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Pay for play? Nebraska senator pushes for college athletes to make a profit

Sunday, March 30, 2003

By Milan Simonich, Post-Gazette Staff Writer

Meet Ernie Chambers, politician, self-described radical and man on a mission. He wants to end what he calls the biggest hypocrisy on America's major-college campuses -- the notion that football players are students, rather than unpaid workers for athletic departments.

"Education has nothing to do with these young people. They are recruited to be players, not scholars," says Chambers, a Nebraska state senator.

He is about to push through a piece of legislation that he hopes will spark a national discussion about the moral rightness of paying major-college football players, whom he calls the most-exploited "employees" on American campuses.

His bill, which is rolling toward approval, would authorize the University of Nebraska to pay its intercollegiate athletes a stipend. The amount would be determined by school administrators.

Chambers wants college football players put on salary for a simple reason: With practices, games, film study, weight training and spring drills, they have little time for anything but their sport.

Beyond the overwhelming demands on their time, he says, many of these recruits are black teenagers from impoverished homes. They often are urged to enroll in summer classes to lessen their academic load during the season. Chambers says their packed schedules make it impossible for them to work, as countless other college students do, to earn spending money for the school year.

"Their situation in no way approximates that of a normal student," says Chambers, an Independent and the only black member of the Nebraska Legislature. "They bring in millions of dollars to the university, and everybody involved with the football program makes money except them."

On its way

His pay-for-play bill appears headed for passage in late April or early May. Nebraska is the only state without a House of Representatives, so the proposal is just a Senate vote away from approval.

Republican Gov. Mike Johanns supports the bill and says he will sign it into law.

In the short run, Chambers' bill will not change anything except, perhaps, public opinion about whether scholarship athletes also should receive extra money.

That's because the Nebraska law would not take effect at least until three other state legislatures with schools in the Big 12 Conference approve bills to pay their college athletes. In addition to Nebraska, the Big 12's universities are in Colorado, Iowa, Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas.

Harvey Perlman, chancellor of the University of Nebraska, describes himself as "neutral" on the pay-for-play plan, formally called Legislative Bill 688.

Yet, Perlman finds merit in the proposed law, saying it could pressure the National Collegiate Athletic Association to allow more financial assistance to low-income players.

Other university presidents oppose paying athletes, saying such a change would violate common sense and the principle of amateurism.

Penn State President Graham Spanier, formerly the chancellor at Nebraska, is one of them. He says college football players already receive an enormous scholarship package, including tuition, room, meals, books and special expenses for emergencies and financial hardships.

"Players who wish to be more generously compensated should compete for spots at the professional level, not come to college," Spanier says.

Similar opposition to Chambers' bill is coming from college students, who say that athletes already are among the most pampered people on campus.

Karen Bielak, a communications, journalism and history major at the University of Pittsburgh, and sports editor of The Pitt News, said top athletes get into college regardless of their economic background. Other students may not be able to afford the school of their choice or any school at all, said Bielak, 21.

She pointed out that Pitt raised tuition 14 percent, or $966, this year. But the increase did not faze football players, whose scholarships insulate them from such financial pressures.

"A large portion of the student body will be faced with repaying loans upon graduation. Athletes will not," Bielak said.

Chambers, though, contends that America's white, middle-class fan base is out of touch with football locker rooms, which are populated mainly by black players, many with nothing to call their own.

He likes to illustrate his point with a story about former Huskers linebacker Trev Alberts, now a broadcaster for ESPN.

Alberts, who grew up in a comfortable Midwestern family, considered one of his teammates egocentric because all he ever wore were red sweatsuits from the Nebraska football program. Later, Alberts learned that the player had no money for jeans and shirts.

Chambers says that such poverty among college athletes is not unusual.

"My bill would provide what I call 'dignity money' for players who are filling up the stadium with paying customers," he says.

Share the wealth

Chambers estimates that during the past 10 years the Nebraska football program generated $155 million. It spent $14 million on scholarships.

