Wednesday, March 20, 2013

I Was Convinced That Paying College Athletes Would Fix the Problem and, Then I Realized I Didn't Know What I Was Talking About

“And I said I need a dollar dollar, a dollar is what I need. And if I share with you my story would you share your dollar with me."

Lyric from: I Need a Dollar from the album Good Things 
               Written By: Leon Michels, E. Nahaniel Dawkins, Nick Movshon, Jeff Dynamite
                                                                                                    Performed by: Aloe Blacc

Photo of Ben McLemore courtesy of Jamie Squire/Getty Images

This story in USA Today on Jayhawks freshman guard, Ben McLemore, had me at the words "fights through poverty".

McLemore, KU's leading scorer this season, will no doubt play the part of chief choreographer this month as the no. 1-seeded squad heads to the big dance in pursuit of its second NCAA championship in five years. 

The team also earned the no. 2 overall seed in the tourney behind top seeded Louisville and will face tough competition in the South region on the road to a potential second consecutive Final Four.

And it will be peanuts compared to the challenges McLemore faced as a youth growing up in St. Louis.

As the second youngest of Sonya Reid's six children, the All-American would sometimes go one or two days without eating since, from time to time, his mom was burdened with the unenviable choice of whether to buy food or sell the food stamps to pay bills.

Even as a young boy McLemore saw basketball as a way out of poverty for his family and worked on his game at a local court but admits that the hunger pangs were a distraction. 

"It's hard to play basketball when nothing's inside of you," McLemore told Eric Prisbell of USA Today Sports.

If ever there was a narrative to support a move in the direction of paying college athletes to play, McLemore's story indeed makes a strong case.

When I read that profile piece a couple of weeks ago I immediately took to twitter in a rant that argued for a review of the NCAA's stance against paying players and their hard line regarding the cash cow that is amateur sports-most specifically basketball and football.

But today I'm not so sure that paying players is the answer and, it feels almost irresponsible of me to have assumed such an uncomplicated solution to a complex issue.

The foundation for this discussion seems to have changed in recent years.

It used to be that heartbreaking stories like that of Ben McLemore stirred us to action. As sports fans we couldn't bear the thought of our favorite college athletes having to balance the pressures of schoolwork and elite level play against the backdrop of worry over whether or not his family's basic needs-food, shelter and clothing-were being met back home.

Complicating the matter was our belief that education provided the one true path to prosperity and, we were disappointed to see a kid have to sacrifice his degree for the promise of millions at the pro level even if all the food, clothes and houses money could buy along with a worry-free existence was part of the deal.

We decided in the meantime that it was best to look the other way while boosters did what universities couldn't, all the while dreaming that athletic departments would one day find a way to legitimately make these kids whole.

Then we woke up.

We realized that most of these kids, being ill-prepared for college and with no real desire to make any effort to be prepared, couldn't care less about a degree. 

And then the bottom fell out of the economy and, we got mad.

In the last seven years people have lost homes, jobs and their grasps on the American dream at record levels. As the gap between the have and have nots in this country has widened tremendously, all talk has turned to corporate greed and the business of college sports has not been spared in the blame game.

Athletic departments rake in tens of millions for a single bowl/championship game. College coaches at the top programs are millionaires. Conference commisioners make upwards of half a million dollars annually. While the student-athletes who make those numbers possible toil away in exchange for free room, board and education.

That doesn't feel like enough. The kids don't want the education anyway so why should we expect them to be okay with that as compensation?

But here's the thing, why are we okay with them finding so little value in their education?

In 2007 I had the pleasure of hearing Charles Barkley speak at a charity dinner here in Memphis. 

That evening he urged parents to consider the fact that their kids "have a better chance of becoming a doctor or a lawyer than going to the NBA or the NFL."

It's simple math really. Five Hundred or so spots in the NBA and around 1300 in the NFL. That's it. That's where league rosters cap out but, no one's limiting the amount of folks who can be lawyers next year.

Most of these kids won't have a professional team waiting with bated breath for them to declare for the draft.

If a college team has more than one kid that makes it to the league in a year that's the exception not the rule.

So allow me to look at Sir Charles' words from a more dreadfully sobering angle.

A talented college athlete who has spent most his life being told he's the best thing since sliced bread who doesn't earn a degree has as much of a chance to end up working at Wendy's as any other kid who blows off school.

There's no separation there.

With that in mind, how dare we concede that it's okay for a free education to be taken for granted.

In non-athletic circles when we see someone struggling financially or wasting away under the weight of a dead end job the first thing we do is encourage them to go to school and, when we don't think they're prepared for the classroom we insist that they get prepared.

Why let our college athletes off the hook?

Meanwhile, this piece detailing long time opponent of paying college athletes, Big Ten Commissioner, Jim Delaney's recent threat of a de-emphasis on collegiate athletics in response to the proposed use of TV revenue sharing to compensate student athletes did little to help enhance the public's perception of conference big wigs.

He offered those remarks in a declaration filed last week in federal court in response to Ed O'Bannon vs. the NCAA.

Delaney wrote that such measures would cause Big Ten Schools to "forgo the revenues in those circumstances and instead take steps to downsize the scope, breadth and activity of their athletic programs."

Delaney's threat is despicable-mess with our money and we'll take away your joy.

But the revenue sharing proposal is a curious one. 

In the harsh, cold reality of adulthood, many of us spend most of our time working a job to make ends meet. A company hires us to perform a job for which we are paid a salary that usually pales in comparison to the revenue that our job's function contributes to the organization. 

A friend of mine recently reflected on the fact that for his role as head honcho of an $11 million arm of business within his company he was being compensated at less than 1% of that revenue.

Ultimately a role is assessed a value by the powers that be. When we accept that role, we accept that valuation and; apparently we do so with very little pushback since, according to this article on, most people don't negotiate salary due to fear.

My point is this, a college athlete's role in the success of his or her university has been valued at a free education with room and board. That may not seem equitable but it sure is a lesson on being a grownup in the real world and coincidentally, the real world is exactly where most of these players will end up-far far away from the shores of the NBA and NFL's islands of fantasy.

But what of the struggling families back home?

For Ben McLemore, those struggles are likely over. A strong showing in the tournament could possibly cement his selection as the no. 1 overall pick in the upcoming NBA draft and as such his family will no longer have to choose between food and heat.

As for the many heartbreaking stories like his to come, I can only admit that I don't know the right answer.

Poverty is a dastardly epidemic in this country, one that for a very gifted college athlete is not so easily remedied by a four-year salary.