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Athlete's new day

College football is heading for a new day. It won't be long before the players on the field are going to receive more than a pittance. The present structure governed by the rules of the National Collegiate Athletic Association is beginning to crack.

There is the O'Bannon suit against the NCAA challenging its right to prohibit college athletes from sharing in the profits from sales of their names and images. There is the new attention to concussions, often resulting in lifelong disabilities for which the athletes are meagerly compensated. There is the growing awareness that college football is not an amateur sport, as the NCAA insists that it is. And there is the players' growing resentment of the huge gap between their compensation and that of their coaches.

The four highest coaches' salaries for 2012 were $5.2 million for the University of Texas' Mack Brown, $4.2 million for Ohio State's Urban Meyer, $3.8 million for the University of Iowa's Kirk Ferentz, and $3.7 million for Louisiana State University's Les Miles. It is rare for any head coach at a major football school to have a base salary of less than half a million. The compensation for the best college football players, on the other hand, is the traditional tuition and fees, room and board, and books. Never is there spending money.

Players are not happy about these disparities, and a protest movement is beginning. As things stand now players put in a full work week of games, practices, meetings, body-building sessions, and travel. There's not much time for, or interest in, school work.

But not everyone is cut out to be a student; most football players are not. Most do not meet their college's admission standards. Nevertheless, they are enrolled, as "special admits." At Georgia and Texas A&M, not untypically, 94% of freshman football players were special admits. Even with gut courses and special tutoring, barely 50% of college football players graduate.

Why can't these athletes play for a college without having to abide by anachronistic NCAA rules? On their recruiting trips, what do coaches tell high school stars? Most often the selling point is simply that playing at his school will enhance the player's chances of being noticed by an NFL team. At the football factories, most players are full-time students, as the NCAA requires, only on paper.

How would a pay-the-player system come about? The key is to get all the schools in one major conference to go ahead and make the change. Already, players at Georgia in the Southeastern Conference and Georgia Tech in the Atlantic Coast Conference have made protests on the field. The protests will spread to teams in other major conferences—the Big 10, the Big 12, the PAC-12.

With more player protests, students will begin to sympathize with the players, and they too will protest. College presidents will sympathize with their students, and they will bring the issue to their conference. The conference will realize that if its schools pay, the best players available will gravitate to that conference. Because their games will be played by the best players out there, broadcasters will pay the conference more to get their games. The necessity of football membership in the NCAA will be gone. To be competitive other major conferences will begin to pay their players.

Enrolling as a full-time student and working on a degree should be optional, not compulsory. Players' relationships to the schools they play for should be spelled out in an individualized pay-for-service contract rather than an NCAA-standardized letter of intent that impinges on basic freedoms. In any case, on game days, paid players would take the field in the school's traditional colors. The cheerleaders would perform, just as they do now. Stadiums would still ring with fight songs and the brass of marching band.

Every two weeks players would receive a paycheck, the amount determined by the demand for a player's services. If players sold their autographs, there would be no penalty. If they wanted to accept free tattoos, they could do so without fear. If automobile dealers wanted to give them breaks on the purchase of new cars, they could accept the deal. Boosters who wanted to help players out financially could do so above board. The injustices of fake amateurism would be gone.

Paul Marx is a retired professor of English living in Towson. His email is pppmarx@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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