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Wednesday, October 2, 2013
Jim Boeheim just fine with amateurism

By Eamonn Brennan

Far as I can tell, there are two different ways of looking at college athletics.

Jim Boeheim
Jim Boeheim
There is the forgiving (or naive) view. The holder of this view argues that while amateurism has its faults, the NCAA comprises a lot of hard-working, thoughtful people who genuinely want the best for the student-athletes they take in. There are plenty of facts to back up this point of view, namely that high-profile BCS men's football and basketball players can't be paid because it would rob so many other student-athletes in Olympic sports of their opportunities to earn $200,000 worth in higher education. Sure, the NCAA is slow and out of touch, but what's so bad about a free education? It's not evil.

Then there is the cynical view. The NCAA cynic argues that universities set up the NCAA as a cabal from its earliest days to directly profit without employing, paying or providing health care to its "student-athletes," a term the NCAA devised to make the whole scam sound noble. There are facts to support this view, too, from Taylor Branch in the Atlantic to O'Bannon v. NCAA. Sure, the NCAA might not be evil, the cynic argues, but it is exploitative.

Here's a wild guess: The way you feel about the above paragraphs is going to directly align with how you feel about what Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim said at an annual meeting of New York Associated Press newspaper editors Wednesday:
Boeheim took exception with retired NBA star Chris Webber's complaint he received nothing after his team shirt was sold. In a documentary released earlier this year, Webber lamented that while a student-athlete at Michigan, his team jersey sold in a campus store for $75 without any money going to him.
Boeheim noted that Webber received a free education and the exposure that allowed him to go on to a hugely lucrative professional career.
"He didn't get his $30,000 or $40,000," Boeheim said. "But he got his money."

Boeheim called the idea of paying college athletes "the most idiotic suggestion of all time." That is not true. One time my friend suggested that I would probably like mayonnaise if I actually put it on a really good sandwich, so I did, and let me tell you: That was the dumbest suggestion of all time. Mayo is gross.

Hyperbole and lovable Boeheimian grumpiness aside, if you are the kind of person who thinks the NCAA is drastically behind the times but doing its best to make the student-athlete concept work, you are likely to be as equally forgiving of Syracuse's iconic coach. When Boeheim began his coaching career, pay-for-play was unheard of. Players played for their degrees, and to expose themselves to the pro ranks, and hey, what's wrong with that? Now, after 51 years as a Syracuse player and coach, a bunch of outraged people are determined to change the system Boeheim has built his life around. You would probably think that was dumb, too.

The cynical, unforgiving view is that of course Boeheim is totally happy to be among the privileged few participants in collegiate athletics who are allowed to earn what the market says they're worth. Syracuse paid Boeheim $1.8 million in 2012, more than any other university employee. He deserves that money, it is said, because it is proportional to the value he generates for Syracuse. But what about the value generated by players? Why are coaches financially compensated and players aren't? In a world where 14-year-old prospects are obsessively ranked, and far-flung internationals are on NBA radars for years before they're drafted, how much is "exposure" really worth? And what about that degree? In the past 50 years, how many academically unprepared college athletes were admitted to schools simply because they could play basketball? How many were passed through classes because their absence would hurt the team? How many would-be pros have failed to turn "exposure" into an NBA draft pick, and left their schools without receiving a real collegiate education? Chris Webber got his money in the NBA, but so what? He's the exception. Not the rule. What about everyone else?

This is a conversation foisted upon college basketball by the NBA. Prior to 2006, it was safe to assume that talented players who didn't want to be in college didn't have to be. That is in some sense still the case. If a prospect has a dire financial need, he can go to Europe; if he has little use for college, and/or a moral issue with being unpaid, he can sign with an agent and work out with a trainer for a year.

But the bottom line is still this: As long as this much money flows through the system, it is impossible to watch a basketball coach with a six-figure monthly take-home say his players aren't worth a dime more than their classes, books and board. If that's true, then every college coach in the country is due for a steep pay cut. Or a salary based on his players' graduation and professional-placement rates. Or maybe college basketball coaches should just be happy with the exposure! They can make money when they turn pro. Wait.

No matter what view of the NCAA you take, pretending there isn't a massive disconnect here is just that -- pretending. One can forgive Boeheim for being on the wrong end of that disconnect. He's been in the game a half-century, man. He deserves some slack. But that doesn't mean pointing the disconnect is idiotic. It's reality.