- - Monday, May 5, 2014

Northwestern University football players demand the right to form a union. Sports columnists advocate paying campus athletes in the name of fairness, given the million of dollars in revenue games generate for their universities. So does AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, on the lookout for potential new members.

Nonsense. The proposed solution would only intensify the problem.

There are approximately 2,900 four-year colleges and universities in the United States. Last year, 252 had “major” football programs, 126 of those in the potentially big-money football bowl subdivision. By National Collegiate Athletic Association rules, these programs could offer up to 85 scholarships each.

In basketball, the other cash-cow sport for successful athletic departments, the NCAA listed 350 top programs entitled to 13 scholarships each.

Of these gridiron and hard-court programs, only several dozen, including my alma mater, Ohio State University, generate enough to pay their head coaches more than university presidents or state governors earn. Of the potential 10,710 football and 4,550 basketball scholarship recipients in the biggest programs annually, only a handful will play even a minute in a National Football League or National Basketball Association game.

Nevertheless, it’s these programs that sometimes recall the old saw about football teams that have colleges attached. As anyone who’s ever worn a necklace of buckeyes over a licensed OSU scarlet-and-gray sweatshirt to join 100,000 other devotees in Ohio Stadium on a game-day Saturday knows, being a fan of a major college football or basketball program is like participating in a religious revival. The enthusiasm is sweeping, uplifting and, when it comes to universities’ missions of higher education and research, distorting.

Pay “student athletes”? As “amateurs,” they already receive tuition, room and board worth tens of thousands of dollars a year. In exchange, they commit to rigorous, time-consuming training and practice schedules that can allow little time and perhaps less desire even for nontaxing classes intended to keep them “academically eligible.” Even so, the most bankable stars leave school early to enter the professional drafts.

The solution for this long-running charade is not to cement the folly by turning undergraduates into professional athletes paid by the schools supposedly educating them. It is to end “athletic scholarships.”

Where is it written that America’s colleges must serve as the minor league farm systems of the NBA and NFL? Major League Baseball long has done perfectly well with its extensive minor leagues, each big-league club developing its young talent through the instructional, A, AA and AAA levels. Even players drafted out of college usually are seasoned “down on the farm.”

National Hockey League franchises, too, work with minor-league affiliates from which they draw players. Baseball’s and hockey’s minor-league teams have their own fan bases, loyal if smaller and much less obsessive than those of major college football and basketball.  

Major-league sports, especially football and baseball, are multibillion-dollar industries heavily subsidized by taxpayers at the federal and municipal levels. Baseball’s antitrust exemption, football’s favorable federal tax treatment and property-tax reductions, and other stimuli awarded to franchise owners by local governments help enrich professional sports. These breaks ultimately are paid for by the public, both fans and those who don’t know who’s on first and couldn’t care less.

At the college level, only a small minority of athletic departments do not require subsidies from general school revenue. That is, all other tuition-paying students and their parents and, at public universities, state governments must help erase the deficit. There is no reason to expand the burden-shifting by paying college athletes. If the athletes’ focus is professional sports, they should be training in the minor leagues.

Colleges, free to re-emphasize the educational value of “a sound mind in a sound body” for students in general, could re-establish physical-education requirements and boost intramurals. Let every varsity athlete be a walk-on, playing for the love of the sport as his class work permits. And pay the head coach like a phys ed. instructor, not the CEO of a major corporation.

A fantasy, you say, given the big-money pacts television networks have with the National Collegiate Athletic Association to broadcast football and basketball games, and the related cash flowing through the major programs? Maybe, but less delusional than paying “student athletes.” Meanwhile, Americans addicted to sports would still have the NFL and NBA, just as they already enjoy big-league baseball and hockey.

Eric Rozenman is a Washington, D.C.-based news analyst.