NCAA: It's time to start paying your athletes

Even though it's been a while since I was in college - try deep into the last century - I can assure you there's been no change over the eons in how a healthy, young college kid gets hungry late at night and might need a bit more nourishment than what's provided by breakfast, lunch and dinner.

A day filled with classes, hours of study and the more pleasurable, but no less energetic extracurricular activities, left the average student of my era and all the eras since, I am sure, in need of some sustenance around 11 or so. My classmates and I would deal with this by driving to the nearest place with a late-night diner or other slow food purveyor for something to replace what we'd dined on five hours earlier.

When you add long hours of basketball practice to the average student's day, there's no question UConn's Shabazz Napier was speaking from the heart by way of his stomach when he pointed out after the Kentucky game, "We do have hungry nights that we don't have money to get food - money is needed."

Money was needed in my century too and I got a few dollars from my parents and supplemented them with a campus job. Mine consisted of an hour or two a day in the library's periodical section where I read every New Yorker cartoon from the first issue in 1925 to 1955 and along the way was introduced to James Thurber, E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, S.J. Perelman, John O'Hara and so many others who did more to educate me than many of the required courses.

The job paid around $20 a month, which I would guess is about $100 or so today or enough for snacks and large quantities of the 3.2 percent alcohol beer then permitted in the state of West Virginia.

And that's the point. Napier and his fellow athletes can't even earn $100 a month because they already have fulltime jobs - not an hour or two a day but 50 hours a week, plus games and travel time - for which they're paid nothing. (Imagine how pleasant long flights are for people as large as basketball players.)

But that's about to change. A repentant NCAA, which strictly governs the conduct of amateur athletes to keep them pure for the NBA, is about to make amends for the hungry nights with a generous new policy that will allow these revenue manufacturing machines to eat more.

Call it, "Let them eat snacks."

The NCAA claims it's been thinking about the problem for a couple of years and wasn't responding to Napier's plaintive call for night nourishment and that may be true. But the sports governing body was really responding to a more frightening prospect than players going to bed hungry and that is players joining a union.

A ruling in March by the regional director of the National Labor Relations Board in Chicago that athletes at Division 1 institutions are employees, not mainly students, has chilled the NCAA and its Division 1 members to the bone, which, for the NCAA, seems to be where the brain should be.

The NCAA and its members profit handsomely from the sweat of their athletes - $700 million a year from broadcast rights to the basketball tournament alone - and it appears as if the public is beginning to see the players as an exploited working class.

A poll conducted at the height of March Madness showed 42 percent of Americans believe the athletes should be paid and an even more impressive 64 percent wants the player to get a cut from the sale of his jersey or likeness.

But the NCAA has vigorously defended the exploitation of athletes by bogusly claiming they are students first and paying for their services would violate the saintly spirit of amateurism. The truth is many of these scholars leave school as quickly as the rules allow to turn pro and who can blame them? The reality is the schools are really minor leagues for the NBA and NFL.

In announcing its decision to let them eat snacks, Mary Mulvenna, chairwoman of the NCAA's legislative council, pronounced the matter closed. "I think," said Mulvenna, "the end result is right where it needs to be."

Don't you wish.

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