The impetus for this Topical Rant came from an e-mail exchange with Bob Molinaro of the Hampton Roads Virginian-Pilot. It began with him telling me that Jay Bilas had been on Mike and Mike in the Morning and advocated that college athletes should be permitted to earn money by acting as representatives for businesses or other private concerns. I had not heard that program on that morning but a discussion began between Bob Molinaro and me.
[Aside: Not to worry. There are no plans afoot to create Molinaro and Me in the Morning. I shall not assault your earpans in that way any time in the future.]
Rather than limiting the discussion to Jay Bilas’ specific suggestion – which I am more in favor of than opposed to – I would prefer to chat about this issue in a broader context. At the moment, there are two ends of the spectrum on the issue of payments to college athletes and the folks in each of those encampments are so steeped in the ideology that holds their camp together that they do not listen to the folks from the other side. Moreover they all speak in terms that the folks in the other camp have no way to comprehend.
At one end of the spectrum, you have the NCAA – and every reader here knows what I think of the NCAA. At the other end of the spectrum is an amalgam of folks who believe that college football and college basketball are businesses run in the name of colleges and universities on the backs of laborers who are not paid for their work.
It would not be difficult to take sides in this dispute – if that were all that there was to the issue. The problem is that the “Agents of Change” – simply to put a label on the folks on the other end of the spectrum from the NCAA – have oversimplified the problem. Therefore, let me try to start at the beginning…
The NCAA with its humongous rulebook seeks to maintain a status quo from a time when college sports were actually extracurricular activities. Today, the phrase “extracurricular activities” usually refers to things like bar fights or drunken orgies off campus; it might surprise some younger readers here to know that was not the original meaning of the phrase. There was a time when college football teams played each other and everyone on the team was an actual college student who was taking courses toward a degree at the school they represented. Most of them graduated and went on to have lives that were normal for college graduates and not normal for football players as we see them in the 21st century. This ambiance probably exists to a large extent in the Ivy League and at the Service Academies in 2013; it does not exist at most of the institutions playing Division 1-A college football. [Nor does it exist to a large extent in the 350+ schools that play Division 1 men’s college basketball.]
Therefore, from the outset, the NCAA attempt to maintain and protect this antiquated model for major collegiate sports is doomed; they cannot maintain something that died about 40-50 years ago. In the movie, Weekend at Bernies, they only had to prop up the corpse for a couple of days and you saw how difficult that was. So, now you ask, why not throw-in completely with the “Agents of Change” and get these athletes recompense for their services?
As I said, the “Agents of Change” have oversimplified the matter. A large part of the difficulty here is that college football is not a college activity any more. College football is professional football in disguise – and the disguise is that the teams represent major universities. These universities are institutions which hold themselves out to be noble entities devoted to:
1. Scholarly pursuits
2. Academic freedom
3. Preservation of knowledge for future generations
4. Fundamental research
5. Educating the next generation of scholars who can do all of the above.
The idea that the football team at Gigantic State University has even a minimal overlap with any of those university goals is laughable. The universities who operate major college football and men’s basketball teams are running a business enterprise and using the university name as a tax shield and as a shield from anti-trust regulations. That is a fundamental element at the core of this issue; paying the players will not change that.
Supporting my assertion that colleges are running this “business enterprise on the side” is the simple fact that they are admitting football and basketball players to their campuses whose applications for admission would be laughed out of the room when the admissions committee met to make final decisions. Many of the players’ high school diplomas are of questionable value; if lots of players had to sit and take the GED exam to obtain a diploma equivalent to the high school diploma they have in hand and if they were monitored during the taking of the exam, a large fraction would not come close to passing. I cannot prove that with data because none of the players has ever been forced to do that. Nevertheless, you and I both know that to be the case.
