Like many on campus, my initial reaction to the University’s announcement of self-imposed sanctions against the basketball program was one of both anger at the players who brought such shame on the program and admiration toward the University for acknowledging its accountability in the matter. However, after considering the issue further, it has become clear that while the players’ actions were certainly wrong, Chris Webber and his cohorts are not alone to blame. Rather, that distinction lies equally with the hypocritical NCAA.
Should allegations that Webber received $280,000 in cash and gifts from booster Ed Martin prove true, he will surely be punished for his deplorable conduct. But consider for a second just how much revenue Webber and the Fab Five generated for the University and the NCAA in initiating perhaps the most popular and prestigious era in Michigan basketball history. Through television, marketing and ticket sales, Webber and company produced for these institutions a sum of money that easily dwarfs the amount the players received from Martin, not to mention the relatively paltry $450,000 the University agreed to repay the NCAA for the violations. And exactly how much of these enormous profits earned by the negligent players did they take home during their collegiate careers? Ironically, the exact same number of games “won” by Michigan in that same era: Zero.
“But ours is just an amateur organization,” cries the NCAA. “Aside from scholarships, we can’t possibly afford to give the athletes any more money.” Yet, in the most recent television deal for the broadcast rights to the Men’s Basketball Tournament, affectionately known as March Madness, CBS agreed to pay the NCAA a whopping $6 billion over the next 11 years. Once again that’s, $6 billion. Is the NCAA an “amateur” organization? Hardly. Moreover, the NCAA can slap an athlete’s name on the back of a jersey, put his likeness in a video game or splash his face all over TV without the athlete seeing so much as a dime in return. As former University star Maurice Taylor also implicated in the investigation, says, “The NCAA gets paid off of every major guy in college. How can you be making money off somebody else and not giving anything to them?” Simply, the NCAA and the University exploited Webber, Taylor and the rest for millions and as a result of the sanctions, all the players have to show for their time as Wolverines is their names scratched out of the record books.
Of course, the NCAA’s sanctions might be justified if in fact they had any deterring effect whatsoever. However, in most cases, by the time the violations are uncovered and punishments handed down, the athletes have long left school and are free of penalty, provided they aren’t lying to a grand jury. Instead, the sanctions merely punish innocent coaches and athletes who had nothing to do with the actual violations. And while the NCAA has been coming down harder on major programs in recent years, these kinds of violations only seem to be occurring more and more frequently at schools across the country.
Seeing as current penalties are not an adequate deterrent, the only solution is to provide an incentive for student athletes not to accept illegal payments. Obviously, the way to do this is to spread some of the vast wealth the NCAA amasses every year to the athletes who produce that wealth. Of course, these payments need not reach the astronomical levels of those in professional sports. Instead, a standard wage scale based on class standing to supplement scholarships for basics such as food and clothing might successfully dissuade athletes from turning to more illegitimate sources like boosters.
Furthermore, paying college athletes would help curb the other mounting problem facing college basketball: undergraduates leaving school early for the pros. Certainly, the allure of millions of dollars is the number one reason college players forego their education for the NBA. But if the athletes knew they were at least being moderately compensated for the revenue they generate, they would likely be willing to stay in school longer. At the very least, paying college athletes would make a possible NBA rule against drafting underclassmen easier to swallow.
The time has come for the NCAA to own up to its responsibility towards the athletes that it profits from. Instead of hypocritically punishing players for taking money they do not earn, the NCAA must fix the problem by compensating its athletes with the money they do earn. If not and this dangerous trend is allowed to continue, we might one day look back and discover a year with no NCAA Champion because every school has forfeited its wins. On that day, somewhere, maybe even in federal prison, Chris Webber will be smiling.
Lacks is an LSA sophomore