March Madness

04.01.14

It’s Time to Rip the Money Out of the NCAA

The indentured servitude of college sports must end. If the schools don’t want to pay their athletes, take the profits away from the schools.

We’re days away from the Final Four, the conclusion and the giddy, madness-inducing ride that is the NCAA Division I men’s championship. Even if you’re not a college basketball fan, it’s hard to deny how much fun it all is.

Sixty-three televised games jam-packed into a scant two weeks. Your cubicle mates pouring over their brackets with all of the serious intent and fevered diligence of Talmudic scholars. Highly touted soon-to-be-professionals and stacked squads from perennial powers going toe-to-toe with upset-minded scrappy seniors from unheralded mid-major or off-brand schools. Face-painted, ecstatic crowds crammed in arenas across the country. Bill Raftery deliriously shouting “Onions!” with every clutch, last-second bucket that rattles home.

Of course, to participate in the worry-free bliss of this spectacle, you do have to stick a hatpin through the part of your cerebral cortex that is aware that these games will net upwards of 800 million dollars while the athletes themselves make bupkis.

But support for the idea of paying players has slowly and steadily been growing. The first hurdle may have been cleared this past Wednesday, when the National Labor Relations Board ruled that Northwestern University’s football players have the right to form a union and collectively bargain with the school under federal law.

Their decision was based on the fact that they punch the clock for as much as fifty hours a week, receive payment in the form of scholarships, and are subject to serious rules and restrictions over the totality of their daily lives.

Naturally the NCAA begged to differ, issuing a statement that it was “disappointed” with the board’s ruling, and denying the basic premise of the suit:

“We strongly disagree with the notion that student-athletes are employees,” he said. “We frequently hear from student-athletes, across all sports, that they participate to enhance their overall college experience and for the love of their sport, not to be paid.”

While improvements need to be made, we do not need to completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions of students over the past decade alone attend college.

“We want student-athletes—99 percent of whom will never make it to the professional leagues—focused on what matters most—finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life.”

By including every varsity sport in his back-of-the-napkin math, he isn’t wrong. For the bulk of students, such as those playing on say, the squash team, this is a relatively small part of the totality of the college experience and a possible avenue for individuals who would not otherwise be able to afford it to attend a four-year university.

But even if most varsity athletes, both men and women, are not prepping for the pros, the NCAA’s argument is disingenuous at best. They’re positing the ‘system’ as an amateur organization and denying or ignoring the patently obvious fact that the NCAA uses amateurism as a shield to simultaneously maintain their non-profit status and to protect and promote a massive, multi-billion dollar industry.

Amateurism makes that sweet, sweet cash grab possible. It’s a heck of a lot easier to make money hand over first when a business does not have to compensate its employees, (save for the aforementioned scholarships) and can pocket all of the profits from sales of merchandise.

Speaking of which, the union’s current list of demands is hardly the stuff of hardline radicals. They’re seeking guaranteed multi-year scholarships (currently, a player may lose his scholarship for any reason at any time), a bump in financial assistance for those that are injured while playing for the team, especially with regards to concussions, a dedicated fund to help players earn their degrees, and the ability to share in the royalties

To date, the public at large does not support the efforts to unionize. In a recent (non-scientific) MSNBC poll respondents sided with management, 55%-45%.

The arguments offered outside of those put forth by the NCAA in favor of the current system are twofold. First is the assertion that an athletic scholarship is a reasonable payment for the ‘work’ that’s performed. The union doesn’t deny this at all, countering that said scholarships (potentially upwards of $250,000 at Northwestern) are not close to being an adequate and reasonable compensation.

If your instinct is to agree that a scholarship should suffice, perhaps it’s worth taking a gander at a report (PDF) by the National College Players Association and Drexel University which calculated that in the current system:

It would be nice to think that players played and schools doled out uniforms based solely on their love of the game.

· The average full athletic scholarship at an FBS school left “full” players with a scholarship shortfall (out-of-pocket expenses) of $3285 during the 2011-12 school year.

· FBS football and men’s basketball players would receive full athletic scholarships plus an additional $6 billion between 2011-15 if not for the NCAA’s prohibition of a fair market.

· The lost value over a four-year career for the average FBS football and men’s basketball player is $456,612 and $1,063,307, respectively.

· The lost value over a four-year career for the average football and men’s basketball player in the six BCS conferences is $715,000 and $1.5 million, respectively.

· University of Texas football players will be denied approximately $2.2 million, incur scholarship shortfalls of over $14,000, and live below the federal poverty line by $784 per year between 2011-15.

· University of Louisville men’s basketball players will be denied approximately $6.5 million, incur scholarship shortfalls of over $17,000, and live below the federal poverty line by $3730 per year between 2011-15.