Given that situation, the charade that these “student-athletes” are present on campus to be part of the university system and to take courses and to “make meaningful progress toward a degree” in a major that is worthy of a Bachelor’s Degree from a university that espouses the principles above is grotesque. Now, if the NCAA at its end of the spectrum can stop repeating its talking points for a moment and find a way to separate itself from the long-dead concept of the “student-athlete” in the major revenue sports, there might be the beginnings of a resolution here.
If universities were to take a step backward in time and returned college football to where it was say 50 years ago, those universities would blunt one of the major arguments put forth by the “Agents of Change”. If football and men’s’ basketball were played by actual student-athletes, the scholarships they receive would indeed be payment for their labors. Think about it…
According to the College Board Advocacy and Policy Center, here are some findings from their study of undergraduate aid and student loans in 2012:
“From 2001 02 to 2011 12, average total borrowing per FTE student for undergraduate and graduate students combined increased by 55% in inflation-adjusted dollars.” [Translation: Students are borrowing a lot more money now than they did ten years ago to pay for college.]
“In 2010 11, about 57% of public four year college students graduated with debt. They had borrowed an average of $23,800 (in 2011 dollars). About two thirds of those earning bachelor’s degrees from private nonprofit institutions had debt averaging $29,900.” [Translation: More graduates than not owe money they borrowed to go to college.]
“By September 30, 2011, 9.1% of borrowers who entered repayment in 2009-10 defaulted on their federal student loans. This was the highest cohort default rate since 1996, but the default rates were 21% and 22% in 1989 and 1990, respectively.” [Translation: Paying off student loans is not always easy.]
According to the Federal Reserve Bank in NY, the total amount of student debt in the US comes to somewhere between $900B and $1T dollars. Other data from the College Board Advocacy and Study Center indicate that as of 2009, 5% of students who had borrowed money to go to college and received a Bachelor’s Degree owed more than $50K and that 54% of all college grads in that year had borrowed some money to complete their education.
The point of all this data is that a Bachelor’s Degree is something of value and that people pay plenty of money to get one. Moreover, some people even go into debt in order to acquire one. However, a college football player or a men’s basketball player can have one for free – if they want one and if they are prepared for the academic rigors of college.
If this were the environment of collegiate athletics, then the “student-athletes” would indeed be paid for their services in terms of their waiver of tuition and living expenses on campus. The NCAA argument would hold the day. Not having to incur the expenses of college and receiving an athletic scholarship would be the equivalent of being paid to go to college – and to play football or men’s basketball.
Clearly, the problem here is that the people who play men’s basketball or college football are not “student-athletes”. In basketball, we already have labels for a specific category of players; they are the “One-and-Dones”. That analogous label for football would be “Three-and-Outs”. Looking realistically at what the collegiate revenue sports are, they are minor league professional sports with university sponsorship. The NCAA cannot or will not accept that reality; the “Agents of Change” sort of accept it to the point where they want the laborers paid cash money in addition to their scholarships.
[Aside: The “Agents of Change” will not accept the athletic scholarship as sufficient payment for players. However, none of their proposals to pay the players is associated with a suggestion that the universities might stop giving out such athletic scholarships since they are of “trivial value”. You cannot have it both ways. If the scholarship is not valuable, suggest that schools stop giving them out. Then players can represent businesses, pay tuition room and board and go out and play football. Why not…?]
I said above that the NCAA and its humongous rulebook are dedicated to maintaining a status quo that no longer exists. In fact, it serves one other purpose:
That huge tome of generally ridiculous rules is there to prevent – as best it can – one institution from gaining a competitive on field advantage over other institutions.
The NCAA rulebook is there to try to maintain the proverbial “level playing field” such that three or four schools do not accumulate all the good football/basketball players and render the idea of “spirited competition” nonsensical. The NCAA seeks “parity” just as does the NFL; this should not be surprising since college and NFL football are both forms of professional football. The ideas proposed by the “Agents of Change” do not take into account that paying players or allowing players to represent private companies could move very quickly to unbalanced levels of competition. There are scholarship limits for schools today to prevent stockpiling good players; if payments or endorsement deals become the norm, then the bigger/richer schools will have a built-in advantage that cannot be overcome.
