College athlete unions, paying players and unasked questions

The last thing I want to do is pick an argument with my fellow Duke grad Jay Bilas. He’s a consummate pro when it comes to college basketball analysis, and he’s making an intelligent case for college sports reform.

But I think the man who wrote Toughness is capable of answering tougher questions than Keith Olbermann fed him in the wake of the decision (pending appeals) to let Northwestern student-athletes organize as a union.

Olbermann and Bilas quickly latched on the “pay college athletes” part of the union argument, and we’ll get back to whether that’s actually the central issue here. Then in the conversation on paying players, Olbermann left two statements unchallenged:

1. The “Hey, the NCAA makes a lot of money” argument. If you’ve ever been in the business world or even on a nonprofit board, you know there are two sides to a balance sheet: revenues and expenses. And college sports are expensive. Just think about how expensive one Duke education is, then think about how expensive a Duke football team’s education is.

My former colleagues at USA TODAY summed things up nine months ago: “Just 23 of 228 athletics departments at NCAA Division I public schools generated enough money on their own to cover their expenses in 2012.”

Ouch. Maybe the NCAA as an organization is making money, but the colleges, the story says, are actually subsidizing the athletics departments.

Most of us would say the expense is worthwhile, and we can point to all the intangible benefits a school gets from having a quality sports program. Bilas himself was part of the basketball team that helped turn Duke into a hot college. (This was a couple of decades before everyone hated us.) But we need to be really careful in saying college sports have a lot of money floating around, ready to hand out to athletes.

2. The free market argument. I’m stunned that Olbermann would let this Bilas statement go unchecked, particularly in the context of Bilas’ claim that the NCAA doesn’t really need a “plan” to open up a new marketplace for college athletes: “The free market seems to work pretty well for the rest of us.”

Where is the free market working well with no other regulation? Not out in the real world, where crooked bankers can crash our entire economy and CEOs get bonuses while workers are laid off. (Olbermann is probably more willing to argue that point than I am.) Even Adam Smith, he of the “invisible hand,” believed in some sort of regulation.

Does the “free market” work unfettered in sports? Not in the NFL (salary cap). Not in major league baseball (luxury tax, complex rules on player movement). Not even in European soccer (“financial fair play” and transfer regulations that need a lawyer to untangle them).

So if the NCAA is fretting that it needs “a plan” to go ahead with paying players, the NCAA is right.

In the last two minutes of the conversation, Olbermann asks for a “reality check” to counter the argument that college programs are losing money and that “dressage” (not really a college sport, though equestrian’s “Equitation on the Flat” is similar) will be hurt if football players are getting paid. Bilas makes a valid point here that coaches and administrators are making decent money in the whole business. But let’s skip “dressage” for a moment and ask how other nonrevenue sports are doing. How about Temple, which is cutting seven sports, including a couple for women?

Perhaps the money in college sports isn’t fairly distributed. But it’s also not an infinite supply. And it’s preposterous in the modern day to talk about a “free market” for college athletes without considering who loses in such a system.

Now here’s the funny part: Paying players isn’t even the main issue for the Northwestern players who have lobbied to unionize. On Mike and Mike (click the “podcast” link in this ESPN story), former Northwestern QB Kain Colter says the union decision is “really not” about playing players. Instead, he leads off with … medical care. “A lot of people don’t know that the NCAA doesn’t guarantee that any medical bill will be covered for any college player,” Colter says.

And we can think of plenty of reasonable issues to raise for student-athletes. Summer employment. Rights to one’s own likeness, the issue in Ed O’Bannon’s landmark suit against the NCAA. Sponsorships. Avoiding ridiculous travel, one side effect of these superconferences that force volleyball teams to fly halfway across the country for conference games.

Then a big issue: Why do tennis players, golfers and even swimmers have to choose between “amateur” and professional careers? Why can’t Missy Franklin collect the bonuses she earned as an Olympic champion? Why can’t a tennis player make a few bucks in an ATP event? How would those payments ruin college sports?

