NCAA rules screw athletes

NCAA rules screw athletes

WSU Men's Basketball Coach Gregg Marshall.

The crisis is over! Disaster is averted! The sun will come up tomorrow! Gregg Marshall has agreed to stay in Wichita. For the paltry sum of $3.3 million per year, the Shocker coach will stay for seven more years. Or until the next time he is courted and someone throws even bigger money at him.

Private donors and Shocker supporters have anted up big time to keep their beloved coach from moving on to greener pastures. Major donors must have kicked in massive amounts to pull this off. In a city where the population won't even go for a small raise in the sales tax, some folks talk serious money to protect Shocker basketball.

It doesn't take a huge stretch of imagination to figure how firefighters, policemen and teachers must feel about the support they have received from the public. Their wages go up very slowly while their collective bargaining rights are under assault in the legislature. Still, this is too easy a point to make. It's shooting fish in a barrel.

Let's look a little closer at the basketball players themselves. Not just the WSU team but the men and women upon whom college sports rely and the generators of much of the income. Much has been written lately of the players and why they should be paid some sort of stipend.

The NCAA generally says that scholarships may cover tuition, books, room and board. Period.

The outdated paradigm on which they operate is that these young student-athletes are receiving something far greater — a first-rate college education. That should be plenty, right?

For a local student-athlete, this might still be the case. However, for the out-of-state product flown in to play ball, the reality is something quite different. Many of these young men are African-Americans plucked from big city ghettoes and poor Southern farms. They have little in the way of either financial resources or adequate academic preparation. How does the system work for them?

First, the myth of education. Recent revelations out of the University of North Carolina blow this myth away. (Special classes for athletes where attendance is not required and acceptance of work on a sub-high school graduation level is not a rarity.) So do statistics on graduation rates of basketball and football players. Some schools allow a few walk-ons who may never play but whose grade point averages raise the team average.

The number of "one and done" basketball players is a great case in point. These young men see their future in the NBA and can almost smell the money in their future. Many of them manage to be eligible (one way or another) during the season but don't bother to go to class once the season is over.

Some will make it to the NBA; others will play a while in developmental leagues or overseas.

I am not blaming these kids. For a young man who grew up in poverty, the lure of professional basketball and the large sums attached can't help but be attractive. It is the institutions who callously recruit them under the "student-athlete" umbrella knowing that they have no intention of attaining an education that I hold contemptible.

For student-athletes who determine to stay in school and actually make progress, the NCAA does not make it easy. Restrictions on support that they may receive from the school make life truly difficult for them.

I remember Thomas Robinson, an outstanding player for Kansas. One fall, his mother and grandmother died within about a month. KU had to go to the NCAA to get special permission for boosters to be able to buy him a suit for the funeral and a plane ticket back to the Washington, D.C. area. Some schools have been sanctioned when a coach allows a player to use his cell phone for a student athlete to talk to his people at home. But jocks are not immune to homesickness and family problems.

Recently there have been stories about players going hungry. Their scholarship allows them to be given meal plans in the cafeteria or at a training table. But three square meals a day is just not sufficient for an 18-year-old kid who is burning thousands of calories in practices and weight training. He is probably still growing as well. When the late-night hunger hits him, he may not have money to make a Burger King run or to call for a pizza.

I remember what it was to go to college without a car. And that in a walkable town such as Emporia. It must be a real hassle for a student in a city like Wichita with a lousy public transportation system when he doesn't have money to use. And can he ever afford to date — to pay for a meal and a movie for himself and a special friend?

Maybe I feel for these guys because I really had to struggle to get through college. I was able to work summers on a farm or in a machine shop to build up some cash. I worked as a houseboy in a sorority house to earn two meals a day. I didn't have a car all through college. Just couldn't afford it.

But these young men and women have no time to work. They have schedules that include team meetings, practices, weight training and team travel.

It used to be that boosters in the community would hire student-athletes to "work" at semi-imaginary jobs to earn pocket money. The NCAA put a stop to that and the schools find training and conditioning "classes" as well as pick up sessions that are nearly mandatory. Classes must be taken to make up for light schedules during the season. Going home to get a job is rarely possible.

And then there is the question of memorabilia. The student may find his face on placards, his picture on a poster in the local paper and a jersey with his name on it for sale in the bookstore or off campus. The university sells rights to these things. None of the proceeds can go to the student. They can't even set some of this money aside to hand over after his playing career is finished.

So, we cough up an additional $1.2 million to keep Coach Marshall in Wichita. But if the great Shocker fans want to put their money where it will do some good, put their heads together and find a way to make life easier for the athletes. Put pressure on the NCAA rules committee. Support these young men far from home and family in ways that the NCAA can accept (or, failing that, ways that it can't see). Stop whining about the lack of a football team, and find a way to support the athletes we have.