Student-athletes are lucky, and the more they appreciate their opportunity as students, the richer their life will be for decades

Let’s Play Hockey photo by Mike Thill

The greatest gift you can give an 18-year-old is an education. After all, they already have an iPhone, a car and every other expensive gift their parents couldn’t afford. So it’s time to tell the talking heads on sports’ shows that their idea of paying college athletes is the dumbest thing they’ve come up with – and that’s a very low bar.

College athletes are receiving a five-year, quarter-million dollar education, provided they take advantage. Its value, however, far exceeds the tuition-room-board costs that are obvious. It is an investment in their future and in the future of our country. That’s a lot of value that never comes up in the debates by the TV experts who would have us believe that money is all that should matter to a student-athlete.

I’m thoroughly turned off by these “expert commentary” shows that dominate TV in the political and sports’ worlds. Just once, I’d like to hear someone finish a sentence, then pause for a breath, indicating respect for the feedback of others on their panel. But these shouting matches aren’t big on respect. Their conventional wisdom (using the term loosely) has focused lately on paying college athletes, because they bring in so much money to the colleges, and oh … they work such long, hard hours.

Yes, actually, they do work long and hard. After all, they’re student-athletes, learning one of the most valuable lessons of life: If you want to achieve something worthwhile, you’ll need to pay a heavy price. And, yes, some of them do bring money to the college. But it’s nowhere near enough to pay for the investment by the college. If those billion dollar stadiums and arenas were part of the equation, if we also consider the original costs of land, classroom buildings and athletic facilities that contribute to their development, the income from television and ticket sales can’t match the overhead – even in the richest football program in the country.

How about the cost of building the greatest educational institutions in the world – a gift to them from history? The faculty, students and alumni from a century or more made their school what it is. And their expensive sports’ playgrounds will be a factor in the rising cost of education for everyone. No one’s really balancing budgets in these athletic departments; they’re just pushing numbers around a spreadsheet to make it look right for the current year.

The point is that athletes are NOT making their schools richer. Their participation helps pay some of the ongoing expenses of the athletic department – if they play for one of the most successful programs. But what if their program isn’t quite so well- funded by TV and alumni who only support a winner? Would the TV experts say, “Well son, you didn’t make it to a bowl game, so we’ll have to put a lien on your future earnings to offset the costs of your college career?”

Or … what about athletes in sports that don’t bring in money? Should they sit in an English class next to a basketball or football player who is drawing a big salary (assuming the basketball/football guy is actually going to English class)? Do they get no salary because their sport isn’t making money? Is that how we weigh the value of the various sports? Does a Heisman-Trophy freshman get an agent and weigh his professional options against the salary offered by the college? What about the grad students who contribute to research that brings in millions in funding? Where does it end?

My take on where it ends? These athletes are not slaves. They are fortunate to be part of a wonderful tradition, a gift from others before them who built the classrooms, facilities and reputation of their institution. Just because television has jumped into this tradition with big money and big demands doesn’t mean college sports has become a professional business. These kids are very lucky to be student-athletes, and the more they appreciate their opportunity as students, the richer their life will be for decades … and by rich, I’m not talking about money.