Story and Photos by Ken Krayeske • 12:45 AM EST
UConn atheltic director Jeffrey Hathaway (left) and (right) NBA Attorney Jeffrey Mishkin of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom agree that big time college athletes don't deserve pay. Pictured here at the UConn Law's Davis courtroom, Wednesday, Nov. 19, 2008.
A t a recent freshman experience class for student athletes at the University of Connecticut, some wiseguy frosh asked athletic director Jeff Hathaway when they would get paid.
“I love all of you,” Hathaway said, and he told the students they are not at UConn to get paid.
Hathaway related this tale to about 50 UConn Law students at UConn's Davis Courtroom Wednesday, November 19, 2008. Hathaway and NBA lawyer Jeffrey A. Mishkin spun yarns about managing the cut throat world of Big East sports for a half hour or so, then opened the floor to questions.
My hand shot up, and I wondered if the scads of money - literally billions of dollars flowing into college athletic coffers from television and marketing contracts - forced us to abandon the myth of college athletes as amateurs.
"This is a difficult question," Hathaway said. "There are 343 Division I institutions, all of them are very different in a lot of ways.” Even in the 16-team Big East, public, private, Catholic, and secular schools compete, all with differing size budgets. It would be trouble dividing revenues, Hathaway said.
“Who gets paid and how much?” Hathaway asked. “There are only three sports that generate revenue for our school. I don't believe there is a time we will pay our athletes."
Mishkin, upon hearing my question aimed at Hathaway, expressed relief that I had nothing for him. Not so fast. The NCAA is the de facto minor league for both the NFL and the NBA, I said, do the NFL and the NBA owe a duty to college athletic programs?
No. But first Mishkin admitted the theory that Division I basketball and football players are athletes has been “strained." Yet he agreed with Hathaway that college athletes shouldn't get paid. Nor will contracts happen unless athletics and academics dissociate.
Such a dissocation may be the best fix. It was first proposed way back in 1989 by then-Sports Illustrated writer Rick Telander. Disgusted with the inhumanity he witnessed covering college football, Telander, who attended Northwestern University on a gridiron scholarship, suggested in his classic tome The Hundred Yard Lie that the top 50-80 sports schools should form a bona fide football minor league.
Telander called on us to abandon the illusion of college football as amatuer, and almost 20 years later, we should apply his proposal to basketball, too. He wrote:
"Being paid for playing a sport is not wrong, regardless of the age or educational background of the athlete. (Remember that 15 year old tennis players and uneducated hockey players deserve, and get, paid for their efforts.)"
At the bare minimum, UConn men's basketball coach Jim Calhoun suggested in 2006 that players should receive stipends for travel to and from home. Calhoun knows of what he speaks.
The NCAA penalized UConn $90,000 in March Madness tournament revenues from 1996 because senior co-captain Kirk King and sophomore defensive specialist Ricky Moore took free plane tickets home to Louisiana and Georgia from an agent. Both players were punished heavily.
But who can blame these kids for wanting to cash in on perks early? College basketball's box score tells of young players shaving points, lying, cheating and stealing to scrape by. Some graduate, some don't. A miniscule portion hit the pro lottery ticket.
All the while, these players, many from poor urban areas, watch their coaches and universities rake in big time dough on their efforts. Once in a blue moon, the system pays off for an at-risk youth, like UConn's Caron Butler, who was arrested 15 times before he reached 15 in the slums of Racine, Wisconsin.
Butler struck it rich because he shed some weight and developed a perimeter game at UConn in two seasons. He jumped to the NBA in 2002 as a first round pick, and now plays as a small forward for the Washington Wizards. But in my experience with Butler in his rookie year, the pro life seemed to take a toll on him. And it made me think that the NBA owed something to the NCAA and to the cities where their players come from.
Because for every Butler, there is an A.J. Price, a 19-year-old would-be UConn star who got busted stealing laptop computers in 2005. Price received criminal probation and was suspended from the team for a while.
He is finishing his senior year at UConn this year. In the corrupt atmosphere of college sports, where role models are exploiters, and money is the name of the game, why are we surprised when impressionable youth catch the vibe and going to the dark side? Then there is Price's teammate Marcus Williams, who was arrested for the same thing. The lists of criminal violations could go on.
The presence of television mega-money in college athletics has created “anomalies,” Mishkin admitted. He argued that collegians are “students first and athletes second. As long as that is the bedrock philosophy, the athletes won’t get paid. If they do, there will be a whole lot of competition.”
Mishkin, a partner at New York City’s Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, is one of the nation’s pre-eminent sports attorneys. He was the counsel for the Big East during its divorce from Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College. Skadden, Arps recruited Mishkin to start a sports practice, as for the three decades prior, Mishkin was both the NBA’s main outside and inside counsel.
Despite the fact that NCAA Division I basketball schools act as the primary minor league for the NBA, Mishkin said he does not see that the NBA has an obligation, moral or otherwise, to support NCAA schools.
"I spend time talking and thinking about this," Mishkin said. "For better or worse, moral or immoral, the NBA has no obligation to the NCAA as a business matter."