Oh, and by the way, the “Agents of Change” have yet to propose any system that could be readily monitored – by any organization other than possibly by the Internal Revenue Service – to assure that whatever payment methods are appropriate are the only ones flowing to the “mercenaries” – the appropriate label for the players under such a system. Since the “Agents of Change” have not even seemed to consider the possibility that cheating on their new system might occur, they demonstrate to me a lack of insight into the reality of college athletics.
One other minor problem with the suggestions from the “Agents of Change”:
Should all college athletes be paid or just the ones in revenue sports?
Alternatively, maybe only those involved in revenue sports that break-even /show a profit?
If you adopt the “everyone is entitled to payment” mode and you do not acknowledge that the athletic scholarship is a form of payment, then football players and men’s basketball players are the working class and the rest of the athletes become part of a more leisure class. If you adopt the “everyone is entitled to payment” mode, are you not patronizing all the women athletes who will get their money from the efforts of their male counterparts? How 1950s is that…
My approach to making a change in collegiate athletics is a broader one. Sadly, it would require the positive action of one of the few organizations on the planet I hold in lower regard than the NCAA. To effect my ideas, I need positive action by the Congress of the United States. I shall not be holding my breath but let me outline what the Congress might do to make things better:
1. Eliminate the fiction that the NCAA and the various collegiate conferences are charitable organizations known as 501 (c) (3) entities. The March of Dimes is a charitable organization; the Atlantic Coast Conference is not.
[Aside: This benefits lots of taxpayers because if this happened, Freddy Fatcat could not deduct as a “charitable contribution” the $10M he gives to Gigantic State University so they can put a Jumbotron in their stadium. Every little bit helps when trying to balance a budget…]
2. Universities that derive revenue from athletic teams must be required to treat that revenue as business income, report it – along with expenses – to the IRS and maintain the books of those business enterprises to a standard that would be acceptable to IRS auditors.
2a. Define anyone who is associated with that business enterprise as an employee of the enterprise who is entitled to a benefits package commensurate with the package afforded to other university employees.
3. Any entity that seeks to regulate college athletics (the NCAA) or provides an organizational structure for intercollegiate competitions (all Conferences) shall also be classified as business enterprises. As such, these entities must comply with all relevant tax laws anti-trust laws and with all laws involving the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees vis á vis one another.
Note that my suggestion allows for college athletes to be paid – and taxed – for their services; it also gives athletes the ability to have a say in the sport that they play through the provisions that regulate the interactions of employers and employees. Maybe that is the best and fastest way for college football to institute concussion testing. Maybe that is the remedy for having athletic scholarships be renewable instruments year-to-year. Maybe my form of change allows for the resolution of lots of problems associated with collegiate athletics.
I will concede this point to the “Agents of Change”:
They have a prayer of getting their limited ideas moved from the realm of the fanciful to the world of reality.
My formula for change requires a majority of the Congress of the United States to forget for a moment that mid-term elections will happen in 14 months and that the next Presidential election is in sight. Then, they also need to work as a body to do something constructive. Here is what I expect to see before the Congress adopts that posture:
Rev. Pat Robertson and Miley Cyrus twerking together as the halftime show for the Super Bowl.
[Aside: I dare you to get that image out of your head in the next half hour…]
If this were actually a simple problem to resolve, someone would have tripped over the solution by now. The fact that it continues to exist demonstrates that it is complex and difficult. I like the fact that Jay Bilas and others are pushing this issue into the public consciousness to create debate and move potentially forward toward a resolution. I only wish they would look at the problem in a much broader context than simply finding a way to funnel a bit of spending money to college athletes.
Bob Molinaro’s e-mail started all of this. I presume that he would disavow any connection with what came of his simple note to me.
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………