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How We Must Pay — and Truly Educate — College Athletes


Johnny Manziel

Sometime in the late 20th century, the Athenian ideal of amateur athletics in big-time college sports died a noisy and brutal death.  But somehow — and cruelly, when it comes to the welfare of those that matter most, the student-athletes themselves — the myth endures.

It’s high time that we paid the very young people who are earning billions of dollars for others.  But much more significantly, it’s high time that we provided each of these athletes — particularly the 99.9 percent of them who will never gasp even a whiff of professional sports life — an appropriate education that will adequately prepare them for the 21st century workforce.

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As I elaborated a few weeks ago, the Big Blue Nation’s iconic hoops squad is an epic generator of profit for the university and the Commonwealth. Indeed, it seems as if the only interested parties not making bank in this transaction are the players themselves. That’s because nearly 30 years since the Olympics abandoned the myth of the world-class amateur athlete, American college basketball and football remain the globe’s only billion dollar industries that don’t pay their workers.

Now, I’m not concerned about Coach Cal’s charges.  Many of them will emerge soon in the NBA as their own global financial centers; the others will always carry the special, privileged status of a Rupp alumna:  We coddle our cagers long after they hang up their high tops.  (And sometimes, we place them a little too high on the proverbial pedestal, as my former State Capitol next door neighbor, Richie Farmer, can attest from his West Virginia prison cell.)

But there are thousands of college athletes who exemplify the scourge of income inequality: The 1% (NCAA, elite coaches, broadcast networks, and advertisers) are acquiring obscene wealth at the expense of the 99% (the student athletes) who don’t earn a dime. Even under the NCAA’s rosiest recent projections, more than a third of college basketball players don’t graduate; many that do fail to develop any meaningful job skills, or even middle school level reading skills; and all must tread warily on campus for fear of sanctions by the NCAA’s Rube Goldberg rules that preserve and perpetuate the fantasy of the scholar-athlete.

Ranting about pay for play in college athletics has been a staple of talk radio for decades.  Finally, the NCAA recently announced a slight bending in their own moral arc of justice, voting to give the five richest college conferences and their 65 members schools more autonomy when it comes to compensating their students.  But this incremental reform might simply reveal itself as a Trojan Horse, blocking any real substantive change that would otherwise be brought through the court system.  And this weekend’s revelation that the battle to block athletic pay is being aided by Baylor University President Ken Starr — yes, the same guy who successfully paralyzed national policy to explore incidents of consensual oral sex — indicates that progress likely will remain agonizingly slow.

Now, admittedly, a 180-degree reverse pivot spin move into a fully-free-market-based compensation system would be a disaster. Imagine sports agents forcing rival athletic directors into bidding wars for their star clients, or Steinbrenner-wannabe boosters pooling their cash to assemble indomitable dynasties. And don’t forget: Under such a scenario, already financially-reeling schools would have to fill multi-million dollar holes in their budgets.

Instead, it is incumbent upon the NCAA to use its nascent reform process to establish proactively a pay-for-play system that their member institutions can afford; one that would provide fair and equal compensation to all scholarship athletes, or at least to those in their revenue-generating sports. And such a game plan must focus like a tight spiral on the student welfare.

Here’s my modest proposal:

Pay the players a living wage. With classrooms filled by trust-funders toting daddy’s credit card, gift offers from boosters and agents must tempt lower-income athletes worse than Chris Christie in a candy store. An hourly living wage — the same for each player on scholarship; adjusted slightly among universities by local standards of living — would provide athletes with some (but not too much) walking around money for the occasional restaurant jaunt or shopping spree (maybe they could finally afford their own replica jersey at the campus book store), as well as the exceptional luxury of flying their parents in for special games. And it won’t break the bank of our institutions of higher learning. Of course, schools would be burdened less if we identified supplemental funding sources such as…

It’s gotta be the shoes. While recent reforms have proscribed many of the abuses in the historically shady relationship between college coaches and shoe companies, it’s still unjust to force players to serve as unpaid jumping billboards for their product.   A fair percentage of any and all endorsement deals could help underwrite an athlete compensation pool. And with the compensation of coaches and athletic directors soaring in a sour economy (currently, 66 assistant football coaches earn more than $300,000 a year), it’s only right to require some tithing to the compensation fund. Taken together, this fund could help sweep in athletes beyond just the two major revenue-generating sports, because…

