Yesterday, a lawsuit was filed in US federal court in yet another attempt to tear down the amateur distinction of big time college athletes at big time college institutions in an ultimate attempt to get fair compensation for student athletes in the respective multi-billion dollar industries in which they toil. This new suit, against the NCAA and the five largest conferences, challenges the lawfulness of the “wage” assigned to football and basketball players to being capped at the value of an academic scholarship, presumably under existing anti-trust legislation. With recent suits also pursuing the NCAA on similar grounds, could it finally be 3rd and 25 for college football? Watch for the pooch kick here soon.
While no reasonable person can defend hundreds of millions in value added to major programs’ bottom lines by a countless parade of high-profile athletes with little more than tuition and board as the carrot, no sane college football fan can discount the negative effect of direct money payments to players on the integrity of the sport. While this type of compensation and resulting corruption have gone on ever since we’ve had the game of football, the modern age brings the spotlight full on the big money sport it truly is. With major programs generating billions in revenue, the lavish amounts of money heaped on from ticket sales, television, and merchandising is too much to ignore anymore.
It’s un-American to think that players’ images on TV and in video games can earn these types of dollars cumulatively but can provide no more than books, lodging, and two semesters a year for the individual himself. It’s also unreasonable to think that the schools themselves, who have been building their brands for in excess of one hundred years in most cases, have no intrinsic value other than a revolving cast of semi-employees who filter in and out of their ranks every year. Why must it always be 3rd and long?
How did football and basketball end up like this, with the colleges serving as de facto farm systems for the sports, unlike baseball, which does provide a real alternative for those who wish to become semi-pro and those who want to remain amateurs until they get their education? We’ve so bastardized the systems and they’ve grown unchecked for so long that it may well now be impossible to separate those two distinctions again.
One must know that direct payments in the open to amateur athletes will only drive the illicit payments further underground and to ridiculous amounts. The NCAA investigative arm would never be so busy as it would be once direct compensation was approved for athletes. The corrupting influence of money over and under the table would kill the sport entirely as the integrity of the sport, schools, and individual players will be under constant scrutiny. Larger schools could always pay more than the smaller ones–the same with conferences. Recruiting would literally morph into a draft.
No one wants to think about the alternative of the pros establishing legitimate farm systems for football and basketball. Even if the NFL and NBA could, the lure of college athletics would still be strong. What 18-year old kid would want to play in front of nobody for $50,000 a year if he could instead strut his stuff in front of a home crowd of 90,000 and a national TV audience? It would be a much harder decision than you think. You can’t break the stranglehold of decades of national prominence and tradition overnight–for any price. I’d like to think we’d still root for our schools even if we only fielded intramural level teams, but college fans are a lot more sophisticated than they were even two decades ago. Everything in the sport is evolving.
I think it’s inevitable. Athletes are soon going to get a better compensation package than they’ve been getting. So many lawsuits, so much money, and so many good arguments about the fairness of it all are swaying the sentiment. The only details are in what form the compensation will be. Here’s some of the things I think I know what it CANNOT be:
- An inducement for a player to be recruited by a particular school
- Anything based on wellness or non-injury
- Differences in conferences
- Media attraction, TV appearances, individual awards, or star power
I think a good starting point for compensation would be in a deferred fund for players of a division–FBS, FCS, etc– after their eligibility was exhausted. Call it the ultimate collective bargaining agreement. They all earn as a collective body and share in the rewards after their college careers have ended. Having the compensation deferred would help protect their amateur status, if not in word, then in perception. A share of all revenue they help earn would go into the pot, to be drawn on eventually for such issues as medical treatment, continuing education, and perhaps a pension.
No one should pretend to have all the answers on such a large, complicated, comprehensive issue as justly compensating college athletes a fair wage for the revenue they help generate, but we should try to get ahead of it very soon and do it voluntarily–instead of having it ordered as a judgement in a huge lawsuit.
How would you help solve it?