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How To Fix College Sports


Now, to Howard's point with the stories out of Penn State and Syracuse this year, it's almost hard to remember when a scandal in college sports referred to grade fixing or dishonest boosters. But some say that what should be considered a scandal is the billions of dollars generated by college football and men's basketball with hardly any of that revenue actually going to the players.

New York Times op ed columnist Joe Nocera is among those who believe that college athletes should receive a salary. And that's the focus of his article in this week's New York Times Magazine. It's called "The Miracle Cure for College Sports" and our friend Joe Nocera joins us from our studios in New York to tell us all about it. Hi, Joe.

JOE NOCERA: Hi, Jacki. Thanks for having me.

LYDEN: So in this article you lay out what's essentially your prescription for fixing college sports. Good time. College bowl's coming up. Let's start with the most controversial element of your plan: paying some of these NCAA players, and that of course is beyond the scholarships that they already get.

NOCERA: The point of my plan is the NCAA and college sports are steeped in hypocrisy, where everybody else makes millions of dollars and the players make nothing. And it's ridiculous. It's a big business and they should pay the labor. So, yes. I have a five-point plan and point one is you put money on the table and you offer it to players. And I am not only not ashamed of that, I think it's the right thing to do.

LYDEN: Why do you think it's the right thing to do? I mean, money can make things pretty messy.

NOCERA: What's hard for people to get their heads around is the extent to which these athletes are exploited in every way imaginable. They're not taking real courses, many of them. Nobody cares whether they graduate or not. They are on campus to make money for the athletic department. And there are coaches who are making - Urban Meyer at Ohio State just signed a six-year, $24 million contract. Why is he making that much money? In part, because the labor is not paid.

And there's something profoundly wrong about that. And this is also the reason you have all these dinky little scandals like Ohio State players selling the rings that they own for playing to get tattoos and money. They don't have any money.

LYDEN: Joe, would you say that maybe a team salary should be capped so that colleges can compete?

NOCERA: Yeah. So point two, is you have a salary cap. And the number I have in mind is $3 million for a football team. And for basketball I have a $650,000 cap with their team scholarships. And I have a minimum salary of $25,000 per student.

So players that you wind up competing for, recruiting, would inevitably get more than that. They wouldn't get rich, but they would get $40,000, $50,000, $60,000. Enough to differentiate them from the other players who don't have as much market value.

LYDEN: And on top of that, you propose that because of the physical nature of what they do they should get lifetime health care benefits.

NOCERA: Yes. I believe they should get lifetime health insurance benefits. And I also believe they should get six-year scholarships. I mean, it's criminal what happens now. It's a one-year scholarship.

If a new coach comes in and he decides that he doesn't like the way this halfback plays, he cuts him. There's something obscene about that. I think there should be a six-year scholarship so the players can play out their time and then still have two years to get a real education.

LYDEN: What do you think about small schools, which are going to say, look, we just can't afford to pay them anything?

NOCERA: I don't have - you know, there's already a giant differential between the Alabamas of the world and the Youngstown States. That already exists. And I think what would ultimately happen if you went to my scheme is that you would have maybe 70 or 75 large football schools - Alabama, Auburn, USC, Texas and so on and so forth, teams that have no trouble coming up with $3 million for a football team.

And then you'd have a lot of schools that'll have to say, you know what, we can't afford this. We have to deemphasize football. And we have to make it more a part of just, you know, everyday college life and not this big business that it is with the big schools.

LYDEN: What about the question of amateurism? Aren't they supposed to be amateurs?

NOCERA: Well, there are many activities on campus that are amateur - the theater club, the chess club, maybe even the soccer team. But men's basketball and college football are in this very, very different category where the amount of money is so huge that they really are businesses with a labor force.

And the next step is to say, OK, how do we get past that hypocrisy? What is the next step? What is the rational thing to do? The rational thing to do is to say let's do what the Olympics did. Eventually they decided amateurism was a standard not worth preserving. It was causing more problems than solutions. And they allowed professionals to play in the Olympics. And guess what? The Olympics got better. I believe college football and men's basketball would also get better if they paid the players.

LYDEN: Joe Nocera, his article is called "The Miracle Cure for College Sports."

Joe, thank you so much for speaking with us.

NOCERA: And thanks for letting me rant about this.


LYDEN: You can find Joe's article on the New York Times website.


LYDEN: You're listening to WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.