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The pay-for-play conundrum

By Jove, I think Gwen Knapp is onto something here.

Only the cranks who still argue that a year-by-year, maybe full-ride scholarship amounts to "paying" college athletes would disagree that the servants are being ill-used these days. The more strenuously the NCAA clings to the absurd fiction that theirs is an amateur proposition, the sillier it looks. And the louder the chorus for something like fair treatment for the workforce that generates all that revenue for the NCAA's member schools.

Big-time college athletics is a business, pure and simple, and the athletes who sustain it are its employees. That is the stark and relevant dynamic here. And so maintaining that an allegedly free education is somehow ample compensation for the river of money a college athlete generates, directly or otherwise, reminds you of a scene from "Blazing Saddles" -- the one where Gov. LePetomaine hands out paddleball toys to his staff, saying, "Here, boys. Take these in lieu of pay."

The tide is running full against the NCAA on this, in other words, and it grows stronger every time there's another purely for-profit conference realignment. Or when another star player's jersey goes on sale in the school bookstore or his image goes on another video game. Or when, on Saturdays, he gets trotted out there as a human billboard for some apparel company with whom his school has cut a chunky deal -- a deal that pays the human billboard exactly zip.

And so now there's a rising cry to pay these kids, most recently in Time, which ran a front-page story this week advocating that college athletes be paid for their services. It's a notion that appeals to your sense of fairness, certainly. But it's not practical for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of establishing a baseline for which athletes are worth how much.

I like Knapp's idea better -- let a kid sign as many autographs as he wants for as much as can get (it is, after all, his name), and sell whatever bowl swag he gets for as much as he can get (it is, after all, his bowl swag). And let him hire an agent whenever the heck he feels like it.

To which I would add, if you cut that chunky deal with an apparel company, there'd better be a cut for the young man or woman who's putting that company's logo out there on the national stage. And if you're going to sell a kid's jersey in the school bookstore, there'd better be a cut for the kid. And, yes, to address Ed O'Bannon's class-action suit against the NCAA: If you're going to use his image in perpetuity, there'd damn sure better be a cut for that, too, especially once the kid is no longer bound by the NCAA or its rules.

The organization should not get to own you or your image for life. That's called indentured servitude. It went out of fashion decades ago.

As have the NCAA's quaint notions about amateurism, and what constitutes it.

Ben Smith's blog.