutors and study tables. You will have coaches who assign managers to act as human alarm clocks, in the off chance you accidentally sleep late. In some places, you will be enrolled in classes designed to keep you eligible. You will have compliant and complicit professors, interested in the same thing.
I was not a college athlete. I did not have tutors or study tables or anyone to make sure I went to class. If I earned an F, I got one. Scholarship was expected. It was, after all, what I was there for.
Did I mention costs?
It costs $57,180 to go to Duke. It's $31,946 to attend Butler. The University of Cincinnati, a public, urban place with lots of commuters, costs $24,942 if you're from out of state, which describes the bulk of football and basketball players. If you want to go to the University of Texas, and you're not a Texan, it's $35,776 a year. Many people who work full-time jobs don't make $35,776 a year. Some even have college degrees.
This is a lot of money. It's the sort of outlay that keeps parents awake at 3 a.m. Unless, of course, you're the parent of an athlete on full scholarship, in which case you want to know why he or she isn't getting paid.
So many advantages. If you are, say, a member of the men's basketball team at the University of Kentucky, you will have a job waiting for you after you graduate, assuming you do, even if you never get off of John Calipari's bench. Athletes have built-in connections non-athletes can only dream of.
Athletes are not starving their way through four years of indentured servitude. They are not, god help us, "slaves.'' On most campuses, they're among the privileged classes.
Solutions are everywhere lately, for the tragedy of having to play a sport to attend college. A few months ago, Sports Illustrated suggested that one way to pay football and basketball players is to bust down to club status other sports, men's sports mostly. That is: A swimmer is not as worthy to the school as a basketball player is. Even if he works as hard in the pool as the basketball player does in the gym.
Swimmers routinely practice at 5 or 6 in the morning. John Chaney used to hold basketball practice at Temple at 6. He was regarded universally as an Old School martinet.
SI's stance suggests college sports should be viewed entirely in an economic light: If you don't pay for yourself, you have to come up with money to finance the program. That devalues the effort of a non-revenue athlete. It also assumes football and basketball are universally profitable. That's not the case, especially with football. Not every school is Texas or Michigan or Ohio State.
It also cuts against the grain of what we like to think college is about: Opportunity. We will give you the opportunity to play a sport. Unless it's football or basketball, that opportunity's going to cost you.
Bob Knight once said the best argument against paying players is that it diminishes the value of an education. That's as true now as it has ever been. For every athlete demanding a paycheck, there are 10 deserving non-athletes who can't afford to walk in the door. To whom a college degree would mean more than a direct deposit every couple of weeks.
Of course, things are out of whack now. Coaches' salaries are ridiculous. The hours athletes put in eliminate any semblance of college life. Parents should be able to take plane tickets and hotel rooms to see their kids play, without fear of NCAA blowback.
Players should be able to afford the proverbial Friday night pizza. I'm not suggesting being a big-time athlete should be any more of a challenge than being a big-time student. In some, very tangible ways, it's less of a challenge already. Just ask those kids in my class, trying to stay awake after working all night.