Minor leagues, not paid student-athletes

A movement to start paying U.S. college athletes has hit fever pitch, and it’s probably going to heat up more before it cools off. Northwestern football players have unionized, a regional National Labor Relations Board has ruled that players are university employees, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association is on the defensive before Congress.

We don’t think college athletes should be paid. They are not employees; they are students whose tuition is covered, the same as those on academic, musical and other scholarships.

Nevertheless, big-sports colleges and the NCAA deserve this mess. Many schools have made themselves dependent on sports, and they use the players to make billions of dollars by selling television rights, jerseys and game tickets. It’s surprising it’s taken so long for these players to seek a piece of the action.

The education offered as a reward doesn’t mean much when players are pressured to take easy courses, skip class, cheat and otherwise skimp on learning to commit more time for sports. Not all do, but it’s widespread.

Many of these players don’t really want to be students. They want to be professional athletes, and their classes don’t train them for that.

Yet if you have the skills and desire to be a professional football or basketball player, you’re required to go to college, unless you’re LeBron James.

These two college sports, football and men’s basketball, are the only ones the advocates are really talking about with this issue; they’re the only ones that beg the question of player pay. The others, in general, aren’t as high profile and don’t rake in that kind of money for colleges.

Baseball and hockey are in the same popularity class professionally, but not on the college level. That’s because they have minor leagues. If football and basketball had comparable minor leagues, this wouldn’t really be a problem for them, either.

The NCAA has a monopoly on access to these sports’ big leagues. Take that away, giving young men the option of getting paid for a basketball and football career outside of college, and the question of paying them in college will fade away.

Baseball and hockey players already have options. Those who go to college have decided that the education and extra attention are worthy rewards. The top level of competition is still excellent in college, and they can take courses to prepare for careers beyond their active sporting days.

Or they begin their athletic careers straightaway in the minors, where they are paid – not much, perhaps, but something. When that career is over, they can always go back to school.

Paying wages to college athletes isn’t the answer. There’s no fair way to do it, and what many people are talking about is rolling in the full-on sports business machinery – agents, bidding wars and all – which would be a gigantic distraction to students who really are trying to get an education. When the capitalism of the situation gets to that point, you might as well open the market further and let students go pro directly.

College would still be attractive for athletes, partly because minor-league football and basketball would never be so popular, but the college sports bubble has gotten dangerously huge. Instead of letting it explode, the better solution is to poke a hole in the monopoly and let football and basketball minor leagues drain off some of the tension.

That would disrupt the greed machine that these college sports have become. It would probably improve the spirit of the games, making them more like what they used to be before they were corrupted by riches.