Professionalizing college sports would be disaster for the Terps

If University of Maryland Athletic Director Kevin Anderson happened to pick up Time magazine's Sept. 16th issue, he must have choked on his coffee. The cover story, "It's Time to Pay College Athletes," represented a huge leap forward for the movement to professionalize big-time college football and men's basketball programs, and that's bad news for the University of Maryland and many other schools like it. Should this come to pass, Maryland will find itself on the bottom floor of a two-tiered caste system with no means of improving its lot.

"What's wrong with a top football player receiving an extra $50,000 a year?" asked Pulitzer Prize winning author Taylor Branch at a University of North Carolina-sponsored panel discussion. "Or a top basketball player receiving an extra $200,000?" Mr. Branch has been a central figure and movement crusader since publishing "The Shame of College Sports" in The Atlantic in 2011. But more on this later.


Using figures compiled on 225 public universities by USA Today, only 22 athletic departments generate enough revenue to cover their expenditures without extra help. Maryland is not among them. Of these, only 14 could afford to pay the kind of extra money Mr. Branch suggests, roughly $7 million per year.

Given that students are already swamped with debt and facing 8 percent tuition inflation, it would be unconscionable to force them to pony up the difference. That leaves two options: additional state subsidies or bigger athletic booster contributions. Otherwise, Maryland would have no choice but to accept its lot and settle in among the other untouchables.


As it currently stands, Maryland can and does find ways to woo top talent. But give one class of competitor the ability to sweeten the pie with monthly paychecks, and no recruit will don a Terrapin jersey until he's exhausted all options to play for pay.

The chasm between paying and non-paying schools will be deep, wide and impossible to cross. Any aspiration of building a program and competing at the highest levels will be a quaint relic of the past.

Notwithstanding the impact on Maryland athletics, there is a bigger question: Is professionalization the right thing to do? Proponents couch the issue in moral terms — New York Times columnist Joe Nocera and other media figures have gone so far as to liken the current system to plantation era slavery. Slavery?

Perhaps they haven't seen the lavish facilities created for athletes who play for the big time programs — not exactly slave quarters. And last I checked, college athletes are free to pack their bags and call it quits any time they choose. That wasn't an option back on the plantation. Bottom line, the provocative reference is shamelessly absurd, and while it may unnerve some would-be dissenters, it should offend the senses of every African American who hears it.

Ironically, professionalizing the big-time programs could actually result in fewer scholarship opportunities for minority players as money is diverted into salaries for a super-talented few.

There's no denying that administrations are routinely asked to lower academic standards in order to admit desired recruits. Make no mistake, this draws the ire of administrators, professors and more than a few alumni and students. But whatever you think of the practice, it's given many athletes entrance into institutions they could never otherwise have attended.

In a two-caste system, this practice will likely come under greater scrutiny and criticism at non-paying schools. With fewer television dollars at stake for motivation, it could well come to a screeching halt.

Meanwhile, among paying programs, academic expectations will diminish — if not disappear — as athletes morph into full-time employees and part-time students. "Once players become university employees," argues Richard Southall, director of the College Sport Research Institute, "they shouldn't even be required to be students."


All this raises an important question: How will fans respond? They're the wild card.

No one can say for sure whether fans will derive the same satisfaction following an NFL-lite team with little more than a licensing relationship with the university. If not, we'll have killed the goose that laid the golden egg, in which case everyone loses.

For those who think this could never happen, think again. The movement has numerous high-profile supporters with substantial followings, and they're having an impact. The cover story in Time magazine confirms it.

Movement crusaders — like Messrs. Branch, Nocera and even famed sportswriter Frank Deford — frequently claim that professionalization will solve all manner of ills, from sports agent indiscretions to NCAA overreaching. Which brings me back to our panel discussion at UNC.

If I didn't know better, I would have sworn Mr. Branch was channeling Keyrock. You remember: the silver-tongued "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" from Saturday Night Live who bamboozled his juries into paying big sums.

"Your lucrative television deals, complicated NCAA rules, and arbitrary procedures frighten and confuse me," I could almost hear him say before delivering his signature close. "But there's one thing I do know: These big time college athletes deserve big-time money."


There's too much at stake here to be bamboozled. Even so, with the Time cover piece the movement took a giant leap forward. Something's coming, something big, and there's nothing good about it.

David B. Magee is a writer, entrepreneur and former college football player. He lives in Chapel Hill, N.C., and can be reached at