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The triumph of sleaze

Well, my capacity for shock has officially run out of road.

I can't even get incensed by this. In fact, I've almost come to expect it.

It's a hard thing when you arrive at a place where you can watch an HBO special that lays bare all the sleaze, greed and depraved self-interest in big-boy college sports these days, and not even turn a hair. But that's where I was last night, listening to a parade of ex-football players talk about all the $500 handshakes they got at Auburn, LSU and Michigan State and, well, pretty much everywhere, and not exactly being appalled by it.

In fact, here was my reaction: "Way to get yours, son. Everyone else is in this rotten-to-the-core system is getting theirs, why shouldn't you?"

Sure, that's a lousy way to look at it. But how can you look at it any other way these days?

Here's the deal, the way I see it: If you're an 18-year-old kid who grew up with nothing in a society that sees no value in you because of that, and suddenly you're a commodity with some actual monetary worth, I'm not gonna shake my finger at you if you pocket the dough. Especially when your school is making millions off your labor and you're getting nothing in return but an alleged "free" education worth, at best, a few hundred thousand spread over four or five years.

That's a pretty sweet deal for the schools. Especially when you consider how many of them are serious only about keeping kids eligible, not making sure they get full value for their "free" education.

Besides, if the kid does pocket the money, he's only buying into the "I got mine" culture that is big-time college athletics these days -- a culture created not by him but the schools and governing bodies charged with looking after his interests. They created a system in which everyone, from the coaches to the administrators to the TV networks to the corporate sponsors, have their hands out. Then they put rules in place that make that sort of avarice legal for everyone but the actual generators of the revenue, the players.

Why would you consider any of those self-serving rules valid, in that case, if you're a player?

You can't game a system that's already gamed. And big-boy college sports is gamed to a fare-thee-well.

That said ... I don't think paying the players solves the problem, because it's probably not practical and non-revenue sports would be the casualties if you tried. But there are things you can do to dispel the stink of hypocrisy a little bit.

No. 1, if you're an athletic department that strikes some kind of apparel deal that pays you hundreds of thousands, either share the take with the players who are essentially unpaid billboards for that apparel company, or let them wear whatever the hell they want. If I'm a player who likes adidas gear and you signed a deal with Nike, how is that my problem? After all, I didn't sign the contract. So pay up or shut up.

No. 2, any free gear or memorabilia that's given to me for winning some bowl game or title is mine to do with what I see fit. If I decide to sell it for walking-around money, why should you get to tell me that's wrong?

Finally ... if you use my likeness in an NCAA-approved video game, you have to pay me. That's how the business world works. This idea that you should be able to make money off me in perpetuity -- long after I'm no longer bound by the NCAA's rules -- is blatantly exploitive and ought to be illegal. It's what former UCLA Ed O'Bannon and a number of others are arguing in their lawsuit, and here's hoping they win it.

None of this will restore the lost integrity of big-time college athletics. But at least the air around it will smell a little better.

Ben Smith's blog.