Commentary: Amateur college athletes, Bigfoot, Nessie and other myths

"A college needs something else besides education. And what this college needs is a good football team, and you can’t have a good football team unless you have good football players." — "Horse Feathers," 1932

What the Marx Brothers found deserving of satire 80 years ago — a college president recruiting professional players with cash – would be familiar to anyone paying attention to college sports today. It’s still built on the myth of the amateur and the ruse that it is really about helping young people get an education.

That forms the rationale for tax-free “charities” raising ever more money “to compete,” building ever swankier stadiums and facilities, charging ever more for tickets, acquiescing to schedules that satisfy TV audiences but not academics.

In a ground-breaking article in the October issue of The Atlantic, famed civil rights historian Taylor Branch exposes this hypocrisy.

“For all the outrage, the real scandal is not that students are getting illegally paid or recruited,” Branch writes, “it’s that two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence – ‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete’ – are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes.”

Can it get more bizarre than this? Washington gives tax dollars to stadiums where privately owned teams perform but not for public university stadiums and students.

Or this: Colleges spend hundreds of millions on facilities, turn more seats over to the well-heeled, push students further from the action (into the end zone at new Husky Stadium), so we can wow a 17-year-old kid to sign with that school. (Washington State University Athletic Director Bill Moos said the $80 million renovation to Martin Stadium is better for fans, “but more importantly, it’s going to be an attraction, I feel, for recruits.”)

Or this: While we long ago had to accept that head coaches make three and four times as much as university presidents, we now must go along with assistants like University of Washington defensive coordinator Nick Holt getting more than WSU President Elson Floyd.

Can we feel good about an institution where everybody is making money on the backs of 18-to-22-year-olds, many of whom are poor, are black and leave college without a degree and without a chance?

Even after they leave (with fewer than 2 percent ever drafted by the pros), these same players have their images exploited by the NCAA, their colleges and private companies with uncompensated sales of posters, jerseys, game footage and video games.

And then there’s the irony that the last vestige of the true student-athlete – minor sports or smaller college athletes (my daughter among them) – is subsidized by corruption in football and basketball.

Last month Fife native and former UW President Mark Emmert made his first run at reform. College players can now get a stipend of $2,000 in addition to tuition and room and board. And for the first time since 1973, athletic scholarships can be guaranteed for four years rather than face annual renewal at the whim of the coach.

Both were considered revolutionary but are in fact minor. Real reform may have to come from outside, perhaps from a series of lawsuits moving through the courts or from congressional challenges to the NCAA’s tax-exempt status.

“I, too, once reflexively recoiled at the idea of paying college athletes and treating them like employees or professionals,” Branch concluded. “It feels abhorrent — but for reasons having to do more with sentiment than with practicality or law.

“But one way or another, the smokescreen of amateurism may soon be swept away.”