MAXWELL:  Level the paying field for athletes

8/1/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Those who run big-time college football _ presidents, coaches, boosters, athletic clubs, foundations, politicians _ need to come clean about the corruption in the institution and the abuse of young men who hit the gridiron each autumn Saturday to butt heads.

The time has come to end the pretense that players on Division I-A teams _ such as Notre Dame, University of Florida, Alabama, UCLA, Nebraska, Michigan, Auburn, Ohio State, Penn State and Florida State _ are STUDENT-athletes, regular kids lugging their book bags to and from class.

Fine-tuned, chiseled, testosterone-soaked and egocentric, these young men are not STUDENT-athletes.

They are ATHLETE-students.

The sooner everyone understands this distinction and acts on it honestly, the better off the I-A scene will be for everyone involved, especially for the athletes and their families.

We need to start treating college football players like real paraprofessionals deserving of the benefits and protections that come with such employment. I am not alone in proposing this change, which was brought into sharp relief last week with articles about William “Tank” Black, an NFL Players Association agent. The association handed Black the harshest punishment ever given an agent for rules violations. His certification was revoked for three years, and he must pay a $25,000 fine when he reapplies for certification.

What Black is accused of doing is nothing more than standard operating procedure among many agents. In May, the NFLPA lodged a complaint against him and his company, Professional Management Inc., alleging eight violations that include gifts of cash and cars to football standouts at the University of South Carolina, Louisiana State and Florida before the athletes’ NCAA eligibility had expired.

At least four players at the University of Florida have been directly linked to Black and PMI. In his NFLPA affidavit, former Florida linebacker Johnny Rutledge depicts the shadow world of ATHLETE-students and agents.

Here are salient excerpts from the affidavit (Black denied the accusations):

“Beginning in 1997, my junior year, I began receiving money from Alfred Twitty, who worked for Tank Black and his company PMI in Columbia, S.C. I initially received $200 per month, but in the summer of 1997 I asked for more. Twitty told me then that the usual amount for players like me was $600 per month. I thereafter received $600 per month through December of 1998. On occasion, I would get more than $600, like in December for Christmas and during my birthday month when I got $1,000 in cash.

“Twitty began asking me about what car I wanted during my junior year, when it was possible I would consider turning pro. I decided to play my senior year instead. During my last season in 1998, Twitty again asked me what car I wanted. I eventually told him in December of 1998 that I wanted a Mercedes Benz S420.

“I understood while I was receiving cash from Twitty that it was being provided by Tank Black. I met Tank Black in Tampa in the summer of 1998 at an event arranged by Twitty. Present were myself, Jevon Kearse, Fred Taylor and others from Tank’s agency. At that time, Tank asked me, “Is Tweet taking care of you?’ I answered in the affirmative. And he told me that if I ever needed anything, I should contact Tweet.

“I also talked with Tank during the balance of 1998 when he would call me by telephone and ask how I was doing. On one such call, I told him I needed money to buy furniture. Soon thereafter, Twitty came with the cash (about $700), and Reggie McGrew and I used it to purchase furniture for our apartment.

“I was aware that Jevon Kearse and Reggie McGrew were also receiving monthly cash payments from Twitty. On occasion, the entire amount for all three of us would be delivered to one of us. . . .

“I knew all along that it was expected by Twitty and Tank Black that I would sign with PMI when I turned pro. I informed them late in the 1998 season that I would do so. The day I signed with PMI _ Jan. 4, 1999 _ I got the car I told Twitty that I wanted, which was a 1999 Mercedes S420 with all of the equipment I had said I wanted.”

Rutledge’s experience is not unique.

Nationwide, hundreds of other football superstars have similar stories. Agents’ raison d’etre is to make as much money as they can, and many will resort to any measures to sign players who will give them maximum bargaining power with NFL teams.

Money and expensive gifts are the best ways to attract players. The dire circumstances of most players make them easy targets for fat wallets. Many I-A football players come from medium- to low-income families. They cannot buy luxuries, and many cannot afford the simplest of things _ pizza, decent furniture for their apartments and, yes, a car. They see other students living the good life. The Catch-22 is that unlike regular students, ATHLETE-students on scholarship are prohibited from working. They cannot earn legitimate money if they want to.

There is more: Even if they were permitted to work, they would not have time to do so because, along with taking full class loads, they practice two to three hours Monday through Friday. Game day is devoted to the game. If they travel out of town to play, the entire weekend is devoted to the sport.

Meanwhile, their universities _ and their coaches _ are raking in millions of dollars on their backs and from their sweat. The entire student body benefits from the sport. When I was a graduate student at the University of Florida in the early 1980s, for example, proceeds from Gator games literally bankrolled summer school. The money was a godsend because budgets were tight.

Football is a plantation. Slavery. The players are “meat on the hoof,” as Gary Shaw called them in his book of the same title.

Football is big business. Period. The National Collegiate Athletic Association needs to establish a uniform system to pay ATHLETE-students what they deserve. If nothing is done, the system will continue to corrupt players and their universities.

Please do not tell me that these players are students before they are athletes. Nonsense. They have one purpose on a major campus: to play football and generate lucre for their schools.

I do not know how to devise a system of fair monetary compensation for these ATHLETE-student paraprofessionals. But I know that it can be done. Most universities have competent business colleges. A committee of economic scholars, along with other experts, from select schools should immediately start to work on a solution _ one that has clean money and other fair compensations as its focus.