The University of Kentucky basketball team, which will play for the national title Monday night, has become a de facto appendage of the NBA. Coach John Calipari recruits players who plan to turn pro a year or two after graduating from high school and makes no pretense of expecting them to graduate from college.
Joe Nocera of the New York Times, contemplating prospects such as this, says it's time to just make it official: Let's call college basketball (and football) players pros and use some of the revenue from TV rights and merchandise licensing to pay them real salaries.
The most appealing thing about this idea is what it would put an end to: the spectacle of big-time college coaches making millions of dollars a year on the backs of players who don't get a piece of the action, many of whom come from low-income backgrounds and won't ever see the promised land of an NBA career. There's also something to be said for admitting that a vast commercial enterprise is a vast commercial enterprise.
But wouldn't honesty about the commercial enterprise cut into the commerce? Isn't part of the appeal of NCAA sports to TV viewers the perception of a kind of purity--the perception that these guys really are playing for the love of the game? And doesn't the student body's enthusiasm (which itself makes the sport more appealing to TV viewers) depend on there being some not-entirely-tenuous sense in which these players are part of the student body? Could you sustain that sense of connection if the star hoops player was pulling down $500,000 per year, living in an off-campus penthouse, and driving to practice in a BMW?
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Nocera would make that last scenario uncommon by establishing both a minimum salary ($25,000) and a team salary cap ($650,000 for 13 basketball players, $3 million for 60 football players). If you do the math, you'll see that there wouldn't be huge amounts of money left for superstars.