Dave Helling: College sports system continues to crumble

08/25/2014 7:00 AM

08/25/2014 5:33 PM

Before the college football season is fully underway, let’s tip our caps to the students, former students, lawyers and judges who continue to chip away at the crumbling clay feet of major college athletics.

A summer of litigation has left little doubt. College sports are a cartel that fixes the price of its primary labor at close to zero. The result? Millions for the grown-ups running the games, but a pittance for those who play them, often at a physical risk.

Imagine a workplace where interns do dangerous work while grown-ups get the profits and you understand big-time college sports.

A few weeks ago, a federal judge took a small but important step to disassemble the cartel by ordering NCAA Division I schools to set aside at least $5,000 in deferred annual payments to football and men’s basketball players. The ruling has puzzled both sides — and appeals are underway — but the idea that college athletes deserve more of what they create seems closer than ever to settled law.

The people running the current system are wringing their hands, of course. Recently, the athletic director at Kansas State University was on the radio, hinting that scholarships for athletes in minor sports might be threatened by set-asides for football and basketball players.

As it turns out, K-State Athletics Inc. is a tax-exempt nonprofit corporation and its tax returns are public. Its latest return, filed in November, shows the company awarded $6.1 million in scholarships to 330 students the previous year.

Let’s do some math. If the corporation paid every scholarship athlete an additional $5,000, it would cost just $1,650,000 — about what it paid the football coach. Seems manageable.

It’s the same at other big schools. In 2012, Kansas Athletics Inc. took in almost $92 million, while spending just $11 million on athletic scholarships and grants. Its former football coach was paid $4.2 million.

It isn’t like the kids aren’t working for their money. In 1964, the Alabama football team played 11 games and ended up ranked number one in the country. If they win the national championship this year, Alabama’s football players will likely play 15 games, one short of a regular season pro schedule.

Does anyone think Alabama students need more time on the field? Of course not. The games are added to put more cash into the pockets of everyone except the players, whose scholarships remain the same no matter how many games they play.

Lawsuits are continuing, and politicians are sniffing around. The kids haven’t reached the goal line yet, but they’re in the red zone.

To reach Dave Helling, call 816-234-4656 or send email to dhelling@kcstar.com.

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