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viewpoint

The NCAA entitled

| Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The end of March brings with it the NCAA basketball tournament. The Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight, the Final Four — it’s an American tradition like no other. Notre Dame’s out, of course, but no matter who’s playing it’s always fun to relax with the guys and watch the rhythm of the game. (As a Minnesotan, it kills me to say this, but … Go Badgers!)

In recent years, however, the playoffs have heralded another annual tradition — a surge in public opinion demanding that student athletes be paid. The argument, so it goes, is that athletes are responsible for bringing substantial money value to their schools and to the NCAA and that they deserve compensation as such.

I do feel there’s a legitimate discussion to be had on this issue, and I’m certainly in favor of a critical examination of the NCAA’s operations. One of Fr. Ted’s finest achievements was his work for exactly that purpose as co-chairman of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. That being said, I find it hard to get on board with this particular cause. I just can’t take seriously the rhetoric that paints student athletes as some kind of oppressed, marginalized group.

Consider the most prominent example of this grievance from last year’s NCAA basketball tournament. National champion UConn guard and Most Outstanding Player Shabazz Napier told reporters, “there are hungry nights that I go to bed and I’m starving.” First off, while I recognize the tendency towards hyperbole with off-the-cuff statements like this, it should be obvious that nobody playing Division I basketball is suffering from critical malnutrition. If this is truly the case, you’d expect the coaches to be complaining even louder than the students; emaciated point guards don’t play good basketball. Second, at the time of the statement, UConn provided dining services open 12 hours a day, all-you-can-eat. It’s therefore reasonable to conjecture that any “underfeeding” is due largely to poor resource management on the part of the student.

Further, consider Napier’s fate after graduation. He was drafted by the Charlotte Hornets and traded to the Miami Heat. For his first year with the Heat, he was paid $1,239,000. This comes out to $140 per hour, assuming he worked 24 hours a day, even while sleeping. Hopefully now he’ll be able to buy enough food to nourish himself adequately. He certainly won’t need any of it to pay off his student loans, at a time when the average student debtor leaves college $28,400 in the red.

It also doesn’t help student athletes’ cases when their more high-profile representatives take such a cavalier attitude towards the “student” part. Recall statements by Ohio State quarterback Cardale Jones lamenting, “Why should we have to go to class if we came here to play FOOTBALL? We ain’t come to play SCHOOL classes are POINTLESS.” It’s an open secret that many such students with contempt for their academics enroll in “paper classes” that never meet and often require nothing more than a final paper at the end of the term. The students know they’re getting a worthless degree, which makes it shocking when they have the gall to sue their schools for failing to properly educate them, as happened at the University of North Carolina.

Of course, as Christ himself said in the Book of Matthew, “First take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” It would be hypocritical of me not to touch on Notre Dame’s recent checkered student-academic record. Between assaults on law enforcement and “academic violations,” even the Irish are not immune to this problem.

The lynchpin problem with these cases is that the students responsible have forgotten what college athletics is — an extracurricular activity. The reason why they’re called “student athletes” is because they’re supposed to be students first and athletes second. If they want to play professional sports, then they should join professional sports teams instead of trying to professionalize college athletics.

I don’t want to paint all student athletes as corrupt or entitled — that would be both cruel and inaccurate. Nonetheless, I find it very hard to look at the aforementioned examples and still muster the ire to insist they be paid. I’d love to have a productive conversation about the treatment of student athletes, but let’s not pretend we’re talking about Oliver Twist.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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