Editorial: Paying college athletes creates a host of problems

photo by: Journal-World Photo Illustration

Lawrence Journal-World Editorial

If you want to watch the best basketball in the world, watch the NBA. If you want to watch the most passionate basketball in the world, watch a college basketball game.

Passionate basketball — as evidenced by today’s Selection Sunday hoopla — is the brand for the NCAA and all its Division I basketball programs. That is an important point to remember as the NCAA continues to receive pressure to begin paying college athletes.

All this talk of paying athletes to play a game threatens the integrity of higher education. The world of higher education is one where you can’t swing your tassel without hitting five administrators who are complaining about being underfunded. Yet, we will find money to pay college athletes while everybody else’s tuition continues to increase. Will anybody ever again believe college leaders when they say they’re truly concerned about the cost of a college degree?

In fact, even the current system risks college leaders being labeled hypocrites. The cost of a college degree is high and is a burden to many families. Full-ride scholarships are scarce and demand far outstrips supply. Every time a one-and-done athlete gets a full-ride scholarship, that’s one less scholarship that is available to someone who was truly committed to getting a college degree.

Proponents of paying college athletes often say it is unfair that these student-athletes don’t get paid for their talents. What is unfair is many feel forced to spend one to two years in college simply because they think it is something they have to do to get to the NBA. Playing professional basketball is a young person’s game. They should be allowed to embark on that career as soon as they are adults. What will make the system more fair is if young phenoms are encouraged to enter professional basketball directly. It allows them to take advantage of more of their prime earning years. If you want to yell at someone, yell at the NBA and its age restrictions. Even if the NBA doesn’t lift those restrictions, there is still the minor league basketball system and overseas leagues that are options as starting spots for a professional basketball career.

Proponents also argue that the real unfairness is that the schools make so much money off these student-athletes, yet they don’t get paid. That argument gets a little weaker when you look at an athletic department as an entire system rather than a collection of individual sports. Most student-athletes don’t make any money for their schools. The scholarships athletes on the women’s tennis team, for instance, aren’t cash machines for KU.

But the argument could be blunted even more if the higher education community would have the gumption to make some systemic changes. Colleges should adopt a policy from the NBA — spending caps. In the NBA, they are used to control player salaries. In college, they could be used to control athletic department budgets. Create a formula that determines how much schools of certain sizes and types can spend. Give schools a bonus based on graduation rates and GPAs. Any money the athletic departments collect above the spending cap would be transferred to the university’s general fund to be used for academics and other purposes that are facing funding shortfalls.

KU fans should support such a system. Kansas Athletics is at risk of getting outspent and outbuilt in the world of college athletics. A spending cap would lessen that risk. It also would make intangibles such as tradition, game day experiences, and rabid fan bases more important in recruiting battles. KU is intangibly rich, at least in the basketball world.

Arguments that such a system would cause college sports to shrink in popularity are likely false. The popularity of college sports really isn’t about the one-and-done phenoms. It is about the passion of the fans. As long as they still believe their teams have a chance to win a championship, as long as a David still has a chance to take down a Goliath, the sport will still be full of passion. And, if the passion continues to exist, CBS will still pay the big bucks for the right to televise it.

If college athletics takes the other path of paying select student-athletes, it risks destroying its brand. Why watch the second-best professional league, with a mascot named hypocrisy?


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