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Pay college athletes? That’s a reality, not some fairy tale

Apr 7, 2014, 4:02 PM EDT

Brittney Griner, Destiny Williams Brittney Griner, Destiny Williams

There was an utterly fascinating quote in Dan Wetzel’s column Monday from Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby. The quote revolves around the question of paying college athletes. It seems that Bowlsby was a college wrestler and so — and I respect this generally — he finds some of his strongest sympathies are with student-athletes of what we like to call minor-sports. His starts by saying that as a wrestler he worked as hard as any football player. In fact, he probably worked HARDER than any football player. I’m sure he did. Wrestlers do work very hard.

And then he said this:

“The fact is we have student-athletes in all sorts of sports that, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay football players and not pay gymnasts just because the football player has the blessing of an adoring public.”

This really is an astonishing quote … and probably not for the reason Bowlsby intended. The challenges facing college sports in 2014 are extraordinarily complicated and very few people seem willing to look at those challenges with a clear eye and without some oversimplified solution or platitude. That said, this quote — and the bizarre naiveté behind it — show what might be the toughest problem of all: There are people who think the way college sports are run today is “fair.”

First thing to do is take the Bowlsby quote and insert real life examples.

“The fact is we have people in life, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay ADAM SANDLER and not pay INNER CITY TEACHERS just because the ACTOR has the blessing of an adoring public.”

Or this:

“The fact is we have people in life, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay CLAYTON KERSHAW and not pay EMERGENCY ROOM DOCTORS just because the PITCHER has the blessing of an adoring public.”

Or this:

“The fact is we have people in life, if you apply any form of value to their labor, you cannot pay THOSE KIDS FROM ONE DIRECTION and not pay FIREFIGHTERS just because the BAND has the blessing of an adoring public.”

My father worked in a factory and he worked a billion times harder than I do. I make more money than he did writing silly little stories about sports. Is that fair? No. It’s the opposite of fair, it’s an absurdity, but this is the way of the world. Nobody who has spent any real time in the world can possibly believe that people get paid based on how hard they work. I know someone who has dedicated his life to helping children in the Middle East learn about their so-called enemies so that one day they will stop being enemies. He doesn’t make nearly as much money as Bob Bowlsby.

Bowlsby knows this. And that’s why the quote is so astonishing. He KNOWS exactly what’s happening. In a business (like any big business) of cold calculations, deceitful manipulations, insane money grabbing and NCAA president Mark Emmert talking inanities, he’s talking about how hard college wrestlers work and how they deserve as much as football players.

See, behind it all there are people who really believe that the college system of today is “fair” in a way that life could never be fair. They are the dreamers. They really manage to believe in this college sports nirvana where all athletes are the same, where revenue sports joyfully support non-revenue sports, where the “adoring public” is merely jubilant spectators of the greater cause of college athletics.

And, in a way, these dreamers are even more threatening than the cutthroats. Hey, you can see the cutthroat fingerprints everywhere. The NCAA is stuffing 80,000 people into a Dallas Dome to “watch” college basketball. The NCAA throughout this tournament repeatedly refers to the the players as “student athletes” — in one press conference I counted that awkward phrase 11 times. The NCAA is powerless to stop schools from jumping conference to conference, smashing any sense of geography or history or continuity in a naked money-rush. They are powerless to stop conferences and schools from starting their own television networks as if they are academic Oprahs. They are powerless to stop football and basketball coaches from becoming (by far) the highest paid figures in public institutions. They are powerless to stop these things even if they wanted to stop them … which they pretty clearly don’t. And they sign a larger television deal and demand more power to control things.

Then, the dreamers have the gall to talk about what would be fair for the gymnasts and wrestlers as if this system is man’s noble effort to right society’s economic wrongs and be fair to all.

College sports are a big, broad, sweeping thing — no one statement or one plan can possibly cover everyone. What happens at Kentucky basketball has nothing to do with what’s happening with Central Missouri basketball and even less with what’s happening at Gardner Webb women’s lacrosse.

There’s a huge mission going on here and it’s way too easy and way too convenient to look only at what’s happening with the Top 60 college football and basketball schools. I want to believe in the overall mission of college sports too. I believe colleges should do its best to fund those sports that don’t make money, just like they should fund programs in the arts. There are countless stories about how much college sports at every level can impact the lives of people and teach them lessons that last for the rest of their lives. It really would be a shame if, with all the money flowing around academics, schools could not find ways to keep giving opportunities and hope to talented young athletes in every sport, whether it’s football or wrestling, basketball or swimming or softball.

But it’s heartbreaking to hear the commissioner of one of America’s biggest conferences offer such a fairy tale reason why you can’t pay football players and not pay wrestlers. Look, college sports as we know them will get blown up and put back together in the next few years because there’s a fundamental unfairness. With players talking about unionizing, with viable lawsuits threatening the NCAA’s hold, with increasing public outrage over athletes (or student athletes) getting hammered for trying to make a buck or two on their own talents — it’s going to change. That’s a certainty. The only question is how and the answers you mostly hear on both sides are way to pat, way too simple, they come with as many problems as solutions.

No, creating a college sports structure for our time will take a lot of grown-up thinking. And if the people in power now want to have some say, they need to start looking at things in a grown-up way.

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