CHICAGO WHITE SOX PLAYERS were so vulnerable to corruption in 1919 for one main reason: their salaries.
“I needed the money. I had the wife and kids,” said White Sox pitcher Eddie Cicotte, who got $10,000 — more than his entire annual pay — from professional gamblers in exchange for his help making sure the Sox would lose a World Series they were expected to win.
The Black Sox scandal cast a pall over Major League Baseball for decades, and that’s worth recalling now, in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decision striking down federal restrictions on sports betting. The most vulnerable athletes now aren’t professionals, whose multimillion dollar salaries should make them think twice about succumbing to corruption.
Rather, it’s colleges and universities — whose athletes work unpaid — that need to pay attention. The court’s decision opened a pathway to legalized betting on college sports, and should also rekindle the long-simmering debate over whether college athletes deserve to be paid. The vast majority of college athletes have no chance of playing professionally, and know it, making them vulnerable to the kind of financial lures that snared Cicotte back in 1919.
Gambling already happens, of course — Americans were estimated to have wagered about $10 billion on the NCAA men’s basketball tournament this year, almost all of it bet illegally — but legal gambling could create a much more lucrative environment.
While many student-athletes would no doubt refuse approaches from gamblers, the higher level of risk in a post-legalization world should be clear.
Even before the Supreme Court decision, the failure to pay athletes has come under increasingly strong criticism, with unavoidable racial undertones. For top football and basketball schools, sports are a big revenue stream, coaches are paid multimillion dollar salaries, and multibillion dollar TV contracts get signed. Meanwhile, more than half of those unpaid Division 1 basketball players are black.
“I was generally too poor to do anything but study, practice, and play,” the basketball great Kareem Abdul-Jabbar wrote, recalling his college days at UCLA — words that still ring true for many college athletes today. That’s been an injustice, and it would be sad if it takes the prospect of sports betting to convince colleges to act. But better late than never.
Paying athletes would raise logistical and fairness questions. Does paying the men’s basketball team mean paying the women’s volleyball team, too?
Should Division II and III schools pay their athletes? How would salary rates be set, and should better players get paid more?
Colleges have generally dodged those types of questions, clinging to the idea that sports should remain a bastion of amateurism. But if fairness for athletes won’t move the colleges and universities, then what about the integrity of the sports that have become such a cash cow for them?
With the Supreme Court decision, it’s now more in the colleges’ interests than ever to drop the charade and consider paying student-athletes what they deserve.