But, he said, "It doesn't do the NBA any good to have athletes that are not ready for that life. It benefits the NBA to have athletes stay in school so they are seasoned as athletes and more mature as individuals."
In order to prevent high school students jumping directly to the NBA, Mishkin said the league recently upped the minimum draft age to 19. It was the best concession management could get from the players union.
"From the NBA's perspective, we tried to get a higher age limit in the collective bargaining agreement," he said. "There is not a moral obligation of the NBA to the NCAA. It is better for both that players stay in school. It is important to have an education, and here's their opportunity to have it."
The NBA entices players to go pro because it is a competitive business. But, Mishkin avers, "If the NBA has its preference, it would be to not draft young players."
But by prohibiting the spectalur 18-year-olds like Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant from bypassing the college circuit, the NBA forces the NCAA into a minor league role. One hopes that Carmelo Anthony attended classes for both semesters he played at Syracuse before jumping to the Denver Nuggets, but I'm not betting that he was diligent about it, thinking that there's a million dollar payday around the corner.
Players like Emeka Okafor, who not only graduated in seven semesters, but was drafted in the first round, are rare. More likely, we get Ben Gordons and Rip Hamiltons, who jump to the NBA after two years. Doesn't this pattern, repeated across the country at countless schools, make a mockery of academics? I asked as a follow-up.
Richard "Rip" Hamilton, circa 1999, UConn v. Rutgers at Gampel Pavilion, Storrs. Without logos, and judging by the packed house, you might think it was a professional game.
To prevent UConn basketball stars from going pro would be immoral, Hathaway said, using a metaphor about a piano prodigy who deserves to get paid. Much like Telander's 15 year old tennis player.
"All our players who have left early and gone to the NBA have gone in the First Round," Hathaway said, as if that statistic justified the practice.
Mishkin avoided my follow-up, because Hathaway dove into a litany of scholarship numbers. UConn has 650 student athletes, 350 of whom receive some aid, and 300 who pay to play.
Of those 350 receiving aid, at the most 140 have full ride, 85 of those in football, 15 in women's basketball, and 13 in men's hoops. If you're counting, that's 113 spots out of 140 reserved for three sports.
Further calculations raise questions about UConn's compliance with Title IX - the women's sports equal protection statute. Only 15 of those 113 are women. So that means of the remaining 237 students getting aid, a significant portion of them must be women in order to equal the amount of scholarship dough lavished on the football team.
Is Telander also right that football programs actually cost athletic departments money? UConn lifting its football program to the Division I level has been a red-ink venture for the taxpayers of Connecticut.
Abandoning Memorial Stadium on campus in Storrs for a publicly-financed stadium in East Hartford was not a move for the students. It was for money, the only outcome that matters. When UConn football earns a bowl berth, students-athletes receive compensation like DVD camcorders. Administrators get perks, too.
The money from television, marketing and bowl games is too much to overcome. We haven't even discussed graduation rates, the core outcome measurement of youth development programs. If college basketball and football programs are indeed academic opportunities, how is it that graduation rates, like Calhoun's 22 percent, pass a laugh test?
But no matter. The 78 percent of kids running through Calhoun's factory who don't graduate just brought UConn's licensing and marketing arm a new plum: Nike deemed UConn such a valuable property that it selected UConn as one of seven schools to introduce to the Chinese market in the wake of the 2008 Beijing Olympics.
Mentions of Nike's sponsorship of UConn discuss Nike's perks and UConn's greatness. Never a mention about the kids. The Connecticut Post on Monday, Nov. 17 published the third story in a three part series that lauded UConn's fiscal and athletic success.
The amounts are stunning. $46 million over ten years from Nike. $80 million in guaranteed payments over ten years from IMG College, a division of IMG Worldwide, for "rights associated with corporate partners, on-site opportunities, signage, corporate suites, game programs and all online components," according to Chris Elsberry from the CT Post.
Both Nike and IMG contracts start in 2008 and run through 2018. Throw in $3.6 million from CPTV for broadcast rights to UConn women's hoops again from 2008 through 2012. That makes almost $130 million, which doesn't count UConn's cut of a newly negotiated BCS college bowl contract with ESPN. Fox lost the contract, Hathaway said.
Don't worry, though. The Obama administration will reform the college sports industry. Obama himself called for a BCS playoff system, instead of a football champion picked by sportswriters' and coaches' polls.
The BCS wasn't cowed. ACC commissioner John Swofford, sitting as the rotating chair of the BCS, responded, Hathaway noted.
"Swofford was flooded with questions," Hathaway said. "He was in the less than envious position of saying why the president-elect was under-informed."
Nevertheless, every college bowl director knows that a change is coming, Hathaway said. But change is slow. "A playoff system is a long way away," he guaranteed.
These are the responses from men who wear thousand dollar suits, who have spent their adult lives fine-tuning a system that capitalizes on the labors of young men, then spits most of them out. Had Mssrs. Hathaway or Mishkin answered or argued anything differently, I would have been surprised.