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EDITORIAL: In wake of college sports scandal, pay student-athletes

Auburn head coach Bruce Pearl speaks during an NCAA college basketball press conference, Friday in Auburn, Ala. Pearl spoke to reporters for the first time since top assistant Chuck Person's arrest as part of a federal fraud and bribery sting. (Albert Cesare/The Montgomery Advertiser via AP)

In college physics departments, they understand that lab pipes will burst if the pressure gets too high.

Far less understood, though, is that same rule holds in college athletic departments.

When the pressure to grab a share of the huge sums of money flooding college sports builds beyond the breaking point, all the rules of amateur athletics and basic business decency crumble. Shady coaches, sports agents, shoe companies, alumni, team boosters and even youth leagues conspire to break the rules and share the largess.

College athletics has become a game of altered test scores, under-the-table gifts to recruits and their families, and looking the other way when students never attend a class.

EDITORIAL

We see only two realistic solutions.

First, let college athletes go ahead and make a ton of money. Drop the pretense that college sports are about amateur athletics. Let college athletes endorse gym shoes and jerseys and do all the money-making TV commercials. Everybody’s exploiting their athletic brilliance for millions of dollars anyway, so let them make the millions for themselves.

Second, in the case of basketball, allow top high school players to go straight to the NBA, if they can cut it, rather than require that they put in a year of college first, where too often the wolves are just waiting.

Just this last week, in one of the biggest scandals in college sports history, four basketball assistant coaches and six other people were arrested in two related federal investigations into the seamy world of college recruiting, where throwing relatively modest amounts of cash to players in various underhanded ways makes it possible for universities to build enormously profitable sports empires. Also involved is the shoe industry, which prospers by turning the feet of popular athletes into virtual billboards for their products, and unscrupulous financial advisers.

According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York, the assistant coaches allegedly took big bribes to pressure players and their families to retain the services of certain financial advisers. In a related scam, the advisers for the athletes and people affiliated with the athletic apparel company Adidas allegedly bribed student athletes and their families to get the athletes to attend an Adidas-sponsored school and, once they entered the NBA, continue to be represented by the people paying the bribes.

Who loses? The athletes, of course. For the most part, they are not even aware how much money others are secretly making off them.

And schools that play by the rules lose. They can’t begin to compete for the top young athletes.

The NCAA and the rest of the college sports world are trying to cling to an ideal of amateurism that the Olympics finally gave up on. Yes, paying student-athletes violates the idea that they are really student-athletes. They become pros, who may or may not go to their classes. At least that’s honest. The amateur athletics model falls apart when coaches are earning millions of dollars a year and everyone else — from NCAA executives to sports agents to TV networks to shoe companies — is making more money than the U.S. Mint.

The football and basketball programs in Division I are multibillion-dollar operations. It’s no coincidence that’s where the scandals are. You don’t see anywhere near the number of problems at smaller Division II and Division III institutions, where the lust for money and championships doesn’t exert such a corrupting influence.

This latest scandal is so smarmy that even Congress is starting to nose around. The NCAA should get serious about changing some regulations, such as the aforementioned “one and done rule” that practically invites corruption by requiring NBA-ready athletes to play one year of college basketball. It should also reign in summer camps run by sports-apparel companies and recruiting through sports youth leagues not associated with high schools.

Big-time college sports perfectly demonstrate how a black market emerges when the normal laws of supply and demand are utterly denied. And in this black market, everybody’s sucking up money but the kids who play the game.

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