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No pay for play, but let them work

The latest scandal involving college athletes being plied with gifts, lavish parties and even prostitutes by a well-heeled booster has commentators far and wide talking again about a perennial proposal: pay college athletes.

The idea is appealing on some levels, but is it a good idea? In a word, no.

The latest revelation involves a Florida businessman serving prison time for a $930 million Ponzi scheme who claims he lavished gifts, restaurant meals and parties aboard his yacht on University of Miami football players for eight years, while writing fat donation checks to the university. The National Collegiate Athletic Association is investigating, and could impose severe sanctions on the university.

College athletics are big business. But they are far more lucrative to the television networks, apparel manufacturers and others than to the colleges themselves, and not lucrative at all to the players, except those few who accept illegal gifts.

Even among major college football and basketball programs, only a minority actually make a profit for their campuses.

That's one reason paying players at the college level is a bad idea. Only a few colleges could afford to do it, and then only in the sports that generate surpluses. If players are paid, it should apply to all sports, even swimming and lacrosse.

Another, more important reason is the one the NCAA takes such pains to emphasize and tries so hard to enforce: College athletes are amateurs, attending school primarily to get an education. Only a tiny fraction of college athletes ever play their sport professionally.

The NCAA is so concerned with preserving this amateur status that its rules don't allow athletes receiving scholarships to hold jobs. An athlete who earns more than $2,000 in a year can lose his or her scholarship.

That puts many student athletes at a disadvantage relative to their peers. A student on an academic or music scholarship can take a job to help pay for expenses the scholarship doesn't cover — clothing, laundry, entertainment, travel home at Christmas or spring break. But not an athlete.

Allowing athletes to work wouldn't stop that kind of abuse, of course. There will always be boosters who want to coddle their favorite school's players, and players who will let themselves be wined and dined. But allowing players to earn some spending money would go a long way toward limiting the temptation to accept illegal cash.

Players should be required to document any job they take, including reporting their earnings and detailing the work they perform, to prevent boosters from creating sham jobs that provide a paycheck for doing nothing. But they should be allowed to work.