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Pac-12 Confidential

Bud Withers offers an inside look at the Pac-12 Conference and the national college scene.

November 5, 2011 at 10:49 AM

Sports Illustrated and its proposal for paying college athletes

This week’s Sports Illustrated (Nov. 7 issue) has a detailed proposal by which college athletes might be paid roughly $1,000 a month for their services. It’s here.

George Dohrmann, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, authored the piece, and wrote that the idea isn’t to advance the cause, just to offer a way that it might be feasible. I saw two key elements — wholesale trimming of athletic department budgets by lopping football scholarships from 85 per program to a Football Bowl Championship (the old Division 1-AA) level of 63, and by doing away with the NCAA-mandated sport minimum of 16 varsity sports (men’s and women’s combined) for schools that run an FBS football program.

The idea would be to sponsor only a few varsity sports — say football, men’s and women’s basketball and women’s volleyball — and drop the rest to club-sport level. The thesis there is that club-sport competition is still a richly rewarding experience for college athletes — and much cheaper.

Clearly, the proposal would be problematic for a lot of people. First, there would be a hue and cry about the loss of opportunity for aspiring football players (in the SI model, there would be a roster cap of 90, as opposed to 115-120 as currently in force). And, while I think the notion of reclassifying some varsity sports to club level has some merit, the question would inevitably be asked — shouldn’t a high-level tennis or track athlete at Washington be able to further his or her abilities in top-level surroundings and coaching?

I’d imagine there would be howls from the Olympic movement. You’d have to figure development would suffer in sports — say, track — in which college athletes are prominent.

Title IX, mandating equal opportunity for men and women, must be served, and it seems to me that presents a knotty philosophical issue in this proposal.

The argument for paying athletes has a lot to do with how much money they make for the university. Imagine what Jake Locker generated for Washington in No. 10 jerseys alone. If you’re arbitrarily designating a couple of men’s and women’s sports for paying its athletes, you’re not doing it on the basis of their earning power for the university. Chris Polk would be paid the same as a player on the volleyball team, whose contribution to the athletic coffers is negligible.

SI describes the process of winnowing down the list of programs offered per school as “survival of the fittest.” It would be all that, and more. What to do with a program like rowing at Washington? It’s one of the most deeply entrenched traditions at the school, but obviously doesn’t reap huge income — other than perhaps donations targeted for the program. Nobody would argue, though, that it doesn’t compete regularly at a national level.

If nothing else, the piece raises some provocative issues and advances the discussion on a very dicey topic.



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