On Tuesday, in a much-praised column, legendary sports writer Charles P. Pierce wrote on Grantland that the end of the NCAA was coming. He listed the usual reasons, the ones you've seen in this space more than few times -- the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit, the serious image issues, the rampant cheating, the gross conference realignment, the financial pressure created by ever-larger TV rights deals, and so on. And then, Pierce wrote, came the latest watershed moment in the history of the NCAA: Cost of attendance scholarships.
On October 27, undoubtedly in response to all of this, and in an obvious attempt to keep order within the help, the NCAA voted to allow its member conferences to decide whether to pay their athletes an annual stipend of $2,000 to cover the "incidental costs" of a college education. NCAA president Mark Emmert was firm in his denial that this constituted "pay for play."
Of course, it is.
And that's the ballgame right there. As soon as you pay someone $2,000, you cannot make the argument that it is unethical to pay that person $5,000, or $10,000, or a million bucks a year, for all that. Amateurism is one of those rigid things that cannot bend, only shatter.
Oh, you better believe Emmert plans on making that argument. In fact, he's already begun. In an appearance before the Houston Economic Club Thursday, Emmert reiterated his stance that increasing the cost of a scholarship does not constitute "pay for play." Guess what? He's right:
"We're still supporting them as students, not as somebody we're paying to play a game," said Emmert, a former president at the University of Washington. "When you move from that model to a model where the students who play the games are paid, well now you don't have student athletics anymore. We already have that. That's the NFL and the NBA and Major League Baseball.
"Everyone in intercollegiate athletics among the leadership is completely adamant about that issue," he said. "I know there's a lot of debate out there for pay for play, but that's not even open for discussion. It's so antithetical to what college athletics is."
This sort of discussion seems to hinge on a misunderstanding of what cost of attendance really is. Cost of attendance is baked into a scholarship; if you, the regular old student, need to take out loans to pay for college, you can take a $2,000 or $3,000 loan for a semester that can go straight into your banking account. It can help with books, transportation, pizza, beer, whatever. But it's a loan. You have to pay it back. Every school lists these basic costs on their financial breakdowns; everyone knows what they are and whether they should apply for help in paying them. Building that extra money into a scholarship is a far cry from placing economic value on a player and paying him in proportion to that value. It is not, in any real sense, pay for play.
Whether it should be is a different matter entirely. On that front, I tend to agree more with Pierce: Of course student-athletes should be paid. But student-athletes do already have it pretty good, what with that whole free $200,000 education thing, and I say that as someone with student loans that ain't going anywhere. (Woo, 99 percent! Or something!) And pay for play, as a hypothetical model restricted to college athletics budgets, isn't financially feasible in first place. It's not as easy as "players should be paid, so let's pay them." Far from it.
This week, Sports Illustrated's excellent George Dohrmann delved into the financials and tried to figure out what, exactly, athletics programs could do to make pay for play work. (We did something similar with a variety of schools during our pay for play project this offseason.) Dohrmann first confirms that most athletics programs would have to make major cuts across the board to pay athletes in revenue sports something close to their market value; those athletes, especially the football players, essentially pay for the rest of the athletics program and all of its non-revenue Olympic sports. Dohrmann surmises that fewer, smaller Division I athletics programs could afford to pay athletes up to $12,000 a year, but that's not exactly a professional-level salary.
As John Infante at Bylaw Blog writes in response, that model decreases the spread of resources to as many athletes as possible, a debate Infante believes is central to the future of college athletics. And what happens to the Olympic sports? Dorhmann believes they can become club teams in which athletes receive many of the same benefits, if not all tangible, as those scholarship athletes currently on non-revenue squads. Infante disagrees:
So aside from the tangible losses, like the national competition, university funding, academic support, and financial aid, dropping teams to club status means asking them to embrace different values and set different goals. It is so different that it should not be considered an alternative to varsity Division I athletics. Those teams are lost. That loss can be mitigated or it can be accepted, but it cannot be explained away with club sports.
What is the point of all this? The point is that pay for play doesn't exist yet, and unless some brilliant economist can come along and change the basic economics of supply and demand, the only way to achieve it within a collegiate structure will be to dismantle and disband hundreds of non-revenue scholarship teams. And for what? Maybe, say, $12,000 a year? Maybe a little more? That's a lot of athletes that won't get their college education paid for, and remember -- most of those athletes do go pro in, wait for it, something other than sports.
That's what Mark Emmert is defending. He might be on the wrong side of history, but you can't blame him for trying.