The Business of College Sports

December, 3, 2007

A few weeks ago, one of everybody's favorite sportswriters, Michael Lewis, wrote a column for The New York Times about the absurdity of not paying college football players. Just about every point he makes could apply to basketball, too.

NCAA sports have revenues is measured in billions, with a "b," yet the people who create all the value -- the players -- are forbidden from seeing any of the proceeds. Why? Lewis writes:

The lie at the bottom of the fantasy goes something like this: serious college football players go to college for some reason other than to play football. These marvelous athletes who take the field on Saturdays and generate millions for their colleges are students first, and football players second. They are like Franciscan monks set down in the gold mine. Yes, they play football, but they have no interest in the money. What they're really living for is that degree in criminology.

Of course, no honest person who has glimpsed the inside of a big-time college football program could actually believe this. Even from the outside the college end of things seems suspiciously secondary. If serious college football players are students first, why -- even after a huge N.C.A.A. push to raise their graduation rates -- do they so alarmingly fail to graduate? Why must the N.C.A.A. create incentives for football coaches to encourage their players even to attend classes? Why do we never hear of a great high school football player choosing a college for the quality of its professors? Why, when college football coaches sell their programs to high school studs, do they stress the smoothness of the path they offer to the N.F.L.?

It's not that football players are too stupid to learn. It's that they're too busy. Unlike the other student on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing. Neglect the task at hand, and they may never get a chance to play football for money.

Lewis muses about paying those players. According to one expert he talks to, Vince Young was probably worth about $5 million a year to the University of Texas.

As much as I sympathize with the notion that Young should have been paid, I don't think there's much chance it will happen.

Why? Because as Lewis points out, when you put together all the aspects of a top college athlete's help (housing, tutors, boosters, travel, promotional appearances, and, commonly, the lack of academics) it's already debatable whethee many top athletes are students at all.

If they start getting paid, then it would become blatantly obvious that what's going on is purely a high-level entertainment business, oddly parked on a college campus. And that would crack the door to all kinds of reforms, many of which might be uncomfortable for the powers that be.

If you start paying athletes, it's not long before social pressures mount to change the whole system in some radical and possibly unforeseen way.

People will start wondering: If the athletes aren't students, why would this have anything to do with a university at all? It would make just as much sense to move all the entertainers on the Vegas strip to UNLV. Or take the big shows of Broadway and have the paying customers come see them on the campus of Columbia or NYU. Maybe a major Hollywood Studio should move all of its operations to USC.

Once you start paying players, it's just too freaking obvious that this has nothing to do with school.

That's why, in the long run, I think the solution might be to just let it be a business, by seperating it from the school. Professional training for professional athletes should happen at a place designed for athletes. Don't play at Duke University, play at Duke Basketball Academy. It can still lease space on the campus for all I care, but the business would need to be totally seperate.

The players at the hypothetical Duke Basketball Academy don't need to pretend to love anthropology, but can instead work on post footwork, scoring with the off-hand, and choosing an agent. (They will spend their formative basketball days much like European teenagers -- who are both paid and groomed by clubs from a young age. And remember, those are the players who are beating Team USA in international competition.)

At the same time, players at Duke Basketball Academy can be on national TV all the time and be sponsored by people like Nike, without encountering the ethical dark cloud associated with having to pretend it's all academic.

I'm a straight dreamer, here, though, really. No way anyone is giving up all that potential revenue without a fight.

So if paying the players isn't likely, is there anything that can be done in the short-term to make the system maybe just a little better?

I like the idea from TrueHoop reader Jon, who made me aware of the Lewis column above:

The responsibility for student athletes in big market programs should not come from NCAA mandates of revenue sharing; it needs to come from universities offering socially responsible education plans to the athletes who bring so much money and notoriety to their schools. The NCAA should demand that every university with a 'big time' sports program, one bringing in a certain amount of money, offer free years of education to student-athletes beyond those when they are playing sports.
Each player of a "big time" D-1A sports program, working a full time job that hurts his or her chances to actually receive an education, should be guaranteed three years at the same university, redeemable anytime, to attend as a regular student. This will mean that poor student-athletes will have the opportunity to return to school and actually pursue education (which was supposed to be the point of the scholarship in the first place, but was lost admist the big business of college sports).
Student-athletes at big programs are seduced by impossible professional dreams, pushed into joke majors, and segregated from the regular academic community; they need to have the opportunity to work towards real degrees in the academic institutions which they served as athletes. Big schools do not need to pay students just because they are part of a money making arm of the university, but they do need to take a real social and educational responsibility for their athletes instead of pretending the status quo is not plain exploitation.

The best part of this plan: if universities know those players are going to be hanging around campus for a long time, the admissions office might be a little extra thoughtful about which ones they invite to play. And you know what else? If an education at some point down the road is a big part of the payment, you might increase the number of athletes who consider the strength of a school's academic offerings.

It's not the perfect long-term solution to me, but it would be a decent band-aid on the existing situation.



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