The second argument is that a system of payment would be far too complicated to establish. That’s certainly true. There are a number of issues to be untangled here, from where the money to pay players would come from, to what varsity sports might fall by the wayside if the bulk of a school’s budget had to be directed towards inking Future Superstar X, to how Title IX might or might not be applied, or tax laws, or labor laws, or how to construct a union when a quarter or more of the potential members leave every year.

It’d be a big freaking mess, no doubt about it, and there would certainly be deleterious effects while all the kinks are ironed out. Of course, just because something is difficult doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be done or isn’t both morally and legally the right thing to do. Flashing a smug grin while throwing up your collective shoulders in blithe befuddlement should convince absolutely no one.

There’s also a massive hypocrisy in enjoying the benefits of a free market system when it comes to TV deals and merch, and at the same time demanding protection from any deleterious effects because that selfsame free market might kill off less popular, unprofitable, untelevised sports.

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So here’s a third way. If actual amateurism is the goal and the NCAA is telling the truth when it states that “We want student-athletes… focused on what matters most—finding success in the classroom, on the field and in life,” let’s call their bluff and get rid of the money.

The NCAA should support the removal of age restrictions for entry into the NFL and the NBA draft. Right now, the NFL prohibits entry in the draft until a player has completed three years of school. The NBA requires one year (or a year after their high school class graduates).

If the NCAA supported initiatives allowing upper-echelon players to turn pro immediately, it would allow the students that remain—those that lack the talent to be an immediate impact professional—to gain the benefits of staying for 3 or 4 years and possibly become the true ‘student-athlete’ that the NCAA claims it exists to benefit. 

Of course, this would result in a massive loss of revenue for the NCAA; the aforementioned billion-dollar TV deals are in place because the casual fan is tuning in to see the next Johnny Manziel. Without the big names (and better players), gyms would still be packed, but head coaches would no longer be the highest-paid public employees in the state.

They aren’t going to willingly stick a wrench into the gears of a very profitable machine, even if it would align more closely with their stated principles.

The pros won’t be supporting this plan either, because the NCAA is a great, cost-free minor league, and more importantly, an outstanding marketing campaign for their next generation of stars.

As things currently stand, Andrew Wiggins spends a year at the University of Kansas, millions tune in to watch him and when he is plucked in the draft, he’s already a serious commodity.

In fact, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver recently stated that there was one objective he could enact by fiat; it would be increasing the minimum age for entry into league from 19 to 20.

The player’s union largely is in agreement, because its members aren’t too keen on allowing an influx youngsters to swipe their jobs. In addition, neither the NBA nor the NFL want to invest the time and money (and dramatically decreased notoriety) of establishing a functional minor league, even if it might—as is the case with Major League Baseball—result in better, more complete players.

So no, this isn’t a proposal that’s likely to happen any time in the near future (or ever, really). My ‘solution’ may be a much better logical and moral ground for all the parties involved to stand upon, but it’s not plausible. Hopefully, it highlights the ways in which NCAA’s refusal to admit in any way, shape or form that the players have legitimate grievances leaves them looking like a feudal cartel that will sling whatever pabulum is necessary and tug on every available nostalgic heartstring to achieve their true goal; to maintain as tight a grip as possible on a workforce that in many ways fits the definition of indentured servitude.

Still, this nascent Union isn’t going to be setting up shop tomorrow. The ivory tower-seated university administrations will send a phalanx of lawyers to appeal till this thing reaches the pro-business Roberts Supreme Court.

In the interim, the steel-jawed rage fountains that are the college coaching ranks will dig in and burble dismissive grunts like those recently uttered by Michigan State’s head coach, Tom Izzo, who said, “I think sometimes we take rights to a whole new level… I think there’s a process in rights. And you earn that.”

Yeah, rights (by definition) aren’t earned. They’re either something you have or you don’t. And yes, quotes like those strike a tone that’s oddly similar to your sour, dyspeptic uncle: “These selfish kids wouldn’t be sniffing a degree if it weren’t for sports. So they should be thankful, nay grateful for this opportunity and stop being such whiny, entitled punks.”

The counter is that Izzo wouldn’t come close to seeing a six-figure check without those guttersnipes, so which side you see as unseemly depends on how completely you’ve ingested three plus decades of consistent union bashing and/or Frank Luntz-ian pro-business talking points.

These are the same tactics that management has used since time immemorial. Workers are lucky to have a job, and if they make a fuss or demand even incremental change, they’ll only end up wrecking the entire business.

It would be nice to think that players played and schools doled out uniforms based solely on their love of the game; that all of this was pure and unsullied by such tawdry concerns as money. That myth is part of what makes March Madness so much darn fun.

Sadly, that’s a lie, or at least it’s not close to being the whole truth. If the arc of history does in fact bend towards justice, eventually amateurism will leave college sports once and for all. It’ll take a while, but it will change. And a system that is based on the denial of rights and the denial of reality cannot and will not stand the test of time.