College sports: End “shamateurism” but don’t pay players

Jay Bilas, with whom I’m proud to share an alma mater, stirred things up recently when he exposed the NCAA for selling shirts with athletes’ names on them. Bilas is a thoughtful guy, not a rash flamethrower, so his interview with Richard Deitsch is worth a read. He distinguishes between bad policy and bad people.

Key quote:

This is about NCAA policy, and a small part of the larger, overall point that the NCAA’s policy on amateurism is unjustifiable in this multi-billion dollar commercial enterprise of college sports.

He’s right, but that shouldn’t lead us into “pay the players” territory. Here’s why:

1. College athletes already get something substantial out of their playing careers. Here’s another Dukie, Seth Davis:

Davis took some criticism on Twitter, but he also heard from someone who pointed out that college loans are crippling a lot of people these days. Athletes have a little less to worry about on that front.

2. Most college sports programs aren’t profitable.

Granted, colleges sell a lot of merchandise on the backs of their sports teams. Merchandise isn’t always easy in accounting terms. When I buy a Georgia sweatshirt, the football team plays a big role in my purchase, but so does the fact that my father was on the faculty there for 40 years. When I buy an MIT shirt for my kids, a smaller percentage of that purchase reflects my admiration that so many smart kids at the school participate in sports. (It was 20 percent until a few cuts were made a few years ago. Cal Tech, by the way, is on probation. Seriously. And yes, it doesn’t make the NCAA look good.)

3. Nonrevenue sports shouldn’t just be collateral damage as colleges ramp up spending wars in football.

I have another idea, and it’s related to what I’ve discussed in the past on getting the NCAA to drop the ridiculous regulations and focus on actual cheating.

Let players make and keep outside money.

EA Sports wants to use current player likenesses in their games? Fine. Pay them. (Obviously, they should also pay former players like Ed O’Bannon, whose lawsuit should have settled long ago.)

Someone wants to pay Johnny Manziel $1,000 to sign autographs? Fine. Let him keep it.

Katie Ledecky breaks a world record and is eligible for bonus money? Are you kidding me? What organization in its right mind would say she’s not eligible for it? (As Philip Hersh points out, swimmers who have turned down the money and gone to college have had better careers, which just adds fuel to the question of why people have to choose.)

The NCAA, for its part, says the following:

The NCAA membership has adopted amateurism rules to ensure the students’ priority remains on obtaining a quality educational experience and that all of student-athletes are competing equitably.

But how does “amateurism,” defined by NCAA practice as not making a dime off one’s rare talents, achieve either of the underlined goals?

If Katie Ledecky takes her world record bonus, does that mean she won’t study hard? Will swimmers who otherwise would have been able to keep up with a world record-holder somehow be disadvantaged if the record-holder collected her money?

The point we can’t stress enough: That money isn’t coming from a college that’s trying to recruit Ledecky. No college is gaining an unfair advantage.

And if she’s a student in good standing, who is the NCAA to say she’s not receiving a “quality educational experience”? My “priority” my senior year wasn’t the handful of classes I needed to graduate — it was the newspaper. I saw Seth Davis in the office a good bit as well. That’s how we got employed after graduation.

I’ll repeat from posts past: The NCAA’s enforcers should be concerned with two things:

1. Making sure schools aren’t paying players.

2. Making sure players are students in good standing.

And that’s it.

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3 Responses to College sports: End “shamateurism” but don’t pay players

  1. joeyt360 says:

    I tend to agree. Nothing that looks like a salary, but if players can earn outside money, let ‘em. If they’ve got image rights, a la O’Bannon, you hold those in escrow until they’re done with school, and then pay them an annuity.

  2. Joshua says:

    In my day when I was an undergraduate student, I thought athletes on scholarships were a privileged class. That was forty years ago.

    What’s a college education cost today? $100, 000 at a four year institution? That would be $25,000 a year not including room and board. That’s a lot of money to most of us.

    As long as the athletes can leave college to play in the pros, why should the colleges pay the athletes?

    I am old enough to remember when Jim Chones left Marquette for the ABA after his junior year in 1972. It was a shocker at the time. It also virtually guaranteed that UCLA would win another NCAA Basketball title. Chones is listed as the second NCAA Basketball player to ever leave school before their class graduated to play in the pros. Now of days, does any NCAA football or basketball player STAY if they can play in the pros?

  3. randomhookup says:

    But, once you allow money in for outside activities, someone will be taking advantage of it. Some booster will pay Manziel and his classmates $40k to sit in his auto showroom to attract potential customers. The booster won’t make money on it, but it will make sure the players stay at that school. It happens now, but there is more smoke around it and more $100 handshakes.

    I don’t know any way to introduce money to the process without some school taking advantage of it to attract more talented players (which is what this is about).

    Joshua — look at the difference in pay. Leaving in the “old days” was a decent living, but now a 1st round NBA draft choice is almost set for life on his first contract. It would be foolish to turn that down for a college education that is valuable, but can be gained later if still needed or desired.

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