When I became the manager of Utah State’s 1970 Elite Eight basketball team, I was awarded the same compensation as future NBA players Marvin Roberts and Nate Williams:
Tuition, books and $30 a month.
I earned another $75 a week as sports editor of the school newspaper, and $1.90 an hour pumping gas and changing tires during three weekly shifts at Jack’s Tire and Oil.
I bought a car. I could afford a $25 lift ticket at Park City ski resort.
When the first Ali-Frazier fight was telecast at the Salt Palace, $40 for up-close seats — a small fortune for a college kid in 1971 — I sat so close to the screen that my eyes hurt.
I did things that the two NBA-bound players on my school’s basketball team couldn’t imagine. They were not allowed any extra income.
At Thanksgiving break, Williams asked if he could use my car for a few days.
“I want to take my girlfriend to Salt Lake,” he said.
“Can’t you get a car from the coaches?”
“It’s against the rules.”
“Can’t you rent a car?”
“I don’t have any money.”
Nate Williams, who would go on to score 7,709 points in the NBA, left town with my car. When I gave him the keys, he asked if I could lend him $50 and fill up the gas tank.
I was the student manager. He was the basketball star.
When practice resumed a few days later, assistant coach Dale Brown, later the head coach at LSU, summoned me to his office and raised hell.
“Are you crazy?” he asked. “You can’t give a college athlete a car and some money. We could be put on NCAA probation.”
That was 1970, when the head coach of an Elite Eight team made $32,000 a year.
Nate Williams, who was Aaron Gordon with a better jumper, was allowed the same benefits 44 years ago that Gordon was granted during his lone season at Arizona.
Access to tutors. Physical therapy. Medical insurance. Use of the school’s workout facilities. A meal before and after each game. Mentorship from the coaches. Free basketball shoes. And a stage upon which to audition for the NBA.
The only real difference was that in the summer of 1970, rather than a mandatory and monitored off-season workout program, Williams drove a truck for the Jack Parson Construction Co., 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. It was the only way he could afford to fly home to Oakland, Calif., every year.
Whatever Parson Construction paid Nate Williams was not the NCAA’s business. I hope it was more than $1.90 an hour.
College basketball is no longer the same game, but it is governed by the same rules.
I bring this to your attention because the NCAA is again on trial, this time in San Francisco, this time in a battle over whether players should be paid for the use of their names, likenesses and images.
The bigger argument is whether players should become paid employees, sharing in, among other things, the $331 million in media rights paid to the Pac-12 this year.
Big Ten commissioner Jim Delany last week told the court that if his league is ordered to share revenue with athletes that the Rose Bowl game will cease to exist.
I’m still laughing about that one.
Arizona athletic director Greg Byrne recently made a pre-emptive strike, announcing that henceforth the UA will not make available for sale football and basketball jerseys with a player’s number on it.
The UA further has decided to grant each athlete about $6 a day for an extra meal. Over a full academic year, that will cost the school roughly $600,000.
These are the first concessions in what is sure to become a full-blown series of courtroom dramas, the NCAA vs. the athlete, over the next decade.
There is one basic issue: The NCAA isn’t willing to share its money. Almost inevitably, the five most powerful conferences will in some form cede from the NCAA and play their own money game.
There will be no open market. Nate Williams will still be wondering how he’s going to put gas in the car.
Delany told the court “these games are owned by the institutions, and the notion of paying athletes for participating is foreign to the notion of amateurism.”
I don’t think “amateurism” applies in college sports any more. Not in the five power conferences. Football and basketball coaches are ridiculously wealthy. Athletic directors have evolved from old-school coaches to millionaires.
ASU will pay a perfectly mediocre basketball coach, Herb Sendek, a $600,000 retention bonus next week.
College sports have become the Culture of Me, and it starts at the top with men and women absorbed by their power and wealth.
When UConn won the national basketball championship in April, NCAA president Mark Emmert squeezed into the post-game television picture next to UConn coach Kevin Ollie and CBS’ Jim Nantz.
For years, the chairman of the NCAA men’s basketball committee, including Arizona ADs Ced Dempsey and Jim Livengood, capped their service by presenting the championship trophy aside Nantz and the winning coach.
This year, Emmert bumped chairman Ron Wellman of Wake Forest from that duty and chose to smile into the cameras himself.
The Culture of Me starts at the top.
The athletes will be given an extra $6 a day for a piece of pizza.