Opinion

A shift against the greed that drives major college sports

University of Virginia men’s basketball coach Tony Bennett did the best a college coach can do last season. His team won the national championship. But after the season, he did something even more impressive. He turned down a raise for his accomplishment.

It’s true — a big-time coach didn’t want another barrel full of money. “I have more than I need,” he said. “I’m blessed beyond what I deserve.”

One online commentator responded to the news with: “Sports hell has just frozen over.”

That’s an understatement. In a sports arms race in which coaches’ salaries keep escalating, a coach actually said, “I have more than enough.”

It’s not that Bennett took a vow of poverty. He made nearly $6 million last season. That’s way more than enough for a man who coaches players who aren’t paid and often don’t go on to lucrative jobs even if they get a UVA degree in exchange for their skill and effort. Bennett acknowledged as much by also donating $500,000 to support a career-training program for current and former UVA men’s basketball players.

Will Bennett’s self-denial shame other coaches who rake in millions off unpaid labor? No. When it comes to squeezing money out universities and shoe companies, they’re always on a full-court press. But Bennett’s move may signal an important shift in major college sports by bringing the excesses of coaches’ pay into even starker contrast with the bankruptcy of the NCAA amateur model.

Addressing that mismatch, California passed legislation to allow athletes to be compensated for use of their name, image and likeness for marketing purposes. It’s called the Fair Pay to Play Act. It’s just, it’s long overdue and the NCAA and those who operate the NFL’s and NBA’s minor leagues — operations also known as colleges and universities — hate it.

“We’re firmly against anything that would lead to a pay-for-play system,” said Larry Scott, the commissioner of the Pac-12 Conference.

The opposition rests on a tattered claim that pay would turn student-athletes into pros and ruin the ideal of playing a sport for its own sake. But even as the schools oppose paying athletes they’ve quietly backed away from their end of the deal: providing a good education in lieu of pay.

The academic-athletic scandal at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill ended with the school asserting and the NCAA meekly accepting that the governing body of college sports has no say over the quality — or even the reality — of classes that keep athletes eligible.

In response to that loophole in the deal schools make with their athletes, athletic reformers tried to close it. The reform commission headed by former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and an NCAA academic integrity working group recommended that the NCAA police egregious academic misconduct involving athletes.

The NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors considered the proposed change and said, “We’ll pass.” An NCAA report said of the decision: “Feedback from the membership on this idea indicated some but not significant support.”

Now in California there is significant support for letting athletes get compensated, especially since Division I leaders don’t seem to care whether athletes get educated.

Tony Bennett went against that tide of avarice and neglect by turning down a raise and putting half a million dollars into players’ career training. Perhaps after beating the competition, he — along with California — can help defeat the hypocrisy and injustice of big-time college sports.

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