Don’t forget about the girls. Gender equity in college athletics is one of the great successes of the modern civil rights era. And even though on only rare occasions will a women’s team generate meaningful revenue (Go Lady Vols!), the spirit, if not the letter, of the Title IX laws may require colleges to pay women cagers the same as the boys. Since big-time college football is for the X-chromosome-challenged only, NCAA policymakers should choose to compensate at least one other women’s sport to provide gender balance.  I suggest women’s crew because…uh…my daughter rows for Haverford College.  But if not, Abby will be fine because she picked her college based on the academic curriculum and her professional interests.  That’s not usually the case when it comes to other college athletes, and we too often fail to remember that….

It’s the education, stupid.   Let’s be cognizant that the primary mission of the university is to educate and prepare its student body for the postgraduate job market. Current athletic academic standards instead often function to stifle opportunity or to encourage inappropriate shortcuts.  There’s no better example than the academic scandal plaguing the University of North Carolina.  I argued last week that the Tarheels deserve the death penalty for the nearly two-decade fraudulent conspiracy that steered athletes into sham classes.  But the UNC example is merely the highest-profile symptom of a deeply ingrained academic disease.

The core flaw is the ludicrous and pernicious assumption that every “scholar-athlete” has the preparation, the aptitude — or even the need — to earn a four-year, liberal arts bachelor’s degree. For decades, outside of sport, policymakers have been encouraging youth from lower income environments and underachieving high schools (a common background for many a collegiate hoopster) to enroll in two-year vocational and technical colleges, where they can be empowered with the skills they need for the modern job market.

That’s why it is incumbent on the NCAA and its member schools to direct athletes, when appropriate, to focus their academic attention on job skills and technical programs that interest them, prepare them for postgraduate life, and enable them to earn associates degrees at the university, or through an affiliated community college or vo-tech program. Similarly, while the vociferous criticism of “one and done” is overblown (It worked well for Bill Gates after all), the NBA and its players’ union should effectuate a new “two and done” system, which will enable each player to earn sufficient credit to graduate with at least an associates’ degree.  And those that stay on past their two-year degrees can be enrolled in apprenticeship programs with local businesses, or compensated job training in the workplace.

A critical addition to every athlete’s academic curriculum must be substantive financial education.  As agonizingly portrayed in the ESPN 30 for 30 special “Broke” — which demonstrated how easy it is even for the richest pros, such as former Wildcat Antoine Walker, to lose everything due to naiveté, mismanagement, and trusting the wrong “friends” — our colleges must do a much better job of empowering lower-income athletes with financial skills to manage their prospective wealth.

In the end, we should abide by the motto that former Fayette County School Superintendent Stu Silberman inculcated in every communication and system action:  “It’s About Kids.”  In our passion for sports, we too often fail to fully appreciate and protect the interests of the teenagers and young adults who provide so much enjoyment for the rest of us.  It’s high time that we build a system that respects, honors and truly compensates the very individuals who make college sports possible.

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POSTSCRIPT:  Now that I am a recovering politician, I’m the first to admit that I have no ownership of the truth.  One of the great things about KSR is the involvement of the Big Blue Nation in the comments section.  Not only do I ask for your input below, but if you have a really good idea on this subject, please leave your name and hometown.  I will be writing many more columns on student compensation, and I want to give due credit for ideas that are shared below.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

64 responses to “How We Must Pay — and Truly Educate — College Athletes”

  1. Katya

    I love the part about paying them a living wage. This is something we should do for everybody who tries to do what’s best for them.

    1. Leuther

      Spoken like a true far left zealot…

  2. rainman

    Sorry, too long, couldn’t finish it!

    1. rainman

      Not interested in reading a book, thats the problem!

    2. rainman

      Johnathan, I do actually respect the fact that you read all the comments. I’ll keep trying!

