First things first, I realize everyone is so entrenched on this issue that nobody is going to change anyone's mind. We've moved into the period of a public debate in which each side just shouts at each other to make themselves feel better about their own position, not to actually convince anyone. I think players should be paid, but if you don't, well, there's not much I can say that's going to change your mind. I know that, just as I know you're not going to change mine.
Still, let's try to at least find some sort of common ground because I think we can all agree that college sports are under siege right now. You can't turn your head without finding another NCAA controversy or some attack on the future of college sports. I think everyone agrees some reform is necessary, so the question is what that reform should look like.
But before we can formulate the answers, we need to know the questions. What is actually wrong with college sports? You can't create a solution until you identify the problem. And right now, we're knee deep in proposed solutions, but short on consensus of what's even wrong in the first place.
The major problem I have with some reformers is that they don't like college sports in the first place. If you're not a fan of college sports, then excuse the rest of us for not trusting you. There's a reason we don't watch pro sports and we don't want a college game that looks more like the pro game. Having another NBA, only with players not as good as the NBA, doesn't sound appealing to me at all. I don't see how it could be appealing to anyone.
Well, I love college sports. I love LSU, specifically, just as you do. As a child of two LSU alums stuck in Maryland, I listened to LSU games on JBO, its crackly signal barely reaching our radio. To get a better signal, we'd sit on top of the roof of our garage. Between pops and hisses, we could hear the descriptions of Saturday Night in Tiger Stadium. I fell in love almost immediately.
College sports are about the bands, the tailgates, the fans. It's about the connection of this year's team to the 1958 National Champions. It's our best foot forward, the emissaries not just of LSU, but of all Louisiana. This is what we are. This is what we do. To strike at the heart of that is misguided and a little bit cruel.
The NCAA is built upon the principles of amateurism. OK, they came up with the term "student-athlete" so they wouldn't have to pay health insurance, and now the organization has a fetish for the term. It's a way we romanticize the "student" part of the compound, though I will admit that it was cool as a student to have classes with the players. It made me feel as if the team was a part of the community and one of us. Sure, we place too much value on the term, but that doesn't mean there isn't value to the fact they are students. College sports are still the only time a fan can use "we" to refer to a team without feeling ridiculous. We are all a part of LSU.
But why is amateurism a worthy goal? Why are we preserving amateurism at all costs? You wouldn't want to go to an amateur doctor. Even medical students are expected to act with professionalism. They also get paid (not much, mind you). In what other vocation is being called "amateur" considered a positive?
Why do we care so much if our student-athletes are professional? Does that make them any less of a Tiger? Does that sever the tie to the university? I'd agree that we don't want to see free agency or a draft or anything like that, but what is wrong with a stipend? What's wrong with players getting a cut of the merchandising?
If a lab assistant at LSU draws a paycheck, does that make her educational experience any less valuable? Isn't she still learning? Does she cease being a student?
We seem to be spending a lot of efforts to defend this core value of amateurism and I'm genuinely curious, is this a value worth defending? Until we answer this most basic question, any and all reform efforts are doomed to fail and we are just going to keep screaming past each other.
I want to preserve college sports, too. I don't want a mini-NFL or a mini-NBA. I'd watch tiddlywinks if one of the teams was wearing LSU uniforms. But LSU's athletic department raked in millions of dollars last year, would it truly ruin the college experience if the players got a piece of that?
What are we really preserving? Would the essence of college sports be changed if all players received a stipend on top of their scholarship? Don't we want them to learn how to be professional, even if they never go on to the NFL?
I love college sports. I love LSU. But I also don't see the value of amateurism. I don't see how a fair wage strikes at the heart of the sport. Maybe I'm wrong, but I think we should talk about our values instead of just yelling at one another.