Are high-level student-athletes amateurs, playing sports for the love of it?
Or quasi-professionals participating in a multi-billion-dollar enterprise?
These questions, previously confined to sports articles and the occasional long-form magazine article, could get an airing in the upcoming legislative session.
A bill proposed last week by state Sen. Kevin Parker, D-Brooklyn, would make New York the first state in the country to require colleges to pay student-athletes directly.
It's an idea whose time has come.
Big-time college sports — think basketball or football — are huge money-makers for their schools.
Their coaches and athletic directors earn a handsome sum, and in many states the highest-paid public employee coaches football or basketball at the university level.
The organization that regulates college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association, also does pretty well for itself: In 2016-2017, the NCAA made over $1 billion in revenue, most of it generated by the Division I Men's Basketball Tournament, better known as March Madness.
The only people who don't get to profit off this system?
The athletes we watch and root for.
Why shouldn't they get a cut of the revenue?
Almost everyone else does.
As the sportswriter Robert Lipsyte once observed, "The true madness of March is the millions of dollars — generated by the kids who touch the ball — that goes mostly to the advertising hustlers, television suits, arena operators, concession hawkers, athletic gear manufacturers and retailers, university administrators, coaches and sports media noisemakers."
How anyone manages to keep a straight face while describing the high-stakes world of Division I basketball and football as amateur is beyond me.
There's nothing amateur about the amounts of money these schools invest in these sports, or the revenue they generate, or the way these programs help identify talent for the NBA and NFL.
That said, most college athletes aren't playing sports in hopes of earning lucrative professional contracts.
They really are student-athletes who will earn degrees and graduate and embark on careers in other fields. They don't make money for their schools, and their coaches aren't paid millions of dollars to guide them.
The real target of efforts to get colleges to pay athletes are Division I schools with top-tier basketball and football programs.
Parker's legislation notes that Syracuse University's athletic department brought in more than $90 million in revenue in 2016-2017, much of it, I imagine, driven by the men's basketball team.
Parker's legislation would require college athletic departments to give a 15 percent share of annual revenue to student-athletes.
It would also give student athletes the rights to their own names, images and likenesses, as well as the right to obtain professional representation. Schools would be required to establish an injured athlete fund to compensate athletes for career-ending or long-term injuries.
The argument against paying student-athletes and allowing them to control their own names and likenesses is that it will somehow taint college sports, corrupting an otherwise pure-hearted endeavor.
But there's little that's pure-hearted or pristine about big-time college sports.
Reforming this system so that it benefits athletes is the way to go.
Reach Sara Foss at [email protected]