The call to pay major college athletes is growing louder again. Last weekend, a few football players even joined in the protest movement, writing APU--for All Players United--on their ankle tape and wrist guards. The belief is that these "student-athletes" are really "employees" of the colleges they attend--and that they deserve a share of the tens of millions of dollars they generate for their schools.
While I would never support paying college athletes beyond the scholarship, room and board and training table that they already enjoy (a six-figure value at some schools), if the payment plan ever became a reality I would want the NFL and the NBA to actually fork over the cash. Because college football and college basketball are nothing more than de facto minor leagues for those sports.
You won't hear anyone say college baseball or college hockey players should be getting paid. That is because professional options are available to them anytime they want to pursue them. Baseball's minor league system was in place long before college baseball grew into prominence. And for decades, the Canadian Junior and Major Junior leagues (which amazingly still rely on host families to take in players from all around the country) was the major feeder to the NHL. And that is now being supplemented by the professional leagues in Europe. Players in both sports can be drafted without losing their eligibility--and can leave school to join those teams whenever they like--whereas football and basketball players are "trapped" at school until they make an irreversible decision to enter the draft.
But the NFL and the NBA rose to prominence after college football and college basketball were already established--so there was no need to set up minor leagues like you had in baseball. Since then, both leagues have adopted eligibility rules that give athletes no choice but to play "for free" in college. A player must be three years removed from high school before they are eligible for the NFL Draft. A kid can't enter the NBA until he is at least a year out of high school. That rule has led to the "one and done" phenomenon--where schools like Kentucky load up on pro prospects for a one-year run to the NCAA title every season--and the kids don't even bother going to class because what's going to happen? You'll suspend them for next year? They will be in the pros by then, baby!
The time has come for the NFL and the NBA to man up and start taking on some of the cost of maintaining the "talent pipeline" that feeds their leagues. Give athletically-talented (and perhaps academically-challenged) kids coming out of high school a choice between "playing for free" and getting paid for their talents. Drop the minimum age requirements to make the league and provide a minor league system for talent development. The NFL is a 9-billion dollar business--I think they might be able to afford it.
Then perhaps college football and basketball can go back to being about kids who want to play for the glory and honor of Alma Mater U while earning that degree that will more likely put food on the table for the rest of their lives.