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Rodeo may be the only college sport that isn’t knee-deep in hypocrisy.
That’s because rodeo is not part of the NCAA and has never held romanticized notions about the purity of amateur athletics. The sport has always been about prize money. The PRCA champion each year is the one who wins the most money. Marginal athletes in rodeo don’t get cut or put on waivers. They know it’s time to quit when they can’t earn enough gas money to get to the next event.
And so, college athletes in rodeo compete for prize money. The ones who do the best earn the most. And, they all will have the chance to try their hand on the pro circuit if they want to.
Most college athletes don’t have that option. Swimmers, sprinters and gymnasts have no choice but to be amateurs. The very most elite may someday earn sponsorships, but they will never experience the fame or fortune available to those on the football and men’s basketball teams.
The NCAA recently reported that the 2018-2019 men’s basketball season generated a total of $864.6 million in total net income. The 20 most profitable college football teams generated even more, bringing in a combined $925 million.
College coaches have reaped the rewards that come with heading multi-million-dollar operations. Kentucky basketball coach John Calipari makes $8.158 million a year. Alabama football coach Nick Saban makes $9.3 million a year.
And yet, in the make-believe world of the NCAA, the best players on the Kentucky basketball and Alabama football teams are worth no more than the best sprinter of the track team. A full scholarship is the most any of them is eligible for.
Anytime a rule is that divorced from reality, it is destined to be broken often. Boosters with a deep affection for their alma mater, and deeper pockets, have found creative ways to lure top athletes to their school with cars, gifts and money handed out under the table.
State legislatures are stepping in to challenge the NCAA. Florida recently joined with California and Colorado in passing a law to allow college athletes to profit from their name, image or likeness, in violation of NCAA rules. A similar law was passed by the New Mexico Legislature, and is pending consideration by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham.
The NCAA is tweaking its rules, while at the same time lobbying Congress to block the new state laws. It is committed to maintaining the idyllic notion of the student athlete, who is competing for the love of the sport and will take the lessons learned on the playing field and apply them to whatever profession they will pursue later in life.
The vast majority of those competing in college athletics fit that profile, but, NCAA leaders can’t have it both ways. They can’t rake in millions of dollars, competing with professional sports leagues, movies, concerts and other forms of entertainment, while still pretend that their primary function is the education of star athletes,
The new state laws will only increase the divide between the haves and the have-nots. They will ensure that more resources go to the “money sports,” and less to other sports. And, they will further tilt the playing field in favor of those schools with the deep-pocketed boosters.
That’s unfortunate, but it is yielding to the obvious reality, at least at the top level of NCAA athletics.
Whether NMSU should be attempting to compete at that level is another column for another day.
Walter Rubel can be reached at email@example.com.