I fear that this may not end well. I suspect that some will accuse me of going over to the dark side and I know that I am going to take a position that is contrary to most of the sports columnists around the country who I like very much and who I follow. So, I am prepared to be in the position captured by the final line in Frank Sinatra’s great song, My Way:
“Let the record shows, I took all the blows and did it my way.”
With the conclusion of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament and with various athletes filing suit against the NCAA over a variety of economic situations, there has arisen a hue and cry for the NCAA to admit once and for all that its “amateur model” involving the noble and selfless “student-athlete participant” is nonsense. There is merit in that “demand”, but I am not so sure that payments for college athletes is a good idea or a practical one.
At the core of any call – strident or nuanced – to “pay the players” is a sense of equity and fairness. Some college athletes are part of an enterprise that brings in almost a billion dollars to the NCAA (March Madness) and when it is over and the lights go out, those athletes do not get even a minuscule piece of the action. What is usually left unstated is that the writer or commentator thinks that lack of fairness is so outrageous that it must be fixed despite any other ancillary problems it may cause. I have two reactions to these arguments:
- I agree that it is unfair to a point but not so great that it needs a radical fix.
- I think there are ancillary problems out there waiting to happen.
Let me start with the “fairness” argument. USA Today says that Mark Emmert makes $2.7M per year; reports appear frequently about the salaries of coaches exceeding $5M per year; conference commissioners make$3-5M per year. The money that the NCAA uses to pay Mark Emmert – – and the other moguls in NCAA HQs – – and the money that the schools and conferences use to pay those coaches and commissioners comes from the toils of two classes of college athletes:
- College football players
- Male college basketball players.
[Aside: Yes, I know that a handful of women’s college basketball programs operate in the black but those are few and far between. As a sport on the national level women’s college basketball is not a money-maker.]
Now, as soon as I recognize the fact that two sets of college athletes produce all the revenue that gets distributed, I think about “fairness” in an entirely different dimension.
- Why should those college athletes have no say in the way the revenue is split up?
- Why is it axiomatic that “their revenue” must go to support a fencing team or a synchronized swimming team neither one of which has a prayer of breaking even?
- Why are football players and male basketball players “exploited” in the current system but not in a world where they generate the revenue and then some All-Knowing Guru of Fairness distributes that revenue to other sports?
The difference in the third case above is who does the “exploiting”. If it is the NCAA and the coaches and the conference commissioners, that is proclaimed to be evil. If it is the other college athletes and their coaches and conference organizers, that is brushed aside as “OK”.
Another problem I have with the “lack of fairness argument” is that some college athletes “exploit themselves”. As the NCAA reminds us every March, only 2% of college athletes will ever play professional sports. If the system were really rigged to the utter disadvantage of college athletes, most of that other 98% would wind up in menial jobs or in a state of homelessness. The reason would be that the athlete did not take advantage of the thing that colleges give those athletes in exchange for their play:
I am going to be using Georgetown University here in DC area as an example later so let me say here that a year of tuition, room, board, books and fees at Georgetown comes to $73K in round numbers. So, a four-year scholarship there is “worth” almost $300K. Many athletes on an athletic scholarship at Georgetown would not have been able to foot that bill, so it follows logically that those athletes are getting an opportunity to receive an education worth $300K; there may not be a direct “cash exchange” happening here, but the athlete is trading his prowess on a team for $300K-worth of education. And the fact also is that some college athletes fail to take advantage of that opportunity and that failure is NOT the fault of the NCAA or the college.
I can hear the cries of “Wait a minute there” racing through the minds of readers at this point. Some of those athletes come from disadvantaged neighborhoods and school systems and are not ready to avail themselves of a college education. That is absolutely correct; and it has nothing to do with the “fairness” of the current system. The situation caused by that unreadiness for college at age 18 is societal and not of the NCAA’s doing. Moreover, the unreadiness of some athletes for a college education puts that athlete in a position where he either trades his services for something of minimal value to him or tries to go it alone in another field of endeavor.
Stop right here for another inconvenient truth (Hat tip to former VP, Al Gore):
- The athletes in question here are not children; they are adults; they can vote; they can enlist in the military; they can purchase firearms.
- Because they are adults, they are the ones making the choices here and choices made by adults have consequences.
- In this case, the consequences often mean that a college athlete spends 4 years of his life – or maybe 5 – working in a revenue generating sport for a school where he does not get much benefit in return from the educational resources there.
I also believe that “paying the players” will have unintended consequences. Georgetown University here in DC fields teams in 24 sports – – 11 men’s sports and 13 women’s sports. If you do not live around here, you may not know that Georgetown has a football team in the Patriot League in Division I-AA. In the case of that football team there are no possible accounting shenanigans to be done to show that team is “at break-even”. There are no 8-figure TV deals; attendance at home games might exceed 1000 fans occasionally, and tickets for Georgetown football cost $10.
