Should players be paid? Three Hall of Fame coaches answer
The frantic voice on the other end of the phone, familiar to millions, has to pause for breath.
“Well, you got me on my soapbox,” Dick Vitale says, and he is indeed riled up in that very familiar way. In this case, it’s that everyone is making money off college basketball except the players, and while he has occasionally shared that opinion over the years, he has become an outspoken conveyor of that increasingly common complaint recently.
On ESPN’s “Get Up” morning show on Friday, Vitale delivered a 103-second soliloquy on the subject that left host Mike Greenberg smiling and nodding. In an interview with Esquire earlier this month, Vitale called college basketball a “cesspool.”
The ultimate college basketball cheerleader, Vitale has spent the vast majority of his career extolling the game and, often, its coaches, and his enthusiasm and passion helped fuel the sport’s growth in the 1980s and 1990s while making him a household name. His increased stridency that the NCAA model is inequitable runs against that current.
“A realization, I guess, is one way to look at it,” Vitale said.
The Adidas scandal was a breaking point for Vitale, who has joined ESPN colleague Jay Bilas as a vocal critic of the NCAA and, in particular, its so-called “amateur model” where everyone cashes in but the “student-athletes.” Even if the players can’t be cut directly into the deal, Vitale argues that letting them borrow money from agents and sign endorsement deals would put the “sleaziness” of the underground economy above board.
“There are certain things that can be done to save the sport and make sure everybody’s treated fairly,” Vitale said. “You know, we’re all making money. I make money, obviously, in the world of television. People on the coaching sidelines at the elite power schools are making major, major dollars. Executives at the NCAA on top, the (president Mark) Emmerts are making good money.
“But the kids, what do they get? A handshake. ‘Great game, Zion. Super game.’ Meanwhile another $1.67 million (per NCAA tournament win) goes into the ACC’s coffers on a regular basis and it’s time the kids share it.”
Many voices have joined that chorus recently, and just as many lawsuits have been filed on various fronts. But in college basketball, Vitale’s voice still drowns out many others. His full defection to this cause is a significant one, because he has the look of a man in the twilight of his career who has fully realized what is right and what is wrong. In that sense, Vitale taking this position at age 79 recalls Sonny Vaccaro, who essentially created the basketball shoe game before becoming in recent years a fervent and outspoken critic of what it became.
As a college coach at Detroit in the ‘70s, Vitale knew stuff like this was going on, somewhere. But not to this extent. And not with this much money involved.
“You’d hear rumors,” Vitale said. “But right now the shoe deals are so big and the shoe companies are so big. The key is getting rid of the middlemen. We just need to clear it up. I don’t know why it’s such a big deal. ‘Oh, they’re amateurs.’ Really? Even the Olympics are paying the athletes. They came to reality.”
This tide will turn, eventually. There was a time when a scholarship and a sweatsuit was fair compensation for what athletes bring to the university. (And for money-losing Olympic sports, it probably still is.) But if Zion Williamson’s supernova season at Duke has taught us anything, it’s that he’s worth a lot more to Duke than a year of tuition. And he may be at the top of the pyramid, but there are thousands of football and basketball players right behind him who deserve a piece of the pie they create.
Whether in court or in Congress, the NCAA will eventually have to acknowledge the tide of public opinion shifting against it. Especially in college basketball. When you’ve lost Dick Vitale, there’s no way back.