In my opinion | Michelle Kaufman

Michelle Kaufman: Athletes are compensated, but amateur tag is a sham

 

The NCAA rules might seem archaic and hypocritical, but Johnny Manziel should be punished until they are changed.

Mkaufman@MiamiHerald.com

Sorry, Johnny. You’re not getting much sympathy here.

If the ESPN reports are true, and you chose to disregard NCAA rules and get paid big bucks to sign more than 4,400 items for memorabilia brokers, then you should lose your college eligibility for at least one season.

The rule — hypocritical as it might seem — is plain as day, and all college athletes must abide, even if your name’s Johnny Manziel, you won the Heisman Trophy and your nickname is a registered trademark:

“12.5.2.1: After becoming a student-athlete, an individual shall not be eligible for participation in intercollegiate athletics if the individual: (a) Accepts any remuneration for or permits the use of his or her name or picture to advertise, recommend or promote directly the sale or use of a commercial product or service of any kind.”

By the way, your alleged infraction caused nervous athletic directors all over the country to examine their autograph policies, and innocent fans will be punished. The University of Miami announced Monday that “in light of recent national news, student-athletes will only sign the official Miami Hurricanes athletics team posters that will be provided for free” at this weekend’s CanesFest. Each fan is limited to one autograph. At Louisville, they went a step further, forbidding all autographs at Sunday’s fan festival.

Did they overreact? Yes. Only a handful of athletes are in position to profit from their signatures, and most autograph-seekers are not heading to eBay.

Is the NCAA rule hypocritical? Absolutely. The NCAA and “higher institutions of learning” use talented high-profile athletes to sustain a billion-dollar industry, fill stadiums, hike TV ratings, boost enrollment and sell merchandise. Heck, were it not for ESPN’s Jay Bilas’ Twitter tirade last week, fans might still be able to find your No. 2 Texas A&M jerseys for sale on ShopNCAAsports.com.

Turns out, replica numbered jerseys of top football and basketball players were being sold for $59.95 to $179.95 on the NCAA website. Fans could find them by typing the players’ names in the search field. The NCAA, embarrassed, found itself in yet another public relations nightmare.

“Moving forward, the NCAA online shop will no longer offer college and university merchandise … the store’s website will be shut down temporarily and reopen in a few weeks as a marketplace for NCAA championship merchandise only. After becoming aware of issues with the site, we determined the core function of the NCAA.com fan should not be to offer merchandise licensed by our member schools.”

It took Bilas to make the NCAA “aware” it was selling jerseys? If it can’t oversee its website, how does it expect to oversee hundreds of college athletic programs?

Three years ago, Georgia wide receiver A.J. Green was suspended four games for selling his autographed jersey for $1,000. Meanwhile, more than 20 versions of his No. 8 jersey were for sale on the Bulldogs’ athletic department website.

That same season, the University of Nebraska auctioned off game-worn jerseys with starting bids of $250. Not surprisingly, the top seller — and the jersey that was used to advertise the auction — was No. 3, that of quarterback Taylor Martinez. So, the school could make money off Martinez’s number, but he couldn’t.

Hypocritical? Absolutely.

But please, Johnny sympathizers, spare me the slave analogies. To suggest that college athletes are slaves is an insult to all those who truly suffered. College athletes are compensated with full scholarships worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, a privilege most high school seniors can only dream about. They get housing and free meals.

They get free tutors and free travel — in many cases on chartered jets. They are provided a nationally televised stage on which to audition for the NFL and NBA, and an invaluable network of boosters who can help them get jobs later in life.

They get free athletic clothing and gear. Lots of it. If they go to a major school, they get to work out in state-of-the-art facilities.

Nebraska’s athletic building features a 40-foot waterfall. Oregon’s 145,000 square-foot athletic complex, funded by Nike’s Phil Knight, has foosball tables from Barcelona, an art installation, computer docking stations at every locker, a cafeteria modeled after the one at Google headquarters and sofas made of the leather used to upholster Ferraris.

Aggies players spend their days at the $27 million Bright Football Complex, a 125,000-square-foot facility that boasts 130 solid oak lockers and a 15,000-square-foot training room complete with doctor’s offices and walk-in whirlpools.

The Texas A&M website says: “Aggie football players also keep their wide assortment of Adidas clothing in the lockers. Each locker has a built-in storage area for the player’s numerous pairs of Adidas shoes. … One of the benefits of the [locker room] is a shoe room nicknamed ‘Footlocker,’ which houses approximately 2,000 pairs of Adidas Shoes.’’

So, by the standards of most college students, athletes have it pretty good.

Should they be paid more by their schools? Should they be allowed to charge for their autographs? No. That would create another set of problems. Boosters would become de-facto employers and memorabilia agents.

All players are not of equal monetary value. A Heisman winner is worth more than a third-string tight end. What’s a school to do? Make a pay scale? Give raises when backups become starters? That is called professional sports. Perhaps schools could set up trust funds for athletes to keep a share of profits from sales of their likeness. But that might be hard to manage.

The best solution is to end the charade that is “amateur” football. There is nothing amateur about big-time college football. It is a free farm system for the NFL. Junior tennis players and high school baseball prospects skip college altogether, and basketball phenoms and football players should have the same opportunity. If you can command five figures for a stack of autographs, you should be Johnny Professional Football.

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