The Times West Virginian

November 5, 2009

WVU panel discusses playoff, paying athletes

By Bob Hertzel

MORGANTOWN — College football needs to go to a playoff system to decide its national champion but it should not begin paying its players, a panel of West Virginia-connected sports owners and former players maintained Wednesday night at a discussion of the business of sports at the Erickson Alumni Center.

West Virginia University Hall of Fame football player Sam Huff, former quarterback Oliver Luck and Arizona Diamondbacks owner Ken Kendrick and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ Bob Nutting made up the panel for the discussion that was presented by the WVU College of Business and Economics and the College of Physical Activity and Sport Sciences.

Those were the two major points that made during a wide-ranging hour long session that was both academic in nature and comical at times, the comedy provided by Huff who often went off on comical tangents.

The question of whether the BCS was the proper form to decide a national champion was brought up from the audience during a question and answer session.

Kendrick, an influential alumnus who became a household name in these parts when he was critical of the handling of Rich Rodriguez and the selection Bill Stewart to replace him as WVU football coach, gave a one-word answer when asked how the championship should be decided.

“Playoff,” he said.

Huff, who often went off-subject, was right on target with his answer.

“Everyone involved in sports would like to have a playoff,” he said, before noting that he had seen WVU beat Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl and saying “that was great. You know, I once flew over Oklahoma and that’s as close as I want to get.”

Luck is a one-time Rhodes Scholar finalist when at WVU in the early 1980s who led leading them to victory over Florida in the Peach Bowl. A former NFL quarterback, he now serves on the Board of Governors at WVU.

“Can anyone imagine four or five intelligent people being locked in a room [to work out a system for deciding a college football national champion] and coming up with the system we have today?” he asked. “It is completely irrational and outdated.”

Today the NCAA has turned the matter over to the BCS, which has a convoluted formula involving polls and computers to decided upon the two teams that will play for the title, a system that is ill prepared for a situation where you have three major unbeaten teams and that discriminates against non-BCS schools such as Boise State or TCU.

The most involved question of the night came from the audience after the group had discussed whether collegiate athletes should be paid. The panel originally decided that paying athletes was not in the best interest of college sports, citing that they are receiving scholarship money and that by not paying them there is money to go to minor sports and women’s sports which do not produce revenue.

Kendrick also noted that great riches awaited those who are fortunate to go on and play professionally.

That did not satisfy one questioner from the audience who asked if it was ethical to have the players perform without pay. He went on to note that just because they had not been paid in the past was not reason enough not to pay them and because they now spend year-round working out, often so they can’t get paying jobs, because their commitment to athletics takes away from their school time, and that they only a few benefit as professional athletes.

Unstated in the question but hanging heavily, too, is the fact that head coaches are earning up to $4 million a year off the unpaid talents of their athletes and that members of the athletic department, some not even top executives, are earning upwards of $75,000 a year.

Kendrick, who had no trouble pushing for Rodriguez to get whatever it was he was seeking when he jumped from West Virginia to Michigan, argued that the question did not represent “a factual circumstance.”

“They receive a lot of money,” he said. “It’s just doesn’t go into their bank accounts.”

He noted that non-athletes have to pay for their educations and that hundreds of athletes in non-revenue sports would not be given their opportunities if the pay just went to football and basketball players.

“It would take away from minorities and women’s sports,” Kendrick said.

Luck, a former president of NFL Europe now president and general manager of Major League Soccer’s Houston Dynamo, agreed.

“It would present a slippery slope,” Luck noted, adding that the next step would be a player’s union coming into college football.

As it is, there already is some talk about unionizing the athletes at present in an effort to draw more benefits.

“You need to distinguish between professional and amateur sports,” Luck said. “You do not want an institute of higher education becoming a professional franchise.”

As for Huff, he noted that when he was with the New York Giants in the 1950s, he was barely being paid as it was.

He remembered New York Giants’ owner Wellington Mara offering him a $500 raise one season.

“I told him I had just been the cover of Time Magazine and CBS had run ‘The Violent World of Sam Huff,” Huff said.

Mara’s response?

“Hell, Sam, you’re worth it.”

Email Bob Hertzel at bhertzel@hotmail.com.