It’s time to give college athletes a small slice of the pie

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Everyone from university presidents to network executives, and from ticket scalpers to bookies, seem to be getting rich on college athletics – except the athletes themselves.

The ones who put their health and hard work on the line to fuel the money-making machine are the same kids who have to bum rides from friends and eat Ramon Noodles after the cafeteria closes – far from the glamorous lives led by the beneficiaries of college sports.

The growing disparity between the dollars being made while the athletes go unpaid has sparked a needed debate over whether schools should pay student-athletes a stipend – not enough to give the players professional status, but some “walking-around money,” as the kids say.

The NCAA’s old party line is that college athletes are amateurs who are being rewarded with a college scholarship, which is worth thousands in real dollars and perhaps millions in future earnings potential. Athletes should be treated like the rest of the student body, even though they are risking their own bodies to represent their schools.

Yes, they get room, board, textbooks, and those things are great. But you can’t eat a textbook when you get the late-night study munchies, and you can’t drive your college scholarship to go shopping. And if you can catch a ride to the mall, there you might see your jersey for sale at a clothing store, priced well beyond your ability to buy one. That’s Nike and the university’s money.

Not to sound like your grandparents reminiscing about the good old days when a Coke was a nickel, but I know a little something about being a broke college student. Before I got a job and worked my way through school, I got $20 a week for walking-around money, but you can’t walk very far with Andrew Jackson. A load of laundry, a late-night pizza and that’s about it.

Now consider that college athletes spend more than 20 hours at practice alone, even more when you factor in games and travel. With a full-time class load and a sport that requires more time than a part-time job, how is a kid supposed to earn money? Just something as simple as a cell phone or a haircut are beyond the reach of many of the poor kids recruited by schools.

Thanks in part to proponents like South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier, that is finally starting to change. College athletics is undergoing major changes that will include a small stipend for players so they can live above the poverty line. It’s the very least they can do to reward the athletes who are generating huge revenues for their universities.

Even a modest gesture like $50 a week would be a step in the right direction, but eventually it would be nice to see the establishment of emergency funds to help college athletes who are injured to the point that it jeopardizes their future careers, whether in sports or the real world. There are a lot of kids with concussions or back injuries who also go overlooked.

The most important thing is to bring some equity to the status quo and let the workers share in the benefits of their labor. Maybe then we will hear less about the poor student-athletes who get caught stealing groceries and more about the kids who go do well in school because they don’t have to try to fit a part-time job into their hectic schedules. They already have full-time jobs making money for those who never step on the field.

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