Since any move to “pay the players” is not likely to generate a 20-40% increase in revenues as a result of that act, schools will have to figure out how they will cover a new cost. In the case of Georgetown, men’s basketball would be safe; it brings in almost all the revenue for the athletic department. However, the school administrators might look at the Georgetown football team and ask – – why are we paying those guys?
Football programs at lots of small schools could easily be in jeopardy. There are about 130 colleges that play major college football in the US; there are 350 colleges that play NCAA men’s basketball in the country. For those 220 colleges or so where football is a large expense with no real prospect of ever leaving the realm of “large liability”, ditching football could be a real and logical choice.
I picked football as the example here because it is the other sport where the “fairness” argument is applied by proponents of “pay the players”. However, returning to Georgetown’s Athletic Department, consider the possible vulnerability of these activities in addition to football:
- Men’s and women’s golf, lacrosse, rowing, sailing, soccer, swimming and diving, tennis, cross country, track and field.
- Women’s basketball, field hockey, softball, squash, volleyball.
Now for some practicality… The current legal issue on the front burner is called “NIL” standing for Name, Image and Likeness. People say that athletes should be able to derive some cash directly to their personal exchequer when someone uses their name, image or likeness to promote an activity or a product. It is nigh onto impossible to take the position that a player’s NIL does not belong to him/her and if one wants to ramp up the rhetoric you can quickly get to the point where restricting a player’s ability to manage NIL is a “restraint of trade”. OK, so let me say that I have no problem whatsoever with giving athletes total control over their NIL and I want those athletes to keep every dime they can get for the use of their NIL.
At this point some readers are thinking that I am – maybe – not so unredeemable after all. Well, maybe not. You see, if college athletes’ NIL were turned into a free and open marketplace, the “fairness folks” would be unhappy very quickly.
- Trevor Lawrence could bank some serious coin for his NIL to promote products, events or causes.
- Joe Flabeetz – the third string offensive guard on an 0-12 college team somewhere – and/or his fiancée, Betty Bopf – a cross country runner at the same school might have to pay someone to use their NIL for any reason.
- I would want all of the “fairness folks” to sign a waiver of their right to be outraged at this inequity before opening NIL to a free marketplace because that inequity will happen immediately.
There are also rumblings that Congress might assert itself here and do some legislating. In the pantheon of problems to be solved in the US in 2021, college sports legislation is pretty far down on the priority list. Moreover, the Congress has a record of dealing with sports that is less than stellar. I will only point here to PASPA – passed in 1992 – to minimize gambling on sporting events collegiate and professional which was declared to be unconstitutional and removed from the books. Does anyone need a repeat performance from the Congress anything like that?
Everyone – me included – decries the NCAA’s ridiculous regulations on what athletes may receive as benefits from schools in the recruiting process and in the days on campus. Remember, the NCAA once revised the rule saying that recruits could be offered breakfasts including bagels WITH cream cheese because the rule before that denied the addition of cream cheese. We just shake our heads at the pettiness and the ineptitude of the folks writing rules like that. So, now think about what might emanate from the US Congress on the issue of “pay the players”. It would not surprise me to learn that any US Government set of regulations would equal or exceed the ones in place by the NCAA and the government regulations will need to be narrowly written because the “agency” in the government responsible for oversight there will need to report to Congress at least annually.
I said above that I did not think this situation was so dire that it needed a radical remedy immediately. However, if the Congress is bound and determined to punch this tar baby (Hat Tip to Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus here), let me outline a radical proposal:
- Define into law that any collegiate sporting event that charges for admission or receives a dollar of revenue from broadcast rights, naming rights or promotional benefits shall be divorced from the college in question and put directly in the Athletic Department associated with that college.
- Then, define into law that every Athletic Department associated with a college is a business and it is separate from the college. That business is taxable and will file business tax returns with the IRS like any other business. Those filings will need to be audited too.
- Make it such that colleges cannot spend money on sports; only their private enterprise Athletic Departments can do that. And then – – wait for it – – define any contribution to any Athletic Department for any purpose such that the donor cannot claim it as a charitable contribution on the donor’s tax return. Colleges can still get donations for building libraries or laboratories but not for building field houses. Donors to colleges would be able to take a charitable deduction; donors to Athletic Departments would not.
I really have not turned to the dark side, but I remain unconvinced that the calls for “pay the players” is much more than virtue signaling. Let me leave you today with two observations by folks much more insightful than I:
“The only difference between a cynic and a realist is whether or not you agree with him.” (Mark Twain)
“If my film makes one more person miserable, I have done my job.” (Woody Allen)
But don’t get me wrong, I love sports………