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From the end of the Bench: Time for NCAA to pony up

1:23 PM, Sep 21, 2012   |    comments
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Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) - There is mounting evidence that the term 'student-athlete' is now no more than a cloak for the NCAA and its piles of cash to hide behind.

That's the takeaway from a fast-and-furious offseason that copied Vin Diesel's action scenes and thirst for theft. It is time to pull away the curtain.

The NCAA is stealing from its talent, and in return, the talent and those who fortify it are bending, and in many cases breaking, the very edict that was holding the whole farce together by a thread.

From The End of the Bench wrote a bunch of preachy prose at the onset of last season about pay for play, but this tale is more about setting a mountain of evidence in front of your face than trying to convince you with crafty, moralistic text.

The NCAA has been making hundreds of millions, check that, billions, of dollars off 'student-athletes' for years, specifically in the last half decade as March Madness has exploded to sites unseen with the advent of live online streaming. The last TV deal brought the NCAA hierarchy enough cash to buy several lake houses and still have enough money left over to hide next to Mitt Romney's in the Cayman Islands.

Now, a powerful political and philosophical divide has emerged between sectors of big enterprise and academic integrity, a Coming-to-Jesus moment that has left one senior executive proposing to drop 'student-athlete' from our vernacular after nearly 50 years of use, according to an article by ESPN's Tom Farrey.

Former UCLA basketball standout Ed O'Bannon and other players filed a class- action lawsuit challenging the NCAA's licensing of their images to video game manufacturers and other interested parties. The NCAA's on-record response amounts to its legality in selling publicity rights without any compensation for the players.

Remember, the NCAA contends this is the land of unicorns, fairies, rainbows and righteousness. These players care only about the name on the front of their jerseys, and its mission is to build a foundation to support that sentiment.

What a crock, and some dissenters agree. According to the ESPN piece, in 2009, University of Nebraska chancellor Harvey Pearlman wrote to then-Big 12 commissioner Dan Beebe and summoned the moral fortitude to contend, "I looked at what our student-athletes sign by way of waiver and it doesn't come close (to agreeing to handing over NCAA likeness licenses)."

Then there is the camp that includes longtime University of Texas administrator Chris Plonsky, who compared collegiate athletics to a version of the Army and stated in the ESPN article, "We have certain things we have to do a certain way to raise funds and pay for scholarships and other things s-a's (student-athletes) and their parents expect."

Maybe I'm reading that wrong, but are Plonsky and others trying to compare a multi-billion dollar conglomerate to a non-profit organization? Yes, NCAA, you are selling licenses to EA Sports because without it, you wouldn't be able to give collegiate athletes the scholarships they deserve. More like, you wouldn't be able to enjoy that third vacation home in the Hamptons.

And now the term 'student-athlete' is in peril, but of course, the NCAA wants to chop the second part off the name, not the first. It wants to call All- American point guards that bring in bank for institutions just students.

The NCAA wants us to believe these athletes are just like you and me. Granted, I don't remember some parts of my college experience, but I'm pretty sure my presence and journalistic skills didn't bring in millions of dollars for my university, jokes aside.

Instead of fighting the term, as the NCAA set out to do when they created it to counter the criticism it received for perceived "payment" of student athletes with grants-in-aid (i.e. scholarships), it should understand that battle was waged during far different economic times for the governing body.

March was entertaining, not maddening. There was no BCS or ESPN. This is a different time, and the NCAA should come to terms with it and embrace student- athletes by recognizing their collegiate standing and offering perks that reward these gifted athletes for the entertainment they provide and the financial windfall they help land.

The lawsuit filed by O'Bannon and others underscores this point, stating that the NCAA is violating anti-trust laws by preventing universities from compensating players above the normal scholarship level.

These amateurs may not be taking funds from institutions and/or the NCAA, but they are finding other ways to make cash, and programs are bending rules to keep players eligible in the pressure-cooker that hinges on coaches' jobs and players' draft stocks.

There have been numerous recent cases that point to this conclusion, including two that involve a pair of sacred cows. North Carolina's academic scandal has moved past the football program and into inquiry of other sports, including the men's basketball program, after former football and basketball star Julius Peppers' collegiate transcript was posted online and revealed grades that support the belief of corruption and preferential treatment in the school's African American studies program. At Duke, forward Lance Thomas was in the middle of a lawsuit with jeweler Thomas and Rafaello & Company over the athlete's failure to repay an alleged $67,800 credit for a bunch of bling he bought in 2010. The two sides have apparently settled, but there is still the underlying question of whether Thomas was given such an unusually high loan because of his athletic status, which, if true, is a blatant violation of NCAA rules.

The whole situation stinks. Thomas, a student at Duke, walks into a high-end New York jeweler, puts $30,000 on a table and gets nearly $70,000 more in credit? First, where did the "down payment" come from? Why did the jeweler grant such a large credit on top of that? And furthermore, what collegiate athlete needs $100,000 worth of jewelry?

It has NCAA violation written all over it, but unless Thomas or the jeweler speaks about the stipulations of their agreement, which neither is legally bound to do, this case is only a lot smoke for the time being.

Now, no one says that compensating collegiate athletes fixes the problems of boosters, improper benefits from car companies and jewelers and other "under- the-table" ways brokers of influence attempt to reward God-given, money- generating athletes. Yet, it is my contention that if the NCAA developed a compensation structure above and beyond grants-in-aid, boosters would have less of an influence, and the NCAA would have a heavier power play when its rules were broken.

It's more powerful to say, "We give you a scholarship and we reward you for money you generate for your university and the NCAA, so if you break one of our rules, there will be heavy consequences to pay." Instead, the NCAA keeps its head in the sand and breeds the culture for many to feel sympathy for 17- and 18-year-old kids, many from poor families, who are generating billions for billionaires with very little in return.

Then there is the pressure involved with the payday. Coaches are well compensated, but their job security is tenuous. Players aren't compensated and they are one injury away from a job at Wendy's; they are one missed March away from being yesterday's news. Stars are born in March, but you have to get there to receive and run with the opportunity. That is why coaches and players bend the code of ethics to win at nearly any cost. Look at what is happening now at Harvard, yes Harvard of all places, where a cheating scandal has implicated basketball co-captains Kyle Casey and Brandyn Curry, who both withdrew from school to maintain their eligibility.

Listen, this cheating scandal isn't a concrete athletic one (there were 125 students implicated in all), but it underscores the pressure across the country to keep players eligible. The coaches feel it. The players feel it. And it's time the NCAA either makes a decision to lower the decibel level, give all of its earnings back to the universities that generated them and play the sport for the love of the game, or get real, understand the pressures all parties involved face and compensate them accordingly.

But don't just listen to me. Listen to what Wallace Renfro, senior NCAA policy advisor, said about his experience with the NCAA and amateurism in a memo written to NCAA President Mark Emmert and obtained by ESPN.

"In the most romantic sense we think of amateurism as playing sports for the love of the game, for the camaraderie among competitors, for the pride of victory for school or colors, and then we use this romanticized sense of amateurism to define the entire enterprise of collegiate athletics."

Really it is exploitation and definitions to meet self-interest. If that's not romantic, I don't know what is.

The Sports Network

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