Want to reward college athletes? Educate them

The National Collegiate Athletic Association threw in the towel on Tuesday on the issue of paying college athletes. After years of adamant opposition, the NCAA board agreed that athletes can be compensated for their name, image and likeness (NIL), a decision that comes a month after legislation was approved in California to do the same thing. The NCAA decision will take effect no later than Jan. 1, 2021, the California decision in 2023.

Both decisions reflect a public rush to judgment that ignores strong counterarguments — most importantly that too many schools have lost sight of their mission to educate all students, including their athletes. Because only a handful of stars could benefit from the NIL decisions, it’s likely that a strong push for direct payments to players will come next. Such a decision would change the status of players from students to employees with a host of problems to follow. But whatever form pay for play takes, it will never be enough to offset the loss of an education that our institutions of higher education are bound by duty to provide.

A major driver on the pay for play issue is that huge sums are being generated by the so-called revenue sports, especially in the postseason, while the players, who are mostly black, get nothing. Meanwhile, coaches patrolling the sidelines make millions while assistant coaches, athletic directors and others, who are mostly white, reap handsome rewards. The injustice of that sight is glaring and indefensible — stark enough to engender widespread concern and urgent calls to action.

The growing list of advocates of pay for play includes presidential candidates, U.S. senators, a federal judge and many sports writers and commentators. To reject their views out of hand would be a mistake. While public opinion still leans against it, the shift toward pay for play is unmistakable.

The ultimate irony of pay for play – no matter what form it takes – is that it will accelerate the widespread practice of not educating those who play the so-called revenue sports. Only a few could monetize their name, likeness and image; direct payments from colleges and universities would be even worse. Major college sports are already on such shaky financial grounds that only 20 or so of the 347 schools in NCAA Division 1 operate in the black in any given year. If direct payments are made to players, how would their athletic departments underwrite the added expense?

In our forthcoming book, Marching Toward Madness, we identify many reasons why pay for play is a bad idea—one that could wreck the games that provide so much fun and excitement for millions. These reasons include the potential for endless litigation under Title IX; recruiting wars that would further concentrate talent at a few big schools, more frequent scandals, resulting in increased oversight by the NCAA, an organization sorely lacking in public trust and accountability. Unfortunately, both NIL and direct payments are being embraced without any details on how they’ll be implemented.

For decades, American society has sent false signals to youth in economically disadvantaged neighborhoods: You, too, can be the next Michael … the next LeBron … the next Zion. Mind-numbing repetition of that message inspired hope in millions of youngsters that they, too, could play in the NBA or the NFL—that they, too, could bask in the limelight and claim great wealth as their own. Along the way, harsh reality got shoved aside: players with one-word names – ergo Michael Jordan, LeBron James and Zion Williamson – are once-in-a-generation phenoms, so special that even great talent, herculean effort and phenomenal luck can’t guarantee replication of their success. Another message – far more important than the first – never got through at all: that educational attainment is much more likely than athletics to lead to economic success and a fulfilling life.

When all is said and done, we’ll never face up to this long-neglected problem if we allow major colleges and universities to shirk even further the imperative to educate the young athletes who generate so much of their windfall sports revenues.

John LeBar coached two varsity sports at Duke University. Allen Paul is the author of “Katyń: Stalin’s Massacre and the Triumph of Truth.”