The Plantation Life of College Athletes

Let's all cheer this bowl season for the last slave class left in America

In the midst of the College Football Bowl season, let us pause between the Beef O'Brady classic and the Viagra/Tampon Bowl to consider the plight of the young men providing us with an excuse to sit around the living room and drink beer and eat chips and salsa.

If UT had not been eligible for a bowl this year some of the athletes you cheer on Saturday would have been homeless. The semester ended and dorms were to be closed, and football players unable to afford to go home during the Christmas holidays would have been on the street. Any other student can go home with a friend. Take in an athlete? That's an NCAA violation. Since the Vols have a bowl game, they were provided housing so they could practice.

You can buy video games featuring your favorite college athletes, complete with their numbers. The game company makes money, colleges make money. The athletes don't get a cut. My friend Gordon Ball has filed a lawsuit, one of many from around the country, this one on behalf of Bobby Maze. Maze was a point guard for UT's basketball team. No one wants to deprive you of using Bobby's likeness in your video game, but don't you think he ought to see some money from it? But UT, like every other NCAA school, makes its athletes sign a form giving up their rights in return for the opportunity to play college ball.

The suit also is on behalf of a football player from Carson-Newman, and it alleges many young men who get a scholarship from the athletic department also agree to turn over their Pell Grants to the university. In other words, the grant an athlete might receive from the federal government over and above the athletic scholarship has to be given to the university to offset the cost of the athletic scholarship. Multiply that by the number of low-income athletes at various universities in college sports and you will see that some universities reap a huge windfall from your taxes to offset the cost of the scholarships.

Walter Byers, a former head of the NCAA, has a book called Unsportsmanlike Conduct: Exploiting College Athletes. I highly recommend it. Here is a quote from the book, which appears in the Maze lawsuit: "One sold-out home football game at the University of Tennessee's magnificent Neyland Stadium can generate more than $2 million of income. The players, if they call home after the game using an athletics department credit card (or phone), are in violation of NCAA rules. The local service station operator cannot give the star linebacker a free tank of gas after he stops the Alabama Crimson Tide's late rally, but the athletics director, key helpers, and the head coach and assistants can telephone football compadres across the land and then drive away from the game in new automobiles provided free by local dealers."

By contrast, we had a News Sentinel story last week about 36 Vols having VIP passes allowing them to get into a stupid Cumberland Avenue bar without paying a $5 to $10 cover charge—a violation of NCAA rules.

But perhaps the worst thing the NCAA schools do is to not offer college athletes scholarships longer than one year. How is it that a university can't compete for top athletes by offering them a full ride? It might attract an athlete who is only being offered a one-year deal at another school. That's why they don't do it. Does it sound like collusion? A conspiracy to prevent high school athletes from having options or any negotiating position at all? It also gives the coach the option of getting rid of his mistakes or kicking out a kid who messes up his knee for the rest of his life playing for the Tide, the Big Orange or the Bulldogs.

Cheer your teams this bowl season, read about the payouts to your schools. But somewhere in that very large pie there ought to be some provision for the kids who do the work to be able to buy a pizza.