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College basketball players are already getting paid, so pay them what they’re worth

The idea that fans won’t watch paid college athletes is completely wrong.

Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

“Certainly got yourself a lucrative business don’t ye?” Eric Cartman, a fictional character on Trey Parker and Matt Stone’s South Park animated series, says on an episode from 2011. Cartman finds his way to the dean’s office at the University of Colorado while running the crudely-named “Crack Baby Athletic Association” miles away. Cartman gawks at the decor in the made-up administrator’s office, in awe of the wealth this man has gained off star talent.

“Let me get right down to it, then,” Cartman says, sniffing a cigar while dressed as a caricature of an Antebellum Era overseer. “Like yourself, I am also in the slave trade.”

The dean admits he’s confused by Cartman’s line of questioning. Cartman offers the dean money for his players. Notably, offering more for the black basketball stars of Colorado.

“Are you referring to our student-athletes?” the dean asks.

“Stu-dent ATH-O-LEETS,” Cartman responds, appreciating what he believes is an elaborate hoax. “Ho. Ho. That is brilliant, sir. Now, when we sell their likeness for video games, how do we get around paying for our slav ... student athletes then?”

It’s an absurd scene, likening the players to property, something that should only exist in a crass cartoon.

Yet here we are, in a year when, if you have played dumb for decades, you are seeing in big, bright lights that college basketball has always been treating its players like property. An FBI investigation over payments large and small to top players has embroiled the college basketball world before the men’s tournament, the NCAA’s cash cow. It turns out money has always been finding its way to star players, though not nearly as much as they deserve.

The allegations were met with faint surprise. As much as the investigation should reflect poorly on the NCAA, college athletics remain untouched. And as always, we are ready and more than willing to watch poor kids entertain us, so much so that American work productivity every March amounts to more than $6 billion in lost corporate dollars.

We knew we’ve been paying college athletes. We know it hasn’t been nearly enough. And no, we aren’t sorry.

A few weeks ago I talked to Al Lawson, a black, Democratic congressman from Florida, and one of the greatest basketball players the state has produced since the Civil Rights era. After playing at Florida A&M University (whose gym now bears his name) he played in the NBA and ABA for a few years and helped coach Florida State to its only national championship appearance in school history.

The system of coaching weighs on him. Lawson can’t forget the families and young faces he has come across all these years. Near the end of our conversation I ask him about the debate about whether players should be paid.

“Once you coach, you never get rid of guys. You never forget their families,” Lawson told me. “I had to raise money to bury one of our players. They all call. They call from time to time when they have problems. That’s what the NCAA needs to consider. What’s gonna to happen to these guys later in life that made billions for you?”

This is the part where I tell you that providing an education for players does not equal the money they are owed, especially in this system, in which the NCAA is generating more than $1 billion from TV money and tickets sales, almost all of it from March Madness. This is a key difference compared to other major sports: Labor is even more valuable in basketball. There are fewer players in the sport — which means fewer good players — and it should mean bigger individual payouts.

And however this FBI investigation was carried out, it should make the NCAA happy. By focusing on the money that players took, it effectively criminalized labor without judging the college system. Irony is looking at the FBI investigation and thinking that “this is the end of college basketball,” when the reality is that the system powering the game is still standing. The players are targets, and the NCAA has, for now, bought time for its model to continue.

The good news is that, maybe, this is a sign that there is a future in which players are fairly compensated. I asked Nigel Hayes — a star last season for the Wisconsin Badgers, who was on an ESPN broadcast with a sign saying “Broke College Athlete Anything Helps” with a Venmo handle on it — about all of the attention on money this season and whether anything has changed in the short time since he was in college.

“If anything it’s strengthening the case that they do,” Hayes said, answering whether fans want to watch college basketball when they know players are being paid. “Things will start to implode and the system itself will blow up just based off the necessity of college athletes needing to be paid and all the hypocrisy and contradictions that the NCAA stands for will be exploited.

“People are paying them because if the players are good you are going to watch it,” Hayes continues. “The kids are good. The kids deserve to be paid and people are gonna watch it. That’s what happens.”

NCAA Basketball: Southern California at Colorado Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

In 2011, Drexel University published a study estimating that if Division I football and basketball players received equal percentages of their league’s revenues as their professional counterparts that their pay should reach six figures per season. The average basketball player from an FBS school is worth more $260,000. And the NBA-bound stars captivating us every March, the blue chippers at Duke and Kentucky? They are closer to $1 million.

This disparity weighs heaviest on black basketball players. A 2014 Cooperative Congressional Election Study showed 53 percent of black Americans support college players being paid compared to 22 percent of white Americans. In the same study, the professors showed different groups of white people pictures of black athletes and asked them if players should be paid. Many split on the decision before seeing pictures. Then, responses against paying black athletes skyrocketed when the assumption was that a black person would be getting paid.

“When whites believe that a policy mainly helps blacks, their opinions on that policy are inevitably colored by their feelings towards blacks as a group,” the study read in an adapted version in the Washington Post. “Given this reality, it would be strange if questions about paying college athletes did not conjure up images of young black men in the minds of survey respondents.”

You need not go far to see those images, either. Colin Cowherd went on an infamous rant on ESPN Radio in 2014 favoring amateurism, believing players would spend their money on “weed and kicks.” NCAA president Mark Emmert said the same year that paying players could destroy college sports because “one of the biggest reasons fans like college sports is that they believe the athletes are really students who play for a love of the sport.”

Even if Emmert and people like him truly believe what he says, there’s no question that they benefit from this business. And, to be clear, there is nothing immoral about a business operating as such. No one wishes to deny the NCAA its oversized, cartoonish bags of money. However, any enterprise becomes evil when it strips talent of its share, and binds players to institutions that profit from their likenesses then tells them an education equates to real dollars.

A 2010 Michigan State paper even compared the NCAA to apartheid South Africa and its laws stripping bargaining power from black workers, and dictating specific wages and hours for black people while whites were given unrestricted access to a free market.

This issue is about more than the justification for not paying college players and feeding off their likenesses every March. The debate about compensation centers on race, and that we are OK keeping black people poor as a principle of this nation. And the people getting wealthy on the backs of the black athlete are the people in charge, profiting while enforcing their own modern apartheid.

If consumers wish to watch majority black talent perform on hardwoods each spring, the players should be compensated. If they aren’t, we are relegating them to a basketball plantation. There is no reason to let athletes — primarily black people — starve while they make the game worth real dollars for somebody else.

And if there is any model that says we shouldn’t pay players, look at this season. There should be no disbelief. If you never thought the players should be paid before, if you stood on an unsteady podium shouting this to the dwindling crowd willing to listen, look around. The argument against it is dead.

I am not naive or misguided to think this will happen soon. But for any future for college basketball after this one, now that the jig is up, what is just must be done. The players are already getting paid, so pay them properly. Pay them every cent you owe them. Pay them their goddamn money.