Unleash the boosters

For the next three years, Leonard Fournette will play in college for comparatively minimal compensation -- which he could earn millions for doing now in the NFL. Miller Safrit/ESPN

I have taken this stand for 30 years in newspapers, on radio and on "First Take." I've often been called un-American for proposing an extremely American solution to the un-American injustice taking place before our wide eyes every college football Saturday. So go ahead, close your eyes and condemn me if you must.

Here I go again: College football should make cheating legal. If the NFL can keep getting away with forcing players to wait three years out of high school before they're drafted -- three! -- the NCAA should be made to do away with its rules against paying players beyond room, board and tuition. I'm not talking about some token, $2,000-a-year "spending money" stipend for every player. I mean: If university boosters want to bid for the nation's best players, let them!

After all, this country was built on a good ol' free-market economy. Supply and demand. And are the best 18-year-old football players ever in demand. That's why TV networks pay billions -- around $16 billion total -- to televise college football. ESPN is paying about $470 million annually for the next 12 years -- about $5.64 billion total -- just to broadcast the new four-team playoff.

Yet the stars of the show are forced to risk their pro futures for three unpaid years playing a violent, high-stakes game before packed stadiums seating upward of 100,000 and TV audiences of millions? That's the biggest crime in sports.

Earlier this week, Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby suggested many of college football's recruiting crimes are going unpunished, calling it "an understatement to say cheating pays." My initial reaction: Good, maybe some of these kids are getting a little of what they deserve.

Bowlsby's point is that the NCAA's enforcement division is "broken" -- in large part because it doesn't have governmental subpoena power to force under-oath testimony from those not directly involved with schools (obviously boosters and agents). It's easier than ever, Bowlsby is saying, to get away with paying players.

What Bowlsby didn't say is that there are more rich boosters than ever who would gladly pay players to win bragging rights for them on autumn Saturdays.

So why not let them?

Even the power schools still cry poor, claiming that, despite the TV windfalls, they still don't have enough money to fund all their nonrevenue sports, men's and women's. So if enough of the top recruits ever unite and sue the NCAA, surely a judge (even on appeal) would rule the NCAA cannot restrict these players from making all they can on the open market.

I'm not talking about letting the NCAA control the process by setting salary limits. This is about whatever the market will bear. If schools can't or won't pay but boosters will, problem solved. Obviously, college stars deserve substantial compensation, right?

This is where I lose many people, who sputter something like, "It just ... just wouldn't be college football if we knew the players were getting paid."

That's exactly what the NCAA has been selling -- and hiding behind -- for years. The Amateur Ideal ... every alum's fantasy that every one of those fine young men down on that field chose to play for Dear Old U because they wanted to sit in the same classrooms and attend the same frat parties that generations of students have, then spill their blood to kick Rival State's tail.

That's a bunch of ivy-covered bunk, and you know it.

Though I graduated from Vanderbilt, I was born into a family of crazed University of Oklahoma football fans and became one. But not once did I ever believe any of the many high school stars from Texas chose to attend college in Norman for any reason other than football (and, over the years, maybe a Trans Am or a few under-the-table bucks). I accepted my Sooners were little more than Oklahoma City's pro football team.

Now, please face this reality: Boosters should be allowed to entice recruits with whatever they want to offer -- cars, signing bonuses, annual salaries, annuities. I'm not talking about the Northwestern players' attempt to unionize college football and protect every player's rights and secure standard pay. I'm talking strictly supply and demand.

Of course, the first fear would be that billionaire boosters such as Phil Knight at the University of Oregon or T. Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State would buy superteams. Highly doubtful.

No. 1, these men have learned that projecting high school football stars is far riskier than high school basketball stars. You see far more swings and misses on can't-miss football recruits than basketball blue chips. These billionaires didn't get rich by gambling foolishly. There would be a limit to the money they offered -- and many marginal recruits would wind up being offered no more than a scholarship.

No. 2, how many 18-year-olds around the country would take the money and run to three years in Eugene, Oregon, or Stillwater, Oklahoma, if boosters at a nearby school came up with, say, half of what those schools were offering? How many top recruits would then follow childhood dreams to play for their mom's or dad's school or their favorite team? How many would choose to play for less money at, say, Alabama because they believed Nick Saban would better prepare them to make NFL millions?

No, letting boosters bid for recruits would not dramatically change college football's balance of power. For that matter, consider the choice Saban made. ESPN's Paul Finebaum reports in his new book, "My Conference Is Better Than Your Conference: Why the SEC Rules College Football" that Texas boosters were prepared to offer Saban $12-15 million in a signing bonus and a package of $100 million. For reasons other than money, obviously, Saban stayed at Alabama, where he'll make "only" about $7 million this season.

Wait, Saban was offered $100 million, yet, by NCAA rules, Leonard Fournette could be offered nothing but a scholarship? Fournette is a 6-foot-1, 226-pound running back from New Orleans who signed with LSU about 80 miles up the road in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. From all I've heard from coaches about Fournette -- and I spoke with many this week at ESPN -- this kid could have easily been a top-10 pick in May's NFL draft. Here, America, is the next Adrian Peterson.

If he becomes a Heisman contender and leads LSU to a national championship next season, or the next, how much will he be worth to the school? As much as coach Les Miles, who makes $4.3 million this season? Easily. And if, heaven forbid, an injury jeopardizes his pro career ...

Once upon a time, a freshman running back named Maurice Clarett led Ohio State to a national championship, then was suspended for his sophomore season and went to court to win the right to enter the NFL draft a year early. It appeared college football's walls had come tumbling down when a federal judge ruled in Clarett's favor. But of course, the NFL flexed its legal influence and Clarett lost in the U.S. Court of Appeals -- a dark day for gifted high school football players to come.

Someday, some college star will win his financial freedom in court.

Let the very best be paid without limits. Let boosters foot the bill.

Trust me, college football's multibillion-dollar popularity would not be threatened. Come fall Saturdays, everyone in the stands and watching on TV would forget the stars on the field are being paid like the pro football players they really are.