Educators are in thrall to their athletic departments because of these television riches and because they respect the political furies that can burst from a locker room. “There’s fear,” Friday told me when I visited him on the University of North Carolina campus in Chapel Hill last fall. As we spoke, two giant construction cranes towered nearby over the university’s Kenan Stadium, working on the latest $77 million renovation. (The University of Michigan spent almost four times that much to expand its Big House.) Friday insisted that for the networks, paying huge sums to universities was a bargain. “We do every little thing for them,” he said. “We furnish the theater, the actors, the lights, the music, and the audience for a drama measured neatly in time slots. They bring the camera and turn it on.” Friday, a weathered idealist at 91, laments the control universities have ceded in pursuit of this money. If television wants to broadcast football from here on a Thursday night, he said, “we shut down the university at 3 o’clock to accommodate the crowds.” He longed for a campus identity more centered in an academic mission.
“Scholarship athletes are already paid,” declared the Knight Commission members, “in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education.” This evasion by prominent educators severed my last reluctant, emotional tie with imposed amateurism. I found it worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves. In the era when our college sports first arose, colonial powers were turning the whole world upside down to define their own interests as all-inclusive and benevolent. Just so, the NCAA calls it heinous exploitation to pay college athletes a fair portion of what they earn.I love college athletics (I am thrilled that I have gotten to attend three Rose Bowls in which Wisconsin played) and admire many college athletes. I not only envy their athletic prowess, I am amazed at the varsity athlete who can manage a B average in a difficult major while playing a sport.
But the NCAA system gives these athletes a raw deal. Among other things, the system makes it difficult for athletes in revenue generating sports to get a real college experience--practice and games can leave students too tired to focus on class (yes, I know some athletes have no interest in class to begin with, but in my experience they are a distinct minority). If the "pay" is supposed to be an education, the least we as colleges and universities can do is make sure athletes get one.