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The Lesson From Student Athletes Not About the Money

Consultant Roger Herman says that employees, like athletes, want a sense of meaning and belonging.

August 9, 2005
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Ideally, student-athletes play sports for a free education and the love of the game.

    But somehow that doesn’t jibe with billion-dollar network contracts, celebrity coaches paid $1 million to $2 million and football stadiums packed with fans paying Broadway-show ticket prices.

    The big money is in the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s Division I-A men’s football and basketball programs. Those sports make enough money to keep athletic departments solvent and university building projects going. Driving these programs are exceptionally athletic young men, many of them African Americans dreaming of becoming professional athletes.

    Allen Sanderson, an economist with the University of Chicago who researches sports, calls the way money is shuffled from high-revenue sports to money-losing sports like tennis and cross-country running a "reverse Robin Hood effect." He notes that athletes in the low-revenue sports are whites from middle- or upper-income families, in contrast to black athletes from more modest backgrounds.

    Sanderson calls college athletes "the most exploited workers in the U.S. economy," and argues that just about everyone in the system benefits more than the players. He believes they should be paid.

    Scoffing at the romantic notion of the student-athlete, Sanderson argues that athletes have a job, and it is to produce heroics on the football field or basketball court.

    "The colleges don’t want them in the library," he says. "The kids don’t want to be in the library. What they are there for is to play what amounts to minor-league football and basketball that they hope to turn into professional careers."

    That argument strikes at the heart of what some say may be the most valuable lesson that workforce managers can learn from athletics, which is that it shouldn’t be about the money.

    While investments in athletics are huge in dollar terms, the relationships between coaches and players are built on core values like trust and leadership. Management consultant Roger Herman, who writes about this subject in his book How to Become an Employer of Choice, says all companies should try to instill these core values in their workforces if they want to attract and keep top talent.

    "Today’s employees are not there for the money," Herman says. "They want meaningful work, they want to make a difference, and they want to feel like they belong."

    Without those values, he says, coveted employees might walk out the door muttering, "You can’t pay me enough to work here."

    Herman says athletes represent the college community. Once they get paid, they would lose that role and become hired help.

Much of the debate hinges on graduation rates. The NCAA’s report card on these rates in 2004 for Division I-A schools, the larger universities that generate the biggest crowds and television ratings, shows that students in general graduate at higher rates than student-athletes, 64 percent to 62 percent.

But in men’s Division I basketball, 44 percent of the players graduate. Football has a below-average 57 percent graduation rate, and for black athletes, the rates are much lower than they are for white athletes in both football and basketball.

    Such statistics only bolster Sanderson’s argument. He’d like changes, but he’s not holding his breath. "These kids have no bargaining power whatsoever," he says.

Workforce Management, August 2005, p. 35 --Subscribe Now!

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