Gov. Matt Bevin drops bombshell: ‘Pay college athletes’

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Matt Bevin has gone rogue.

Just when you have the Kentucky governor pegged as a tool of big business and a lackey for the gun lobby, he goes on the radio and goes all bleeding-heart liberal on behalf of unorganized labor.

Paying college athletes has traditionally been the cause of left-leaning activists and their pundit sympathizers, not staunch Republicans.

Yet here was Bevin Tuesday morning, without warning or prompting, advocating a dramatic redistribution of revenue on Paducah’s WKYX. For those of us steeped in cynicism about college athletics, this development was more shocking than anything the FBI has found about the role of shoe companies in basketball recruiting or the fall of Rick Pitino.

“I think we should pay college athletes,” Bevin said. “I really do. This idea that they’re not professionals is nonsense.”

One word: Wow.

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“They’re not there like normal students and we shouldn’t pretend that they are,” the governor continued. “Some of them, yes, go to class, but most of them are students differently because they’re there for athletics and not academics.”

The idea of the “student-athlete,” a calculated coinage of former NCAA President Walter Byers, once seemed quaint but lately looks laughable. In the revenue sports of football and men’s basketball, college athletes are unsalaried apprentices who generate billions of dollars for their schools while many of them are educated mainly in eligibility and exploitation.

The underground economy exposed by the FBI’s ongoing investigation of college basketball bribery has been an open secret for decades. Shoe companies, AAU coaches, agents and other assorted hustlers have created a marketplace the NCAA has sought to suppress through a set of rules designed to control the cash on the pretext of preserving competitive balance.

“The coaches are making millions of dollars a year,” Bevin said. “Shoe contracts are dictating what happens on our college campuses. Athletics directors and others associated with it … are making exorbitant fees.

“I don’t begrudge people making a high living. Good for them, and I mean that sincerely. But if that comes at the expense of those that are delivering the athletic prowess on the field, then maybe we should rethink the fact that this is really like the minor leagues for the professional sports associations, and they should be compensated and treated accordingly.”

None of the sentiments Bevin expressed would qualify as original thoughts, but to hear them from a politician so closely aligned with conservative causes was like hearing Mitch McConnell endorsing Obamacare. Perhaps revolutionary change in college athletics is closer than we realize.

“I think the statements were surprising, but common sense is not partisan,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the College Athletes Players Association. “I think his stature and his party gives it more weight. 

“I’ve been a long time advocating for college athletes’ rights. I give zero percent chance to change coming from the NCAA or from Congress. But Kentucky could change college sports tomorrow. States do, at the end of the day, have the power to operate college sports how they want. Kentucky can pave the way.”

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Granted, there’s a big difference between off-the-cuff remarks on the radio and comprehensive legislation, but Bevin’s comments have found a receptive audience far beyond his normal constituency.

“I must say I am shocked that I am agreeing with (Bevin) on something,” said David Ridpath, president of the Drake Group, an organization of academics committed to integrity in college sports. “… What he is saying, though, is obvious. What we are doing now is professional athletics attached to a college (at least in some sports) and given the revenue the athletes generate, there should be some sort of compensation. …

“I know Bevin can sometimes be Trump-like in his candor, but he is absolutely correct on this. The current model dictates this; thus it needs to be changed. We can go the educational route or professional. We just cannot continue to try and have it both ways. It doesn’t work, nor has it ever worked as intended.”

Devising a payment plan that could reward college athletes for their contributions while conforming to Title IX requirements would clearly be contentious. Figuring out a formula that adequately compensates both five-star basketball stars and second-string rowers is a headache waiting to happen. Still, the biggest hurdle to date has been the will to try.

Claiming there isn’t enough money to pay college athletes at least a token wage is a conceit rendered ridiculous by the seven-figure salaries of their coaches and administrators. The ceaseless competition for ever-more-lavish facilities and amenities — $10,000 lockers and the like — is waste disguised as marketing.

“I agree with Governor Bevin that commercialized football and basketball (are) out of control,” said University of Oklahoma professor Gerald Gurney, a past president of the Drake Group. “Our universities must be about higher education, not higher entertainment.”

Some of this should go without saying, but it never hurts when people in power say it.

Tim Sullivan can be reached at (502) 582-4650, [email protected] or @TimSullivan714 on Twitter.

 

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