Thursday, April 2, 1997
Colleges get rich; athletes get more work

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The Fiesta Bowl figures to be a bonanza. College football's inaugural quasi-official championship game will be staged next January in Tempe, Ariz., with all the bells, whistles and bruises befitting The Game of the Millennium.

Reserve your seats today. Prices start at $135 apiece.

I hesitate to bring this up because I brought it up just the other day, but isn't there something deeply wrong here? If college sports can command these kind of ticket prices, when do the athletes get a cut?

The answer, evidently, is The 12th Of Never. The arrogance is incredible.

College athletics ceased to be an amateur enterprise the first time someone chose to charge admission. Now, it is so far removed from standard extra-curricular activities, and so close to indentured servitude, that it demands serious scrutiny. If the NCAA refuses to recognize its own hypocrisy, perhaps it is time for congressional inquiry.

No bonanza for players

Rick Minter earned a $25,000 bonus when the University of Cincinnati reached the Humanitarian Bowl last December. What his players earned was an expenses-paid trip to Boise, Idaho, assorted gifts whose value could not exceed $600, and additional weeks of workouts.

Whether intended or not, and regardless of whether the players perceive themselves as victims, this amounts to exploitation. UC's offense might be forgiven because the university undertook the bowl trip for prestige rather than profit. But where college football is a money machine - in Columbus and South Bend and Tallahassee - the status quo stinks.

The same is true, and in many more places, of big-time college basketball. The face value of Final Four tickets has reached $180 ($90 for the Women's Final Four), and the secondary market is so lucrative that a player must consider whether to save his allotment for his parents or sell them to a scalper.

Apologists for the system will tell you the money generated by football and men's basketball is needed to finance non-revenue sports like swimming and tennis. The concept, I think, is called communism.

Yet every college administrator understands that the men in charge of football and basketball are commodities, and are treated as such for the sake of the whole. It is only the athletes who are treated like chattel.

''With the money being made by the men's basketball tournament and the alliance bowls, I think it's time we pay the players,'' Minter said Wednesday. ''What's a fair amount, I don't know. But I guarantee you if every one of my players had $100 in their pocket each month, it would be a more pleasant experience.''

Not every school could easily afford athletic stipends, but a pool could easily be set up out of postseason proceeds. The eight schools participating in next January's ''superalliance'' bowls - the Fiesta, Sugar, Orange and Rose - are expected to receive roughly $13 million apiece. These payouts are drawn entirely from ticket revenue, and do not include revenues from broadcasting, corporate sponsorship and merchandising.

A bitter taste

Any way you cut it, it's an enormous pie. So long as the athletes don't get a slice, however, the pie is pretty distasteful.

''To the extent you have bigger payouts, that's going to add fuel to the fire to those who think student-athletes should be paid,'' said Mark Jones, the NCAA's bowl liason. ''But I think, anymore, with men's basketball and football, that's just one of those issues that's always out there. I don't think this (the Fiesta Bowl) sheds any new light on that one.''

Maybe not. But some day soon all of these millions will reach critical mass. Either the athletes will demand a piece of the gate, or America's colleges will develop consciences.

''The climate is right,'' Rick Minter said. ''With all the money being made - we're talking millions and perhaps billions - we should try to get a little money to the athletes.''