WHAT OTHERS SAY: Exploitation of collegiate athletes bringing in the big bucks

Wednesday, September 7, 2011 | 4:16 p.m. CDT; updated 10:03 a.m. CDT, Thursday, September 29, 2011

For the second straight year, the nation is being treated to the sleazy spectacle of dozens of America's leading public universities pushing and shoving like hogs at a trough to further exploit large and speedy undergraduates in the name of maximizing the money from televising football games.

It was bad enough last year, but this year the sleaziness extends to exploiting high school students as well. This is not quite child abuse, but it is wrong all the same. Call it the magic of Disney.

The dust hadn't settled from this year's upheaval when the University of Texas announced that it had signed a 20-year, $300 million deal with ESPN to create a new "Longhorn Network." ESPN is owned by ABC, which in turn is owned by the Walt Disney Co.

Texas Longhorn football would be the network's major attraction, but the network promised to televise other sports as well, maybe even an academic lecture or two.

Plus, the network wanted to televise up to 18 high school football games each year, showcasing 17-year-olds who one day might wear the Longhorns' burnt orange and white.

Can they spell "perspective"? Probably not, but who cares?

It is simply impossible to overstate the importance of football in the state of Texas. At the dark heart of that is the rivalry between the University of Texas and Texas A&M University. Take Missouri-Kansas and multiply by 10, and you're still not close.

So when A&M heard about Texas' deal with ESPN, it went ballistic, pretty much determined to leave Texas and the rest of the Big 12 for the Southeastern Conference, even if it would cost them millions in penalty fees.

Then what happens to the rest of the Big 12, including Missouri? Stay tuned, but a good guess is that it won't have much to do with the core mission of universities.

Last summer the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics — a largely powerless thinktank made up of academic administrators handicapped by consciences — released the results of an 18-month study of the finances in big-time college sports.

Spending on sports had grown by 38 percent — nearly twice as much as spending on academics — from 2005 to 2008. The 10 public institutions that spent the most were on pace to spend more than $250 million a year on sports by 2020.

People like sports. Sports sells a lot of deodorant and pickup trucks, so television likes sports. Successful teams can generate higher enrollment and alumni financial support for university programs.

The commission recommended requiring greater financial transparency and rewarding practices that make academic values a priority. One suggestion: require teams that make postseason bowl games or tournaments to share the TV loot with academic departments.

This way the tail could truly wag the dog.

The commission further recommended "treating college athletes as students first and foremost — not as professionals."

That should be turned around. The young men who play football (and, in some places, basketball) generate most of the money that pays their coaches' million-dollar salaries, supports the rest of the athletic department and brings in those alumni dollars.

For this they get room and board and a college education, if they're smart enough to take advantage of it.

Let's drop the academic fraud. If schools are going to milk players like professionals, they should pay them like professionals, too.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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