The sight of sophomore guard Kevin Ware, sprawled on the floor and writhing in pain Sunday afternoon while an arena fell silent should serve as the last piece of proof anyone needs for why college athletes should be paid.
In careers with a shelf-life shorter than pound cake, athletes like Ware need to cash in on all the wealth that others benefit from. The cost of a college education isn’t a fair trade, not for a young man like Ware. His hoops career beyond college, whatever that career might have been, now looks no better than his leg, which a horrific fall turned into kindling.
From what people are saying, Ware will miss a full year, and even then, no one can be certain whether Kevin Ware will ever be the Kevin Ware he was before his gruesome injury.
He will get the best medical care, and he will get all the morale support he needs from coaches, alumni and the rest of basketball nation. Then what?
OK, he has a good chance of getting a championship ring. Even without him, the Louisville Cardinals are the odds-on favorites to when the NCAA Championship. They have the talent, the coach and the motivation, and so if people need a team to root for, the Cards are as good as anybody else.
Yet there’s something unseemly about looking at college basketball in some pristine way or into thinking of men like Ware as student-athletes. They are employees, who spend as much time working at and thinking about basketball as they do studying for graduation.
The concept of a student-athlete is an oxymoron. As much as the NCAA tries to tie athletics and academics into a neat package, the organization misses its mark. Athletes at big-time sports programs like Louisville, North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky, Kansas, Arizona, Indiana, Syracuse, Florida and scores more are employees, just as the graduate students who do work in the medical labs on campuses are employees.
Naïve men like Ware are up against a hard game when they put their talents on the open market for scholarship money alone. At every turn, wealth surrounds these young athletes. Alumni, other students and coaches – particularly coaches – cash in on these men’s talent like pimps.
A colleague of mine once referred to athletes as “slaves,” but to go there is to debase the institution that was slavery in America. “Sharecropper,” however, might be a term that fits a college athlete’s circumstances like an Armani suit.
For scraps, athletes do the grunt work; they fill the arenas; they sell merchandise; they fire up the alumni; they bring the campus TV exposure; and they earn millions and millions of dollars for coaches like Ware’s.
And for what: a championship ring?
No one should be proud of what college athletics have become. The principles they once stood for have given way to the kind of excess and naked greed that Americans have come to expect from Wall Street bankers.
Money is not a bad thing. In America, money matters; it matters a lot. So just like the college student who invents an app and turns it into a big paycheck, athletes on campus ought to be able to cash in their biggest asset – their talents – for a piece of the multibillion-dollar NCAA pie.
Athletes like Ware deserve a slice of it just as much as a coach does, because the odds they will cash in on their athleticism after college are as long as filling out an NCAA bracket and having Wichita State, Michigan, Louisville and Syracuse in your Final Four.
Let ’em get paid now, too.
Justice B. Hill is a veteran sports reporter who writes for a number of sports websites, including MLB.com and SBnation.com. He has been a sports editor at several major newspapers and taught journalism at Ohio University.
The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.
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(Photo: AP Photo/Michael Conroy)
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