Are Lawsuits over Pay Sucking the Magic out of College Sports?

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Are Lawsuits over Pay Sucking the Magic out of College Sports?
Stephen Morton/AP Images

For years I've thought of those who oppose paying college athletes as self-centered, greedy exploiters of labor. But my view has shifted. Now, I think of them as self-centered, greedy exploiters of labor who are right about one thing.

Paying the athletes could ruin big-time college sports as we know it.

The latest shot fired across the bow of the NCAA is an antitrust lawsuit filed this week on behalf of current and former college football and basketball players by labor attorney Jeffrey Kessler, who helped NFL players win free agency. Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee called the suit "perhaps the most concerning development for the NCAA since the Ed O'Bannon case started."

Jeff Roberson/Associated Press
Jeffrey Kessler

Let me be clear: I hope Kessler and O'Bannon are both successful. Revenue-producing college athletes should be paid. The idea that guys like Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney have been anything other than professional football players for the past few years is absurd. Amateurism in big-time college sports isn't just a sham, it's a con. Those kids are being exploited.

So enjoy the undeniable excitement of the NCAA basketball tournament this week. Because it might not always be this way. When they start paying players, I'm afraid you're going to start seeing it the way I see it. That is, you're going to start seeing it for what it is: a minor league sporting event.

It took a while for me to get to this point. It's been about 15 years since I started thinking about the unfairness of a multibillion-dollar industry in which everyone gets rich except the people doing the work that makes all that money, often at life-altering physical cost.

Michael Conroy/Associated Press
Louisville's Kevin Ware broke his leg in the 2013 NCAA Tournament.

There followed a long period in which I disliked the system, often writing about those feelings, but still enjoyed the sports. Life is complicated, I would say. There are problems here, but when my Golden Bears are driving downfield or the hoops tournament is in full swing: Wow! There's no beating the in-stadium or in-arena experience of a big game on the highest level.

I still think it's possible to enjoy the sports and be a decent person. And I'm just talking about the revenue-producing sports, where the athletes would be able to sell their services for significant pay if there weren't rules against it. The spirit of college athletics is alive and well away from the giant piles of cash. I recently attended a men's soccer game between the No. 1 and No. 3 teams in the country. Attendance: 1,562. Felt great about it. 

Even with the big-time sports, I admit I still enjoy a good game if I happen to tune in to or attend one, which I'm happy to do, especially with my kids. 

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But I don't go out of my way. I just find myself not caring beyond the immediate outcome of the game.

It's similar to the experience I have at a minor league baseball game. I can get very involved in the outcome of a Stockton Ports vs. Bakersfield Blaze tilt on a certain Saturday night if I happen to be in the stands. And it's fun to see some future big-leaguers in their puppyhood. But I really don't care about the California League pennant race. It's the minor leagues.

And that's the problem with big-time college sports once you realize the players are professionals: Without the mystique of "student athletes" toiling for nothing more than love of the game, the glory of their dear old U and goshdarnit, all I'm asking for is a chance at the big stage, you're left with minor league sports.

The NCAA tournament is basketball played on a high level, but not nearly as high a level as they play in the NBA. It's not even as good as the NBA Development League, which is packed with former college stars. When's the last time America got excited over the D-League playoffs? Never, because it's the minor leagues.

Some of us—the best-looking ones, mostly—already realize that big-time college sports are really just lower-level pro operations that have been able to sustain a fiction of amateurism. The rest of you—I was kidding, you're cute too—will be forced into that realization no later than when some kind of payment structure is instituted, which I believe is inevitable.

Once college sports loses what I call The Big Lie—the idea that big-time college football and basketball players aren't professional athletes but college students pursuing extracurricular activities as part of a well-rounded education—the air could go out of the balloon. I think a lot of people will join me in feeling that the magic is gone.

There isn't any precedent for America going bananas over lower-level pro sports without that magic.

None of this changes my mind. Trading that mystique for fair treatment of a whole class of professionals is a square deal. But I have to admit I've come to believe the doomsayers: It's a deal that could mean the end of big-time college sports as we know them.

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