Wiedmer: Maybe NCAA should listen to athletes

Wiedmer: Maybe NCAA should listen to athletes

January 16th, 2014 by Mark Wiedmer in Sports - Columns

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Andy Kelly remembers the old days, before the NCAA even pretended to care about its athletes.

"I was there when they put the 20-hour rule in," said the former Rhea County High School, University of Tennessee and Arena Football League quarterback. "Before the rule, between meetings and individual workouts and stuff you'd be tied up six or seven hours a day with football. When they capped it at four hours a day, it was like, 'Wow.'

"You had so much more time to study, not that I often took advantage of that. But you also had more time for socializing with your friends, more time just to wind down and relax. You just felt a whole lot more like what I imagined normal college students felt like."

That was at the dawn of the 1990s, and in the 20-plus years since, not much dramatic has been done to drastically improve the lives of college athletes.

But by the close of the NCAA Convention in San Diego this weekend, major college athletics as we've known it the past 50 or so years may no longer exist. Athletes in leagues such as the Southeastern Conference and Atlantic Coast Conference are almost certain to be paid something annually, perhaps as much as $5,000 in some cases.

They may also be allowed to pocket a portion of the money from sales of their numbered jerseys, or video games their general likenesses appear in. They may even begin to earn a small portion of the endless stream of television revenue their schools and conferences are raking in, as well as being allowed contact with NCAA-approved agents.

And what any or all those changes may ultimately do to major college sports -- be it at the high end where the University of Tennessee-Knoxville resides, or at the lower end of the scale where the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga takes its mail -- is about as easy to figure out as Auburn football coach Gus Malzahn's magical offense.

If the Big Five leagues of the ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac 12 are greedy enough, it could all but flatten most of the rest of Division I's 351 total schools. Especially if they break away all together in both football and basketball.

But what do past college stars such as Kelly, former UTC basketball player Ricky Hood and former Notre Dame High and Oklahoma State standout Adarius Bowman think?

All were successful on the field or court. Both Kelly and Bowman have cashed paychecks on some level of pro football. Hood's younger brother Rodney -- currently a starter at Duke after transferring from Mississippi State -- is projected by some as a lottery pick in the June NBA draft.

"I'm kind of torn on paying players," Kelly said. "A scholarship is worth a lot of money and if you pay some athletes, don't you have to pay them all? Tennessee might be able to do that, but a lot of smaller schools couldn't."

Kelly does believe athletes should be paid when it involves the marketing of jerseys that bear their numbers or possibly the video games that contain their likenesses.

"They don't put your name on them, but there were sure a lot of No. 16 jerseys sold when Peyton (Manning) was at UT," Kelly noted. "And had he switched his number to No. 12, I imagine they would have suddenly sold just as many of those."

Bowman wore No. 12 at Oklahoma State. He wears No. 4 for his current employer -- the Edmonton Eskimos of the Canadian Football League.

He told this newspaper last week that if he could change anything about the current state of college sports he would strip the license of any sports agent who made contact with a college athlete before he or she decided to turn pro.

"A lot of times they come in telling people they're with a pro team but they're really an agent or someone who's with them is an agent," he said. "A college kid doesn't always know what to do. If they lost their license maybe they'd stay away."

Hood has watched college athletics from two completely opposite stages, having played for a program without money at UTC before watching his brother's time this year at Duke, one of college hoops' four or five most storied names.

"They do it right at Duke," he said. " They really look out for the athlete."

But should Ricky and former Lady Moc star Nicole Mattison Hood's 5-year-old son Ricky III grow up to play college basketball -- "He's got both Chattanooga gear and Duke gear right now," Hood laughed -- he also has a plan he believes would be fair to both the athlete and the school.

"The amount could vary by school or by conference," he said. "But I'd like to see the athletes (in football and basketball) who earn their degrees -- they have to graduate -- get a check for $40,000 or $50,000, or at least some small percentage of the money they helped generate as players."

Just for fun, let's say UTC graduated 45 such athletes in revenue-producing sports each year. Let's further say that $40,000 would break the bank but $10 grand would be a nice graduation gift. That would cost the school less than $500,000, which is still big money around UTC, but not outlandish. And $10,000 could buy a 22-year-old a used car or make a downpayment on a first home or condo.

There are no perfect solutions. Nor has everything been all wrong for too long.

Thanks to his role as radio sideline reporter for UT football games, Kelly believes he has seen much academic improvement.

"On the academic side, I think they've taken a big step forward," Kelly said. "You're not just seeing more guys graduate, you're seeing them do it in three years, before they're even out of eligibility."

It's the kind of thing that college athletics should be about. But the NCAA's little guys have meddled with the big shots for so long that SEC commissioner Mike Slive recently said of the Big Five's 65 member schools, "Given all the modern pressures that exist ... the five of us and our 65 presidents feel very strongly -- we want to have a new organization."

As always, you get the feeling that what the athletes truly want or need is far down the list.

Contact Mark Wiedmer at mwiedmer@timesfreepress.com