  3. BoomKentucky

    If you are going to truly educate them then they must be truly college students who would have been eligible for college. Too many athletes have no business in college and its not their fault. Its their parents and society faults for allowing them to get that far without learning how to read. PS the article is too long and didn’t have time to read it. lol

  4. Wynn

    Really good article, Jonathan. I actually did read the whole thing, and found it to be very accurate. It’s unbelievable how the NCAA can just turn a blind eye to this issue and cling to their outdated ideal of “amateurism.”

  5. Elk

    If we pay student athletes then any student that is required to work in the field before earning their degree should be paid, as well. I am a teacher, so I was required to student teach for a semester without pay. Pharmacists are required to work for close to 1 year without receiving pay in an effort to earn their doctorate. I understand that most high-profile athletes wish to become a professional in their sport, so, if teachers, pharmacists, doctors, lawyers, etc… cannot be paid, then student-athletes should not be paid, either.

    1. satcheluk

      I know at Merrill Lynch we did away with unpaid interneships over a year ago. Not sure ho wthat will affect access to experince which is more important than money in many cases. It’s a difficult question and one I look forward to watching how it unfolds.

  6. JVice

    “The X-chromosome-challenged”? Both men and women possess X chromosomes. It’s not like men have a Y, and women an X. Men are XY and women are XX. That was an odd and clumsy line.

  7. Leuther

    Jon, this is pure Left Wing BS and spoken like a true Democratic politician. You’re making college athletes, most of whom are offered a free $100,000 plus college education, out to be victims. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most college athletes are grateful for the free ride and get along just fine without being paid more. Most high school students would do most anything for this opportunity.

    And the majority of college athletes would NEVER have the opportunity to get a college education without the athletic scholarship. I agree that most don’t take full advantage of it, but this is still America and that’s their choice. If they don’t appreciate a free ride though college, they’re free to go and do whatever they want where ever they want.

    And who would pay for all these extra player benefits? Fans with higher ticket prices? Students with higher fees? Think coaches like Cal or Stoops are going to take pay cuts? Ha!

    The NBA players union will agree to 2 and done when hell freezes over…

    Financial skills should be taught in high school, but let’s face it, not everybody will choose to learn them refardless of who or when they are taught. The NBA provides many financial counseling and education opportunities but Antoine Walker chose to do his own thing. He made his choices – many of which were unwise – and is now suffering the consequences. Giving him more money in college would have done nothing of significance to better his life…

    1. rainman

      And I thought Pubes were all high and mighty on a free market society!
      WHO KNEW?

    2. Katya

      Lol the moron is back.

    3. rainman

      Don’t be so hard on yourself!

    4. lo_wice606

      I don’t think he’s arguing whether or not college athletes could get along fine without the pay–I think (and correct me if I’m wrong Jon) that he’s saying that with the amount of money colleges and the NCAA make off of ticket sales, selling jerseys with these kids numbers, etc etc, that the players who are doing the majority of the work should get a cut of the sales. Yes, many of them will make it to the next level where they’ll earn millions of dollars playing in the NBA, but what about those players who don’t? The ones that contribute to the national championships, but aren’t good enough to be drafted or at least offered a contract after their opening year.

      I also disagree with your statement that the majority of college athletes would never have the opportunity to get a college education without the athletic scholarship. Do you have any facts to back up that assumption? Because if so, I’d like to see them. Don’t you think it’s a little judgmental of you to automatically deem athletes as dumber simply because they focused on sports more (or just as much) as they did on school?

      If the players could simply get small amounts of the profits being made off of them right now as extra money then there would be no need to do any of the things you suggested as well.

    5. ibescootch

      That’s the whole point of the “living wage” argument. He’s not saying we should be dumping money on them like they’re already pro athletes, he’s saying pay them as if they were working. A living wage provides for the basics, so it essentially would like be like giving them minimum wage as workers. Most college athletes in major conferences, at least the ones bringing in boatloads of money for the school, are committed to their sport most of the year, and don’t have much time for a job. So paying them like workers would satisfy at least their basic needs, aside from tuition, room and board, meal stipends, etc. which are typically covered with their athletic scholarships.

    6. blubo

      katya and miss skinnyateone sure are fond of the word moron. they use it as their best argument i guess because it’s only two syllables and can be used against any other opinion about any subject.

