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April 4, 2014

RONN MOTT: A fine mess for collegiate sports

TERRE HAUTE — Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were a comedic team in the late 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. Stan Laurel, the shorter and thinner of the two, was often heard to say to Oliver Hardy, “You have us in a fine mess this time, Ollie.”

I think that’s the direction collegiate sports are moving toward … a fine mess. And it is based on the fact collegiate sports have reached a huge popularity, especially the big two, football and basketball. Millions of dollars are made on these and lesser sports. And the money football and basketball make often supports teams that earn little or no money at all. The Title IX sports are almost all non-money makers. In some markets, ladies basketball pays its way but most do not. Soccer, field hockey, swimming, etc., have to be supported by basketball and football.

Now, an arm of the National Labor Board says the Northwestern football team can be unionized and paid like regular employees. I believe the ruling goes only to private schools, Northwestern being one, but it is, nonetheless, a fine mess.

The question is … who gets paid, who doesn’t get paid, and the entire fine mess begs the question, what in blazes are we doing here? I guess, or maybe I should say, I know in this instance, amateur sports died a long time ago. The NCAA has tried very hard to put the smell of money somewhere other than where student-athletes can get a good whiff of it. Alas and alack, that is like trying to stop a falling rock from going off a mountain into an abyss below.

Baseball manages to give players out of high school an opportunity to become a professional and play in the minor leagues. Getting their skills sharpened, experience gained and having an opportunity to, they hope, make the big leagues. Baseball has free agency, so after a length of time if you are really good, you can make those continental-size contracts. If you do not make those big deals, you can earn a living and enjoy the sport you truly love or care about.

Basketball’s attitude about one year only in college makes a liar out of the players who wear a university uniform. I doubt that any of the “one and done” student-athletes have stewed any about homework or examinations, or the things most students go to school and fret about.   

We know about the extremely good players who go almost from the high school basketball court without a break in stride. But the ones who get drafted very young and do not make it get swallowed up in the dust bin of the TV sports reporting networks, the sports pages of the newspapers and the distant cheers of those they left behind. They might be high school or they might be college.  

Should college athletes get a stipend so they can buy a hamburger, get their laundry done and don’t feel like beggars? I think most would agree it is the “how to do this” that is the ringing question of this fine mess. A minor league or two might be the answer. After all, the Women’s National Basketball Association does not fill the seats with a great many fans, so the regular NBA supports the women’s league and keeps it going.

How about taking a few dollars from huge contracts and starting men’s minor leagues so you are not trying to fool the public about them being students.

Stan Laurel had it right … it is a fine mess, Ollie. And it may just wreck intercollegiate athletics if we do not make the right decision and do it in rather quick time.

Ronn Mott, a longtime radio personality in Terre Haute, writes commentaries for the Tribune-Star. His pieces are published online Tuesday and Thursday on Tribstar.com, and in the print and online editions on Saturday.

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