He says the numbers are similar at big football schools across America.

Johanns, the governor of Nebraska, agrees. He calls college sports "a multibillion dollar national enterprise" that shortchanges the very players who generate the money.

"Everything goes first class in this business, except the college athlete," Johanns said in an appearance on the Fox television station in Omaha, Neb.

He favors a monthly stipend for college athletes of between $200 and $400.

Chambers maintains that such aboveboard payments would have a desirable side-effect. Namely, he says, they would eliminate most of the cheating that goes on across the country.

On countless campuses, he says, boosters funnel players money under the table, in violation of NCAA rules.

Chambers says this leads to sanctimonious uproar about players taking payoffs. He does not condone rule-breaking. But what gets lost in the discussion about players receiving dirty money, he says, is that many of them have enriched their athletic department, even though they could not afford a late-night pizza or plane fare for a trip home.

"The grant-in-aid they receive -- I don't call it a scholarship because football players aren't really students -- does not even cover all their expenses," Chambers says. "Education is just a sop in all this. Nobody worries about classes for these players unless they're talking about what they need to do to stay eligible."

Long-time fighter

Chambers, 65, has been relentless on the pay-for-play bill, which he introduced 22 years ago. In the beginning, his idea seemed so outrageous that it was lampooned in "Tank McNamara," the sports comic strip.

But Chambers soon fostered serious discussion about his idea. He managed to get his bill approved by the Nebraska Legislature back in 1988, but then-Gov. Kay Orr vetoed it.

Chambers says she acted at the behest of the state's most powerful man, Tom Osborne, then the Cornhuskers' football coach.

Chambers says Osborne was unwilling to fight for the interests of the players he recruited.

For his part, Osborne acknowledges that he called the governor to ask for a veto. He said he was forthright in his opposition to the bill because he did not like the idea of state lawmakers meddling in NCAA business.

Osborne and Chambers have never gotten along. But they may not be so far apart on the fundamental question of whether college football players should receive spending money.

Osborne, now a Republican congressman from Nebraska, says players should not be living below the poverty line in a sport that generates millions. But he will not endorse any plan to pay players a stipend, saying he does not want to make them employees of the university or state government.

Instead, he favors providing players with larger scholarships that would cover all their school and living expenses.

"I saw many players who lived a Spartan existence," Osborne said. "Currently, scholarships only cover the cost of education, with no regard to transportation, clothing or entertainment expenses that a student-athlete incurs while attending college."

But Osborne also believes the system is getting better. He says the NCAA makes available individual Pell Grants of up to $4,000 a year that can help needy players. Two funds to assist players with travel or emergencies also have been created by the NCAA.

Steve Pederson, Nebraska's athletic director, is not giving interviews regarding Chambers' bill. But, in a statement, he said he was wary of the proposal because it runs counter to NCAA policies.

"We belong to a voluntary organization that has rules prohibiting the kinds of payments outlined in the language of the bill," said Pederson, the former athletic director at Pitt.

To Chambers, the policies are archaic. Changing them, he says, would give athletes the same opportunity to earn money that other students already enjoy.

"The average college student can receive payment for an internship, such as work on a newspaper, even if he's on scholarship. Everybody thinks that's great," Chambers says. "College football players are worked harder and longer than professionals. They receive crippling injuries. They're expected to play through pain.

"Then all the regents and hangers-on and people profiting off them say they can't receive any money."

Spanier, the Penn State president, sees opportunity, not exploitation, on college football fields.

"The student receives a fabulous education and coaching from experts that enhances the future earnings potential for the most gifted athletes," he says. "This support is equivalent to tens of thousands of dollars over the course of the college experience."

Chambers contends that university administrators delude themselves by talking about education and major-college football in the same sentence. The players, Chambers says, are pawns in one of the country's most cutthroat businesses.

The least that should be done, he says, is to give them a small piece of the profits.

Milan Simonich can be reached at msimonich@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1956.

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