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Compensating student athletes has nothing to do with education

By SEN. LAMAR ALEXANDER
I chaired a hearing in the United States Senate this week on college student athletes and the potential impact of allowing them to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness.
This issue is relevant today as a result of four new state laws and more than 30 state legislative proposals that would allow commercial interests to pay students on these grounds.
I do not see a good ending to allowing a few student athletes to be paid by commercial interests while most of their teammates are not. If young athletes want to be a part of a team, enjoy the undergraduate experience, learn from coaches who are among the best teachers, and be paid a full scholarship that helps them earn a degree worth $1 million during their lifetime, their earnings should benefit all student athletes at that institution. If they prefer to keep the money for themselves, they should be able to become professionals.
Following this principle would allow the earnings to be used for additional academic support, further study or degrees, health insurance, support for injured players or other needs.
It would avoid the awkwardness of a center who earns nothing snapping the ball to a quarterback who earns $500,000 for promoting the local auto dealer.
It avoids the inevitable abuses that would occur with agents and boosters becoming involved with outstanding high school athletes. It would avoid the unexpected consequences to other teams because of the impact on Title IX or the impact on existing student aid available to athletes.
One experience forming my opinion on this week’s hearing came from my service on the Knight Commission when I was president of the University of Tennessee, which strongly endorsed keeping the student-athlete tradition.
What it said is worth repeating from the commission’s findings: “We reject the argument that the only realistic solution to the problem is to drop the student athlete concept, put athletes on the payroll and reduce or even eliminate their responsibilities as students.
“Such a scheme has nothing to do with education, the purpose for which colleges and universities exist. Scholarship athletes are already paid in the most meaningful way possible: with a free education. The idea of intercollegiate athletics is that teams represent their institutions as true members of the student body and not as hired hands. Surely American higher education has the ability to devise a better solution to the problems of intercollegiate athletics than making professionals out of the players, which is no solution at all but rather an unacceptable surrender to despair.”
I hope those words from the Knight Commission 30 years ago will guide how Congress deals with the newest issue threatening the concept of student athletes: allowing commercial interests to pay athletes for use of their name, image and likeness.
Congress should act, but in as limited a way as possible to authorize an independent entity safe from litigation to write rules governing payments for the use of name, image, and likeness. And in doing so, Congress should provide aggressive oversight of that entity, rather than try to write the rules.