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CAMPUS CORRESPONDENT : Reward College Athletes by Paying Them for Play

<i> Jeff Zeleny is the editor of the Daily Nebraskan, the University of Nebraska's campus newspaper</i>

Winning a national football championship brings glory and, with it, the most important force in college athletics--money. Even in sports deemed “amateur,” money is the root of all competition.

Since the University of Nebraska won the national football championship on Jan. 1, the Cornhusker state has gotten much richer. The ringing of cash registers can be heard everywhere.

Sports Illustrated sold 300,000 copies of its national championship collector’s edition in Nebraska alone. In the first week after Nebraska’s success, the largest souvenir retailer in the state sold more than $1 million worth of shirts, hats, doormats and posters. Meanwhile, university coffers grow fatter and fatter.

Yet, none of this newfound wealth will go to the football players. Members of the championship team who played in all 13 games and dedicated four years to the program walked away with only a championship T-shirt, an Orange Bowl watch and a national-championship ring.

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It would be silly to get angry at retailers or clever entrepreneurs for this financial “insult” to athletes. Instead, the blame rests with the system.

A myriad of NCAA regulations prohibits compensating athletes. Never mind the billions of dollars these twentysomethings bring to the schools. Never mind that intercollegiate rules prohibit athletes from taking part-time jobs.

This policy should be abandoned.

Some contend that college athletes should be paid a wage based on their talent. Others call for equal across-the-board salaries.

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Although the players may deserve such compensation, these approaches would overturn a college sports tradition--their “amateur” status. A stipend system, however, would preserve this tradition.

College athletes, regardless of their sport, should receive a cost-of-living stipend. It would not be a profit-sharing plan; athletes would not get rich from the university-funded allowance. Rather, they would just be able to get by.

As the system now stands, most athletes have no legal means of earning spending money. Such restrictions increase the lure of “freebies.” And boosters of major college sports are all-too willing to supply athletes with whatever they want. Most athletes, fortunately, turn down the offers--or at least they escape detection.

The idea of paying college athletes is not new. What has been lacking is support for the concept. But that may be changing.

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Walter Byers, former executive director of the NCAA, came out in support of the pay-for-play idea last month. Amateurism is outdated, he contended; it is a disservice to deny student athletes a fair share of the economic market. Since then, the idea has been debated on college campuses nationwide.

Every year, Nebraska state Sen. Ernie Chambers introduces legislation that would legalize pay for football players. The bill always loses, though in 1988, it made it through the unicameral legislature but was vetoed by the governor.

This year, the legislation carries a caveat: non-compensation of players would be a Class V felony, punishable by up to a $10,000 fine. While this approach may be extreme, it illustrates how far some supporters of pay-for-play will go.

Regardless of how such legislation fares, the pay-for-play debate will continue. To move it along, an NCAA task force, composed of school administrators, former players and current players, should be formed.

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College athletes and university administrators continue to abide by the NCAA rules simply because they have always done so in the name of tradition. But today’s sports realities undercut this old habit. Players should be given a stipend. Nothing more, nothing less.*


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