    7. theWilkman

      Leuther, your hate for the left is clouding your judgement. While what Jonathan is proposing isn’t pure free-market capitalism (like he states about halfway through, did you read that far?), it is far and away more free than the current system. The people that earn the money should be compensated fairly…how is that “pure Left Wing BS” as you so eloquently put it? If anything, the current system is closer to socialism, as those who earn the most (men’s football first and basketball second) see the dollars they bring in spread amongst women’s sports, track and field, etc.

      Jonathan, I like your idea for a living wage, particularly for those in the non-major sports, but I would take it a step further – no restrictions on athletes signing endorsement deals while still students. If Snickers wants to put Johnny Manziel in a commercial, that is his right to capitalize on the offer, and no one else deserves one dime of that money. And while this may open the door for some unscrupulous boosters or sports agents to try and game the system, the NCAA (or whatever governing institution) could require open financial reports, similar to SEC (Securities and Exchange Commission, not Southeastern Conference) requirements for public companies, with violations punished harshly.

    8. satcheluk

      The athletic population at many, if not most, schools graduate at a higher rate than gen pop.

  8. BlueDeuce

    First I’ll agree with BoomKentucky…too many high profile athletes are not prepared for higher level learning and thus, no education, whether real or a sham, will prepare them for future success.

    Second point, I’m do not see how paying a college althete/student a working wage for 4 years will set them up for a better future. You’re simply delaying the inevitable…no true education and no true skills to make it in the world. How $10 an hour for 40 hour work weeks while attending school will prepare someone is beyond me?

    Third, I think sthudent athletes need to be compensated by receiving an honest education, being held to a standard that will provide the best chance for future success and provided for by the universities with insurance policies in case something does happens to the athlete. Also think it’s important to ensure the athlete is cared for while attending the university with food, clothing, health care and even the ability to assist parents/gardians with basic life needs (not excessive or luxury needs).

    Unsure about star players being able to receive compensation for likeness (jersey sales, pictures, etc.) as larger universities could spend more to promote or market an athlete and thus receive an advantage in recruiting. Something needs to be looked at but I don’t know the answer.

    Finally, opening the pay for play scheme would lead to even more corruption in college sports and under the table payouts. It is bad enough now, couldn’t even begin to think what it would be like if paying athletes. I know the universities, networks, leagues, etc. make billions but that money should be set to the athlete in the form of education and benefits, not pay!

    Great article and good justification…I’m not convinced yet though that college athletes need to be paid. Who gets paid and who doesn’t, which sports, what conferences, at what level (BCS schools, Div II, etc.). Too many variables and no solid, fair solutions that help the student suceed or at least provide the best chance for success. They can’t earn enough in 4 years to be set up for the future.

  9. JVice

    Classrooms aren’t filled with “trust-funders” either. Please take a look at the staggering amount of student debt in this country sometime. I basically agree with what you’re saying, just not how you said it.

  10. Zack

    Jonathan.. I completely agree with most of what you said, but when I look at Kentucky Basketball, and look at all the millions these players are making after only a year of Kentucky basketball.. couldnt it be said that basketball practice is there Job training? I would bet that in the last 4 or 5 years John Calipari has made more millionaires than the University has. These players are going to college for one reason, to learn the game of basketball and then make it a profession, just like any other student. Some of these players need to major in BASKETBALL, and like you said, money management, not history. Is there any way this could ever happen? I mean we give super smart people scholarships to come and learn how to be a doctor, ect.. Cant we just give certain talented athletes scholarship to learn more about their proffesion and further their career?

    1. satcheluk

      Those “super smart” pre med students can get a job at the hospital and earn money while the y are studying.

  11. cats paw

    What’s never mentioned, whether paying pro athletes outrageous sums of money or college athletes living wages is….where does this money comes from! It ultimately comes from the fans/parents in the form of higher ticket prices and increased tuition rates.
    I recently paid $34k for a year of my kids education at UK and will have another one enrolling next year. When I hear about a $150 million dollar stadium improvement or a couple million dollar raise to a coach I can’t help but think how many students lives this would have touched. We could fill the state of Ky full of doctors and teachers with this expendable income, but we would prefer to be able to brag about our talent on the field for a year.
    Now we push to pay the future multi millionaires of these colleges an early income on top of a free education while the majority of kids cannot afford an education. Why not pay the students without scholarships a living wage also? They are the ones that ultimately bring the revenue into any program. Try having a sports team without any fans in the seats and see how profitable it is!

