Former Syracuse Orange Etan Thomas Rips NCAA: Agree?

Brian KinelCorrespondent IIIJuly 7, 2012

Etan Thomas
Etan ThomasTodd Warshaw/Getty Images

It’s one thing for me to criticize the hypocrisy of the NCAA and the unfairness of the system to the athletes. It’s quite another for someone who has gone through that system to do so.

“College athletics is nothing more than a corrupt system focused on exploitation and greed.”

That’s a quote from an article on the website hoopshype by former Syracuse center and current NBA player, Etan Thomas.  Thomas is a very thoughtful, bright man who published More than an Athlete: Poems by Etan Thomas in 2005. His recent article concludes with a biting poem about the NCAA.

The concept of amateurism promoted by the NCAA is a farce. Again, from Thomas: “The bottom line is you’re not a student-athlete as they love to profess to the world, you’re an athlete-student, and you are there for one reason and one reason only. You can keep your grades up enough to remain eligible, but then again, that’s only so you can be able to play.”

The reason that “benefits” are impermissible is because the people at the top say so. The same people benefit tremendously financially. According to Thomas, NCAA President Mark Emmert’s salary is thought to be $2 million annually. The NCAA has 14 Vice-Presidents—14. I doubt they make $50,000 annually. 

Does Thomas have an ax to grind? Fair question. He did talk about what his wife Nichole went through as a Syracuse women’s basketball player.

Nichole, Thomas’ girlfriend at the time, had done some modeling and acting prior to arriving at Syracuse. She had been in a TV commercial with Tony the Tiger but wasn’t able to keep the royalties from the commercial and her scholarship at the same time. Even though the commercial was filmed before she ever enrolled at Syracuse. So she gave the money to charity.

Shortly before her senior year, Nichole underwent her third knee surgery and was told to give up basketball if she wanted to walk without a cane and play with her kids later in life. Once she did give up the sport she loved, Syracuse planned on pulling her scholarship. According to Thomas, only a threatened lawsuit allowed Nichole to keep that scholarship.

I know there are plenty of stories of players getting injured and being allowed to keep their scholarship. But it’s the system we’re addressing here. For example, while many players transfer to another school to play a sport, many aren’t allowed to by their spurned coach. St. Joe’s coach Phil Martelli never allowed Todd O’Brien to play at Georgia Tech, and Wisconsin only granted Jarod Uthoff permission after a firestorm of negative publicity when they originally blocked him from transferring to a list of 27 different schools.

I’m not big on bitching about something without offering a possible solution. So how do we fix this?

Let’s start with the recognition we’re talking about college football and basketball. That’s where we see recruiting violations and impermissible benefits. Boy I hate that term.

Why those two sports? Because they’re free minor league systems for the NFL and NBA and great high school players who dream of making it to those leagues are forced to go to college.

This differs from hockey and baseball where major league teams own and operate viable minor league teams they stock with players to eventually fill their major league rosters. A great 18-year-old hockey or baseball player has two routes to the major leagues. A Division I scholarship or a minor league contract.

Not everyone is meant to go to college. But this system forces football and basketball players there. They are nothing but paid employees of the school there to play their sport first and foremost. While that doesn’t preclude them from taking advantage of the free education being given them, it’s not their main purpose on campus.

They deserve the same choice that hockey and basketball players have. Can that happen? No. There’s no chance that a system like that could be put into place now. The NBA and NFL have no reason to do that, they’re getting a free minor league system now.

While some great athletes would choose the college route, the reality is that most kids would go straight to the minors and college sports as we know it would cease to exist. A point could be made that college sports today are way too big with out of whack priorities, but there’s no going back now.

I do have a more realistic proposal for change to this inequitable system. While I don’t want to minimize the value of a college education at all, that value just isn’t enough for what that player brings in to the school and the NCAA. It’s ridiculous for the school to make money by selling the kids’ jersey but the kid can’t accept a hamburger.

My realistic and simple solution is to drag college sports into the world of capitalism and the free market system. Just let the kids get what someone is willing to give them. Let Nichole keep the royalties from her commercials. If the local car dealer wants to pay the quarterback to sign autographs, so be it. That’s how it works for every other scholarship student at the school.

Well, then rich alumni will just cut checks to great high school players to get them to come to State U. Uh huh. So what?

College is about preparing you for your career. Many graduates get a signing bonus from potential employers as part of their job offer. Recruitment of a top high school athlete is just a step in the career process for these kids.

We just don’t like to think of it as something other than the kid fulfilling a life long dream to play for State U. The kid has been preparing for this since the age of eight by angling to get on the best travel teams. By going to clinics and taking lessons. By playing their chosen sport year round. By traveling to tournaments to play against the best.

The days of playing little league and then for your high school team and the local college team are over. Little league is considered amateur compared to travel leagues. High school teams are irrelevant when compared to AAU teams.

You are worth what someone is willing to pay you. Obviously these top college athletes are worth a lot. It’s only the people trying to keep all of the profit who say the athletes getting what they’re worth is wrong.

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