Paying college athletes


I will be returning to this subject a whole bunch, I imagine. Jay Bilas got a lot of attention yesterday because he went to the NCAA’s apparel website and even though none of the jerseys being sold include player names, when he typed individual player names into the search engines – like South Carolina’s all-world defensive lineman Jadaveon Clowney – lo and behold, he got directed to the page that sells Clowney’s jersey (or a South Carolina No. 7, Clowney’s number). Hilariously, by the way, the NCAA disabled the site’s search function after Bilas’ little expose went viral.

Bilas, the former Duke star and current ESPN college basketball analyst, has become a righteous critic of the NCAA, particularly regarding its insistence that it is an “amateur” enterprise when, in fact, its member schools are making billions of dollars from athletic enterprises while refusing to cut the athletes in.

The issue came up this morning on The Herd, with Colin Cowherd. As good as I thought Colin was yesterday – today…not so much. Cowherd sounded at times like he was reading an NCAA press release this morning, insisting that scholarship athletes were getting a great deal, because they receive a free education, good “swag,” great travel, “enlightenment,” “promotion” and so forth. And many of those lucky-duckies didn’t even qualify academically for the institutions that were offering the scholarships, Cowherd kept noting, so they were doubly fortunate.

Of course, Cowherd never stopped to question whether the premise of the claim – that schools were benevolently extending an educational opportunity to players – was undermined by the reality that they’re recruiting players who, in many cases, won’t be able to take advantage of that opportunity. More on that in a moment.

Cowherd spent much of the morning engaging in the Just in Case logical fallacy – insisting that the worst possible case scenario for paying players was the only possible outcome.

He also lampooned proponents of paying players – specifically from the proceeds of jersey sales – by saying that such folks think doing so will solve all the problems in college sports. This led him to a digression about the delusion people have that money solves all problems in general and the further delusion that making something legal does the same. An example of the latter, according to Cowherd: legalizing alcohol, which Colin insisted didn’t solve all problems associated with alcohol, but only created new ones.

Not to digress, but I suppose this means Cowherd was endorsing the reimposition of Prohibition. If he wasn’t, he needs to work harder to grasp the simple reality that endorsement of a policy doesn’t necessarily mean that the endorser thinks all will be right with the world after its implementation.

In fact, I don’t know of a single proponent of giving players some piece of the NCAA’s monetary pie who believes doing so will solve all problems associated with collegiate athletics. What they (and I) do think is that it will be more fair to the players who help major institutions generate billions of dollars in revenue to give them a cut of that revenue. The particulars of doing so would undoubtedly be complicated and generate some unintended consequences. So did the implementation of child labor laws. But that’s not an argument against doing so.

Cowherd claimed that paying players would not reduce corruption in recruiting. In fact, he asserted, corruption would increase. Why? Cowherd’s pet scenario here was that rich boosters, like Phil Knight, for example, would promise recruits that he would produce thousands of their jerseys in order to be able to pay them a boatload of money. This would be the means by which the wealthiest boosters would tilt the playing field in their school’s favor. But isn’t Cowherd forgetting something? Before you can make money off of a jersey, you have to sell it. Phil Knight can promise that he’s going to do a massive jersey run for a high-profile recruit, but what if those don’t sell?

Here’s the more likely outcome. Just like now, schools will compete for the highest profile players. They will sign with a school. They will (or won’t) become stars. Then their jerseys will sell very well, at whichever school they are playing. At that point, the school and the player will profit from the sales. I know Cowherd wants his audience to believe that the sky is falling (or will). But the likely outcome is more pedestrian than that.

Cowherd also said that the most prominent programs in college would only gain a further advantage in recruiting new players, creating a further separation between the haves and have nots and intensifying the advantage of the Bamas and Ohio States and Oregons of the college sports world. It is true that big time programs would be able to press their financial advantage. But the truth, of course, is that college football is already divided very clearly into haves and have nots. Cowherd acknowledges this. He said that Alabama was probably on its way to a fourth football championship in five years in 2013. So, he asked, do you want it to be nine out of ten? Of course, ‘Bama is no more likely to win such a slew of championships in a world in which players get paid than it is now.  Other schools would be able to compete with ‘Bama for talent – Ohio State, LSU, Notre Dame, USC, Oregon. This really wouldn’t change in the new reality. College football is not a monopoly – it’s an oligopoly. That remains true whether or not players get a cut of jersey sales.

Actually, one consequence of compensating players with actual money (as opposed to scholarships – more on that in a moment), might to be dissuade some schools from pursuing big time programs, especially in football. This is probably a good thing. When properly accounted for, most college football programs are revenue losers, not generators. And going to secondary bowls appears to cost schools money, not earn it for them. In other words, there is a significant tier of college football programs that are trying to compete in BCS conferences, will never be able to rival the big boys and are losing money for their institutions in the process, thus undermining those schools’ primary mission – to serve the entire student body. A new system might reduce the number of schools that even try to compete at the highest level. What’s wrong with that? Why not play a scaled-down version of football, which could still provide the great team-building, life skills and character development that every coach and booster insists is the prime benefit of athletic participation? Let’s drop the pretense that all FBS programs are like. We’ve got a handful that can really compete for a championship every year as it is. Perhaps a pay-based system will just prompt more schools to drop the pretense. That might well be a good things for the schools that do.

Change is uncertain. Giving players a piece of jersey sales (and the O’Bannon lawsuit may decide that within the next few years) will have some unintended consequences. All change does. But it will also do something that is indisputably true – it will be more fair. Cowherd was engaged in a lot of sophistry this morning about the meaning of “exploitation” (because that’s the word Jay Bilas uses in condemning the NCAA). Yes, Colin, we can always find examples of people who are worse off than the folks we’re talking about. I just read an unbelievable book – Escape from Camp 14, about a guy who escaped from a slave labor camp in North Korea. Compared to him, pretty much no one else in the world should be able to complain about their lives. But that’s just a BS move.

The unfairness inherent in college athletics is obvious. Institutions are making billions of dollars. Coaches are making millions. A group of teenagers and guys in their early twenties are substantially responsible for that flow of dollars. The NCAAs arguments for denying those young men even a piece of the pie are laughable. They claim college athletics is an “amateur” enterprise. Except that they’ve defined “amateur” only to mean not paying players. The enterprise itself, it turns out, is allowed to make money. They claim the players need to be “protected” from professionalization. Except that in terms of the demands on the players’ time, the pressure to perform, the stakes involved and the toll on their bodies, they are professionals.

The NCAA and their mouthpieces – which Cowherd was this morning – insist that they are doing the players a huge favor by giving them a free education. Cowherd kept coming back to the fact that a good percentage of these players didn’t even qualify for the schools, but were getting free rides anyway. He failed to note the irony here. The reason the schools are accepting guys who don’t qualify is because they don’t really regard them as students and they don’t care whether they get a real education. Those players are recruited for one reason and one reason only – to participate in a profit-making enterprise that they themselves will not share in. You can talk all you want about how valuable a degree is, but lots of these non-qualifiers won’t get one. And that’s the nature of the beast. They weren’t recruited to get a degree. They were recruited to help the school win football or basketball games.

Do some players take advantage of the scholarship, get an education and thrive after college outside of sports? Absolutely. But there’s a pretty good chance that those weren’t the guys whose jerseys the school were going to be making money off of anyway. The NCAA has concocted an elaborate series of feel good stories and phony statistical measures to perpetuate the pretense that it is running a serious academic enterprise. It isn’t. It’s colluding, with the big-time athletic programs in a profit-making one.



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