- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2001

For sports fans March Madness means basketball, and lots of it. For universities, it means money, and lots of it.

The NCAA´s current eight-year TV contract, which runs through 2002, is worth $1.725 billion. The new 11-year agreement, negotiated with CBS, is worth $6 billion.

That´s a lot of money. Unfortunately, virtually none of it goes to the people whom fans pay to see: the players.

The NCAA itself is the most obvious beneficiary. However, the organization proudly points to the $70 million that it spends on various championships. "That´s no small thing," NCAA spokesman Wally Renfro said. Unless compared to the organization´s revenues.

Member schools obviously also collect "no small" amount of money. The organization spreads its largess to all its members $15.9 million among Division 1 schools in $50,000 increments, for instance.

The NCAA does put $10 million a year into a fund for special student expenses, such as to attend a funeral. That might sound generous; however, students today are barred from accepting money from non-relatives even in an emergency. Moreover, this program is but 1.8 percent of the NCAA´s upcoming contract take.

The organization promises to put another $25 million a year into a "student-athlete opportunity fund." But whatever it ultimately provides obviously won´t help students as much as would direct cash payments. Nor will the Fund start until the next contract (apparently this year´s $326 million in revenue isn´t enough to warrant sharing).

Of course, the biggest benefit for athletes is supposed to be a free education. School aid averages $20,000 a year.

That sounds like a lot. But the NCAA acknowledges that it typically falls $2,000 short of total costs. In effect, athletes must pay for the privilege of playing.

Aid also isn´t a lot compared to what real professionals pull in. Professional players are the stars people come to see and are paid accordingly. But not student stars.

School aid is also chump change compared to what many coaches earn. Louisville recently dropped a six-year, $12.25 million contract on its new coach, Rick Pitino. Coaches make additional money from endorsements by putting their players into the shoes of one manufacturer or another.

But there´s a more fundamental point. Many so-called student-athletes don´t want to be students. They just want to play sports.

Of course, most student-athletes never make it to the pros. Many of them benefit from their college degree.

Indeed, in baseball and hockey real student-athletes attend university on scholarship. Others turn pro after high school. There´s no sanctimonious gibberish about the primacy of education for the latter.

In the big money sports of basketball and football, however,that´s generally not an option. Only a few athletes turn pro early.

Most of those with professional propects have to spend four years in college to get to the pros. For them, a scholarship represents a cost rather than a benefit.

Indeed, the principal challenge for many universities is to make it appear that their least gifted student-athletes are actually students.

In effect, universities provide the farm clubs for the professional franchises. Instead of having to pay for minor leagues, as they do in baseball and hockey, the national basketball and football leagues can rely on universities to find top talent, train players, and showcase athletes.

In return, the schools make money, just like minor league clubs. The coaches are paid, just like minor league clubs.

Only the athletes aren´t paid.

They have noticed. Stanford sophomore Casy Jacobsen told USA Today: "College basketball is so awesome. I would hate to turn it into a business and money issue. But at the same time, it already is." He doesn´t want to simply say "I want money," but he adds, "it would help to have just a little bit."

UCLA football players have formed the Collegiate Athletes Coalition. Some basketball players have created a basketball players council

Not surprisingly, NCAA officials dismiss anything that smacks of a union. NCAA President Cedric Dempsey worries that one would mean "the elimination of college athletics as we know it. I just don´t think most schools would feel that is proper a sit relates to the educational mission of intercollegiate sports."

Or, more importantly, to the NCAA´s financial mission.

The NCAA combines the worst of greedy self-interest and sanctimonious hypocrisy. Semi-pro sports and college athletics should be separate. Then, schools that really believed in student-athletics would treat basketball and football like any other sport whether baseball or badminton.

Professional teams would run minor league franchises. Colleges could cooperate in managing these semi-pro squad, paying their "students" irrespective of their grade-point averages.

April Honesty should follow March Madness. The NCAA should start sharing its abundant revenue with the students who do the most to earn it.

Doug Bandow, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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