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Time to pay college athletes

The Longhorn Network is only one example how colleges are making profit off their athletes. | Ralph Barrera~AP

The Longhorn Network is only one example of how colleges are making a profit off their athletes. | Ralph Barrera~AP

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Updated: November 4, 2011 10:47AM

On Friday, ESPN’s Longhorn Network attempted to debut with pomp, circumstance and 24/7 burnt orange, though it was having difficulty coming to terms with cable companies. That unfortunate bit of business
eventually will get cleared up
because money always finds a way.

Developed and launched with ‘‘help’’ from the ‘‘Worldwide Leader in Sports,’’ the new network allows the University of Texas to televise its athletic events. More important, though, it will generate at least
$11 million a year for the school during the next 20 years. If ESPN recoups all of the $295 million it has invested in the network, Texas will get 70 percent of future profits.

And the athletes? The ones doing the sweating and the entertaining? Not a dime of any of it.

If you like your mixed messages slathered on thick, the NCAA recently proposed a rule change that lets schools provide athletes with butter, cream cheese, peanut butter and jelly for use on bagels. According to Sports Illustrated, providing the bagels is acceptable, but supplying the spreads still is considered a minor rules violation.

You can see why the mere thought of spreading a few dollars on an athlete’s palm is considered an abomination.

It must be nice to put on a concert and not have to pay the band.

Walk in the kids’ shoes

I don’t know if the scandal that is blooming like a mushroom cloud at the University of Miami would have been averted if the NCAA had allowed athletes to be paid. Stopping some of these kids from accepting money, cars, sex and gifts provided by a booster probably would have been like trying to house-train a deer. Last week, Miami declared as many as 13 football players ineligible. Dozens of former players also accepted benefits from booster Nevin Shapiro during the last 10 years, according to Yahoo! Sports.

The gap between the amount of money schools generate from athletics and what athletes get out of it is so huge, it is almost criminal. Many of the people playing college football and men’s basketball come from disadvantaged homes. The lure of money — or, in the case of more than a few Ohio State football players, cash and tattoos — is strong. If you have nothing and you see that your school is making something off you, well, put yourself in these kids’ school-mandated Nikes.

We have heard the justifications for not paying athletes: They already receive full scholarships and a free education. The money that football and basketball generates funds lower-profile sports at the Division I level. Paying athletes would open the floodgates to professionalism in college sports.

Universities give out scholarships to all kinds of people, not just athletes. Students with outstanding academic records, students with an exceptional talent and students with financial need get money off their tuition at many schools. Most don’t get full scholarships, but schools make financial exceptions for all sorts of students, for all sorts of reasons. And those students, in general, don’t earn money for their universities. College football and basketball players do. Many
Top 25 programs make money for their schools.

Let’s say you’re a stud running back at Alabama. You can’t help but notice that Bryant-Denny Stadium, which holds 101,000 people, is filled every Saturday for your football games. A Crimson Tide jersey with your number on it goes for $50. You look at your coach, Nick Saban, and see a man who made $6 million in 2010. And you don’t get a penny of it.

You could be forgiven for wondering how this is fair.

I’m all for dropping the pretense and paying college players a salary. Then, perhaps, we wouldn’t be reading so often about coaches cheating, boosters paying for prostitutes for athletes and players being arrested for stealing TVs.

BYU a good example

But that’s pie-in-the-sky stuff because it’s impossible to imagine the NCAA and its member schools giving up even a piece of the pie. And it’s hard to see them giving up the ideal of ‘‘pure’’ amateurism.

But a bit of walking-around money would solve some of the problems we’ve been seeing for years — not all, but some. There are always going to be unscrupulous agents offering loans to players. And the stipends I’m talking about — $50 a week? $100 a week? — wouldn’t stop some athletes from wanting more. But it might allow them to go on a date or buy an iPod.

Football and basketball players deserve to be paid something. They’re the ones generating the money that make the college sports world go ’round. Look at BYU. The football and men’s basketball programs were the only sports at the school to make money in 2009, according to the Deseret News. Because of those two programs, the school managed to turn a
$5.5 million profit.

Colleges never will give up on the big business of sports, but it’s not asking too much for them to give up a sliver of the proceeds.

In the meantime, a note to you college athletes out there: Plain bagels are better for you anyway.

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