    1. Zack

      He did mention it.. it comes from the millions that these shoe companies are paying for these slaves to work for free.Although it would be nice for every student to be paid a a living wage, not every student is making millions for the University. It might not be fair for a coach to be paid more than someone who teaches people how to save lives but thats the way it is. Its money.

    2. ibescootch

      Umm, there’s a giant paragraph in the middle of the article with an example of how this would be funded. And I don’t think you understand the financial benefit that a high performing sports team has on a school. The school rakes in money through these programs and uses it to fund all the other sports teams and many other departments at the school.

      And why in the world would they pay students NOT on scholarship a living wage? What does that even mean?

  12. Rixter

    Jonathon, you writing for KSR is a bit like Anthony Davis playing in a YMCA league!
    Another well written, thought-provoking article. Keep up the good work.

    1. theSkinny81

      Right?

      It’s hilarious watching ‘Leuther’ and ‘cats paw’ try to argue their point – and fail miserably.

      The good news: they have reiterated (again?? lol) to everyone what morons they are. So there’s that. 😉

    2. blubo

      so you’re the Queen of Right? when you start calling people morons because of their opinions it pretty much shows who’s failing miserably.

  13. yorkinson

    Jonathan
    I believe that schools have an obligation to share the proceeds generated by revenue sport athletes. However, I don’t understand why revenue sport athletes should be subsiding female athletes or male athletes who participate in non-revenue generating sports. I also don’t understand how an administration would decide that we will subsidize women’s hoops but not women’s soccer or men’s golf.
    My opinion, let the athletes in non-revenue sports play for the love of the game and the opportunity to attend college or do away with sports that don’t generate enough funds to properly pay their athletes.

  14. .Leuther

    I just don’t think it’s right to give free money to blacks, athletes or not.

  15. houndstooth

    Jonathan,
    I think most of what you have talked about needs to be taught before the students even get to college. The fundamentals of a budget and savings should be taught to everyone not just athletes and I think we are failing on this front.
    The “kids” are students first and athletes second. If you give an athlete a “living wage” that is credited to their account each week or month so that student can pay for food, clothing, or whatever- what are we teaching these students? Are we teaching them that if we work hard they get paid or are we teaching them that society will always take care of them. I think it could be possible to tie the pay to grades(on pace to graduate);however, I do feel this would be difficult because of situations like UNC. It’s still a better idea than just giving them a wage.
    Instead of making the shoe companies fund the salaries why don’t we take the pensions from all the state and federal politicians to fund student athlete salaries. I personally don’t want to pay more for my shoes or any other clothing that I may buy. You also want the coaches to pay for these salaries. Let’s see, the athletic departments make money (at least in the 5 major conference) and you want to take money away from the coaches. How about the President of the university or many other high paying jobs in the university. The governor makes about 125,000 a year and the president of UK has a base salary of 500,000. Are you kidding me? There is no way the president of UK needs a higher salary than the governor especially when UK gets money or financing from the state. You may be a recovering politician- but you still think like a politician.

    1. msnthrop

      What are we teaching these students? We’re teaching them that the practicing, the film study, the weight lifting, and performance on game day is all labor and in America we trade our labor for wages. All of the work these students do has a real monetary value – no one is “taking care of them”.

    2. Uncle Jesse

      I see it as the athletes are not able to get a part time job to help with things like the occasional meal out, etc due to the amount of time they are practicing, studying film, lifting weights, etc. I don’t see that as money for labor, I see the living wage as providing for them in that they cannot provide a wage for themselves due to the previously mentioned activities.

    3. houndstooth

      I’m actually in favor of paying players- I just don’t like how Jonathan wants to supply the income. I also want the players to have an education that will take care of them after school. Playing football or any sport is a job- I know because I played in college. The problem is some athletes and universities don’t care about what happens in the classroom or what happens to the players after college.

