McCULLOUGH: Time to pay players?

Nate McCullough

Nate McCullough

Talk around the newsroom the other day turned to the controversy surrounding so many current and former college athletes.

Between A.J. Green’s jersey, Reggie Bush’s Heisman Trophy and North Carolina losing most of its team, there’s plenty of fodder for both sides in the old paying-the-players debate.

I was interested in other opinions because I’ve never really formed one myself. At its simplest, the debate comes down to the players’ free education and talent showcase versus the colleges and the NCAA profiting from these athletes’ exploits. I’ve never been sure who was getting the best deal, and thus I wasn’t sure whether anyone was in need of a boost to make it more equitable.

One thing we mostly agreed on: Paying players seems disdainful on its face. Scholarship players are getting for free what most students and their families have to beg, borrow and save to get: an education. And if they’re not taking advantage, at least the opportunity is there. They also get to show off for several years in hopes of drawing a fat NFL contract that will more than make up for the “losses” they incurred playing for “free.”

On the other hand, how much money did USC make off Reggie Bush jerseys? How much does UGA make off Green? I can tell you this: You can buy replica No. 8 jerseys all day long from the university bookstore for $60. You can also buy tickets to see him play again in a few weeks. And while at the game you can buy Cokes and hot dogs and on and on. The team is putting butts in the seats. Is it fair they reap nothing from that?

I honestly don’t know. The idea leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But so do the ridiculously long suspensions and the trophy returning and watching a team that should be 2-0 go 0-2. (I’m talking about North Carolina here, not UGA’s SEC record, just for the, uh, record.)

Another thing we all agreed on, though: A lot of people want to pay players, but you hear relatively few ideas of how to go about doing it.

So how would we do it, if we decided it was something we should do?

Contracts are out of the question. High schools already serve as farm systems. Can you imagine a 16-year-old with dollar signs in his eyes thinking about turning, um, amateur, early? Not to mention the fact that the inequities of pro sports would then become prevalent in college. You could forget about a small school with few rich alumni ever cracking the top five again.

Finally, how would it be fair to other players? No one would ever pay a third-string punter the same as the starting quarterback. I know, they wouldn’t do that in the pros either, but in the pros they guarantee a minimum. No one’s ever slid any cash to the third-string punter anywhere, ever, in college.

So you’d have to do it by team. The idea we came up with is this: The NCAA limits each school to a certain dollar amount. Just for argument’s sake, let’s say $1 million. That’s for all sports. That money can come from boosters, agents, bake sales, whatever. And it’s distributed evenly. The third-string kicker, the starting point guard and the two guys on the golf team all get the same amount.

What can they use it for? Anything. Housing. Cars. Food. Books, beer, babes — whatever. It’s their money, money that goes in one kitty. No one is handing anything directly to anybody. The players are getting something, and it’s all on the up and up instead of under the table.

And you enforce it with capital punishment. Anyone who takes one dime of dirty money loses his scholarship and eligibility. His school forfeits every game he played in, every title won and pays back bowl money. While we’re at it, let’s lose a few scholarships and the next season’s “salary fund” to boot, to encourage athletes to police each other. And to keep coaches from looking the other way, let’s fine them a huge chunk of their salary.

So there’s how you do it. Now should we?

E-mail Nate McCullough at nate.mccullough@gwinnettdailypost.com. His column appears on Fridays. He’d like to thank staff writers Tyler Estep and Ben Beitzel and staff correspondent Scott Smith for contributing to this column.