- The Washington Times - Monday, April 4, 2011

Defending the NCAA status quo is increasingly difficult when the men’s basketball title game begins at 9:23 p.m. and Texas signs a $300 million deal to create the Longhorn Network.

And stories of poor, student-athletes struggling to make ends meet, while Kentucky’s John Calipari and Alabama’s Nick Saban rake in $4 million per year, can create a sense of outrage among the staunchest conservatives.

As hard as the NCAA tries to push holdouts like me into the “pay for play” camp, I’m still not there. Despite the shameless money grab, prosecutions over chump change and a stacked deck for coaches’ movement but not players’, I still disagree with the notion that student-athletes should be paid.

Clarification: I continue to believe they’re paid enough, in the form of tuition, room, board, travel, training, gear and health care.

The assault on “amateurism” isn’t new, but the waves of criticism are growing in strength and number each year. PBS’ “Frontline” recently dissected the men’s tournament in “Money and March Madness,” which asked a frequently heard question: “If everyone else is profiting from the multibillion dollar college sports business, why shouldn’t the athletes?”

Consumer advocate Ralph Nader isn’t waiting for an answer. He recently called for the elimination of athletic scholarships to “de-professionalize” college sports. Two months earlier, basketball legend Oscar Robertson joined a two-year-old class-action lawsuit against the NCAA.

It pains me to sound like an apologist for big-time college sports, an entity that needs reform as surely as we need food, air and water. But I’m fed up with folks bellyaching about schools “exploiting” student-athletes.

Call me old-fashioned, but a free education sounds pretty valuable to me.

Now, if some players don’t value the opportunity, they’re responsible for that misguided decision. But the fact is a vast majority of them “get it.” Athletic scholarships provide a pathway every year for thousands of graduates, legitimate students who otherwise might not attend college. Like the commercial says, there are more than 360,000 student-athletes in the NCAA and practically all of them (like, 99.9 percent) “go pro” in fields besides sports.

One big problem in this debate is critics’ habit of broad-brushing “college sports” and “college athletes,” as if one size fits all. But we know that’s hardly the case, or we’d see the volleyball, soccer and swimming teams competing for championships on prime-time TV, with networks spending beaucoup dollars for the broadcast rights.

The NCAA administers 88 championships in 23 sports, but let’s be honest. All this talk is really about football and men’s basketball, the “revenue” sports that foot the athletic department’s bills at most schools. (But be careful if you’re the one who tells UConn’s women’s basketball players that they won’t get a check while the football players will.)

Fine, you say? Just men’s hoops and football, because between the tournament and the BCS bowls, there should be plenty of loot left for the athletes?

OK. But even if you elect to forsake non-revenue sports (what, other athletes don’t work as hard or need money as much as point guards and tailbacks?) every school isn’t a Texas or Ohio State, with athletic departments that produce nine-figure incomes easier than media guides. Do you really pay the basketball and football players at Texas, but not Texas Southern? Don’t the players at Ohio State and Ohio University have more similarities than differences?

If you insist on proceeding, more problems persist. Kemba Walker and the last man on UConn’s bench commit equal time and effort during the week. Auburn’s third-string tackle is part of the team as much as Cam Newton. Would you really pay some teammates and not others, or pay stars and reserves an equal wage? That’s goes against the American way. And would refunds be in order if a program goes into the red?

I wish I was exploited during college like a scholarship athlete, compensated with a package worth well over $200,000. They sign on, willingly, to engage in an extracurricular activity - whether the school makes $1 or $10 million off said activity.

As long as the NCAA avoids crazy rules that prevent athletes from earning income available to other students, scholarships and the related benefits are actually the fairest, most equitable way to “pay” all athletes across the board.