    4. satcheluk

      How about paying them for achieving in the classroom?

  16. catdaddyd

    In state tuition, room and board

    Boston College $60,622=243k for four years
    Duke $64,000= 256k
    UK $23,000 (10k more for out of state) =92k
    Carry a student loan for 15 years

    They get paid

  17. catdaddyd

    We already do, it’s called welfare, food stamps, medical card. TROLL

  18. Hermes

    I agree an NCAA athlete should be allowed to share in revenue earned from commercial exploitation of the athlete’s image or name but the notion the athlete should be paid because fans pay money to watch NCAA sporting events doesn’t hold water. No one is forcing anyone to play sports at universities, so there is no exploitation. The student athlete also is receiving a valuable education. If the athlete values immediate monetary gain more than education–a perfectly viable choice–then the athlete should go overseas and play for European or Chinese teams. I also believe the rules that prevent athletes from going directly to the NFL or NBA should be changed. If a kid can earn money from his/her skills immediately, then let him/her do so. There is no reason to force him/her to wait until a certain age or to pursue a year or more of a college education he/she does not really want.

    Even if certain athletes were allowed to earn money because of their skills and notoriety, there is no reason to extend the earning potential of the premium athletes to all athletes. Just because a few key athletes can earn money with their skills is no reason to pay all the average players. If you are going to pay average basketball and football players, minor sports players, and female athletes, you may as well pay band members and cheerleaders, as well. For that matter, why not make all education free and pay all the students? Let’s forgive all the student debt, too! After all, in your world, all the students who aren’t beneficiaries of trust funds with credit cards are “exploited.” Obviously, it’s not “fair” for coaches to earn big salaries in a “sour economy” when so many people, including student athletes, aren’t making money.

    In sum, your post is pedantic, convoluted, and illogical. It is warmed over socialist Utopian drivel that only you, Matt Jones, and Alice in Wonderland Grimes can truly appreciate.

    1. msnthrop

      All higher education in Germany is free now, there is no student debt there at all. We as a country choose the path were currently on, but it isn’t the only possible one. You make these suggestions in jest, but they are actually working elsewhere.

  19. msnthrop

    Bah, simply eliminate revenue generating sports from the control of publicly funded universities. If an 18 year old high school graduate wants to try to play sports for a living then they should be able to go do that, if they want to be a student at a university then they should be able to go do that, and there is no good reason, in this day and age, to try to maintain the illusion that the two activities need to be connected to each other. If that is too radical, then screw this living wage nonsense and allow the “student-athletes” to collect 50% of generated revenue just like all the major pro sports do.

    1. blubo

      your first two sentences is the sensible solution. the nba is the culprit and root of the problem by not allowing players straight out of high school to work for them. their age-limit rule has provided them with the perfect farm system–one that costs them nothing.

    2. msnthrop

      blubo – I kind of think the NFL might be more to blame – they have no minor league whatsoever while the NBA is at least actively working on their D-league. I wouldn’t be surprised if what Emmanuel Mudiay is doing in China becomes increasingly common which could force the hand of the NBA to open the D-league to 18 year olds. The thing with both the NBA and the NFL is that the age/body development of players is pretty important – peak age for these leagues is the mid to late 20’s and there really is a minimum amount of muscle building that needs to have occurred before most players can be successful. If college isn’t the path to a position in professional sports what can potential athletes do between 18 and 23? Maybe some kind of union apprenticeship program would be workable?

  20. Piedma Schwartz

    Can’t just go changin’ rules because people choose to break them.

  21. The Original WTF Guy

    Jonathon,

    Love you posts so far and while I don’t agree with everything you write (25 years as a professor at four different universities, two of which are in Power 5 conferences) gives me a different perspective. But if you’ve not read it, take glance at the following:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hundred-Yard-Lie-Corruption-Football/dp/0252065239/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1415730407&sr=8-7&keywords=rick+telander

    This was originally written in 1989 long before there was any momentum towards paying players, thus that’s not addressed. But it’s still as good a working model of what big-time college athletics should look like as I’ve ever seen. If you get a chance to read it/look at it, I would love to hear your thoughts.