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It’s Time The Players Shared In The Bounty

January 6, 1995

Some people thought they spotted what was wrong with college athletics when Tom Osborne departed Miami with more than a tan and a silver bowl full of oranges.

Thanks to a clause shoehorned into his contract just a few weeks earlier, the Nebraska coach left the Orange Bowl on New Year’s Day with not only the national championship trophy but a juicy $50,000 bonus.

Despite how it looked, the payout was not part of some longstanding ransom deal that requires school officials to find increasingly clever and costly ways to hold onto a fly-by-night coach. On the contrary.

Before this one, Osborne toiled loyally and contentedly in Lincoln for the previous 21 seasons. Over that span, no one invested more of their own time, talent, energy and money in the surrounding community. In consideration of that, and all the extra revenue a national championship will generate for Nebraska, the university’s board of regents cut the $50,000 check as an elaborate way of saying thank you. These days, that’s one way of doing business.

Yet, while there is no begrudging Osborne his money, no one should doubt it might be put to even better use. And by some of those very same kids who brought him that elusive title in the first place.

It used to be heresy to say so, but more and more, people with power and influence are beginning to realize that college athletics could profit more in the long run if some of the extravagant rewards it generates trickled down to the athletes themselves in the form of stipends.

It would not only do away with much of the hypocrisy, it would result in fewer rules, fewer infractions, fewer problems, fewer policemen and greater flexibility. Determining exact amounts and which sports are entitled to it and such is still a long way off. A small, but growing chorus of coaches led by LSU’s Dale Brown have been making the argument that athletes should be paid for years. Rarely, though, was it made as convincingly as in the past week.

In addition to Osborne’s bonus payment, a dozen of college football’s best underclassmen came out in advance of the Jan. 11 deadline and, pleading all variety of needs, made themselves available for the NFL draft. Even as those announcements were being made, West Virginia football coach Don Nehlen called for stipends to keep poorer athletes on campuses from feeling like ``second-class citizens.″

And to top it off, former NCAA chief Walter Byers, who spent decades as the college athletic establishment’s point man, came out and very publicly changed his tune.

Once considered among the staunchest and most powerful defenders of old-fashioned amateurism, even Byers now recognizes ``when you say the amateur principles of 1956 should control the commercial realities of 1995, it is an illogical and defenseless position.″

He’s right. With the cost of a college education worth as much as $120,000 these days, an athletic scholarship can seem like handsome compensation.

But with coaches and athletic department administrators knocking down six-figure salaries, and sponsorship and shoe deals being cut all over the place, college athletics have been transformed from a tranquil, modest little revenue stream into a roaring river.

As Miami safety Charles Pharms pointed out, he can’t even afford to buy a $40 Hurricanes sweatshirt. To expect athletes to stand by while everyone else around them cashes in increasingly unrealistic.

``They want us to be like regular students,″ Randy Bethel, a former Miami player, told the Miami Herald when reports of a pay-for-play scandal at the school surfaced recently.

``But regular students don’t generate revenue like we do,″ he said. ``I don’t remember the last time that 70,000 people packed into the Orange Bowl to watch a chemistry experiment.″

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