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Ben Smith

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Give college athletes freedom

– NCAA czar Mark Emmert may be a lot of things, but dumb as a pile of bricks isn’t one of them. The man can sniff what’s coming down the wind as ably as anyone.

And what’s that these days?

Well, you can’t exactly call it a revolution. But when a number of college football players showed up Saturday wearing tape on their wrists with the letters APU (“All Players United”) scrawled on it, it at least indicated the serfs are getting a tad restless. And they’re starting to ask questions about just how much a full-ride scholarship – which in a lot of cases isn’t a full ride at all – should require from them in return.

And so here was Emmert the other day saying change was coming, maybe not in direct response to APU or all the hits the NCAA is getting, but certainly indirectly.

The masks are off, and the shuck of amateurism as it applies to the multibillion dollar business of Division I college football and basketball stands revealed to even the most cursory of observers.

Emmert’s statement may be nothing more than a public relations bone to keep the howling at bay and throw everyone off the scent, but I suspect it’s a bit more. The organization’s plainly running scared these days, and scared people are motivated people.

How that motivation manifests itself remains to be seen, but it likely won’t involve directly paying the athletes who generate all the dough. The logistics of it, not to say the economics, just don’t work.

Too many athletic departments run in the red for any sort of pay model to be realistic.

Here’s what can and should be done, though: End the restrictions placed on “student-athletes” on the premise that they’re amateurs.

They aren’t, and haven’t been for some time.

The very fact they’re getting their education paid for implies that they are, in a sense, professionals being paid to do a job that make their coaches and their athletic departments absurdly rich.

And so enough with the idea that a kid who sells his autograph is somehow besmirching some high ideal. Or that it’s an outrageous notion that, if you turn said kid into a billboard for some apparel company, he shouldn’t get a cut. Or that it’s somehow scandalous if a coach buys him a cheeseburger or he sells the bowl swag he was given with the NCAA’s blessing.

The bottom line is, the kid with the big arm or sweet jumper is making money for his or her employer just like any other working stiff. And so he should be allowed to behave like any other working stiff: To hire an agent when he feels like it, to hold a job during the season like any regular student, or to transfer to whatever school he feels like transferring to without penalty and without interference from his current coach – who, after all, has the freedom to do just that whenever a better job pops up.

And while we’re at it, end the laughable fiction that there are “impermissible benefits” athletes are not allowed to enjoy simply because regular students don’t have access to them. That cuts both ways and always has, because there are things Joe College is allowed to do Joe Jock cannot – i.e., make money off his or her particular talents while still in school, as I did when I got paid 25 bucks a throw by the Muncie Star for covering high school hoops while I was still at Ball State.

Why shouldn’t a college athlete be able to do something akin to that with his talents, to the extent it’s practical?

And why should the NCAA care if he does?

Ben Smith has been covering sports in Fort Wayne since 1986. His columns appear four times a week. He can be reached by email at bensmith@jg.net; phone, 461-8736; or fax 461-8648.

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