The NCAA is full of costly, counterproductive regulations. Bilas has a good suggestion for renewing the organization’s focus: “All they really need to do is administer athletic competition instead of lording over how everybody runs their business.”

If you get the NCAA to back off and trim its rule book, the organization can focus on those competition — encouraging school to field well-rounded athletic programs. If you ask the NCAA to administer a system in which colleges are bidding for athletes’ services, I think the organization will be even more muddled than it is now.

The next few years will be landmark years for college sports. But let’s not shy away from the tough questions, or we’ll miss an opportunity to build something truly good.

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4 Responses to College athlete unions, paying players and unasked questions

  1. Sgc says:

    If they paid the players by the market, that would be the end of most of the system, I’d have to agree. Most NCAA Division I schools would shutter their doors right away (or go down to whatever newly created lower division that does not pay players, but that still might not work for them as it would lose its aura of ‘big-timeyness’). These are the smaller programs well below that 23 that not only are they not real money generators, but the only way they ever could be hinges on some Cinderella seasons that themselves hinge on the fact that the much bigger programs can’t pay their players.

    Then you get to schools like Texas A&M that tend to win games and draw well–trouble being that most of the teams you used to beat easily are no longer going to be in your league. Last year, TAMU played 5 ranked teams, and went 1-4 against them. What becomes of their 9-4 record when Vanderbilt, UTEP, Sam Houston, Rice, and SMU (and for that matter probably Duke, at least in football) no longer exist in their league. Their world shifts to one in which .500 is actually a good year, rather than one in which 9-4 is no better than par for the course. Does that A&M team draw like it does now? Does it recruit Manziel? At what he would have cost?

    And there’s a more theoretical problem with the market here, as well, which is whether it’s really the players driving it, or the schools. Who would pay to see a U22 team with a 20 year old, undersized quarterback who probably won’t make it at the next level, if it weren’t attached to a University that hundreds of thousands have graduated from, and gotten free use of the trademarks of that University? And Manziel may be the weakest example of that I could use, due to his dynamic style of play, but it seems pretty certain 90% of all NCAA Div I players wouldn’t even be worth the room and board that comes with their current scholarships in such a league. And what do you do about all those losers in the market? Normally, you’re right, Olbermann would be the most likely of all to ask such a question.

  2. Joshua (my cat's name not mine) says:

    I stopped following -almost all- NCAA sports decades ago. Sheer lack of interest. If all NCAA sports stopped tomorrow, it would be for me an interesting story in the news. Nothing more.

    I’m sure for others, NCAA sports are of -much- greater significance and meaning. Particularly NCAA Football. If for some strange reason, Congress were to discontinue NCAA Football (unthinkable!) I think there would college student “unrest” like hasn’t been seen since the height of the Vietnam War. Probably even worse. I don’t think I am engaging in idle speculation. Witness the student “unrest” at Penn State when Joe Paterno was fired.

    The “free market”, to me, is just an empty phrase. Meaningless catchphrase Concete examples should be in order. The closest I know of to a “free market” in a pro or semipro sport would be the current American Basketball Association, where nobody knows from day to day what the teams are or who is going to play who. I think one year 75 teams started a season and at the end only 25 were still playing, the other 50 had folded during the season. Maybe Progression/Relegation would be the solution to the ABA’s instability (LOL) ;)

  3. VaBeacher says:

    Soccer and baseball are additional good examples of a free market system. If a player, coming out of high school,is good enough to get a pro contract, he or she can go for it. If not, soccer and baseball players can play college ball. The value of their scholarship is what they are worth on the open market. Football tries to manipulated the free market by forcing professional caliber athletes to play for the NCAA.

  4. Beau Dure says:

    I’d agree with that free market example. The system is still regulated, of course, and that’s valuable.

    That said, some of the current regulation is self-contradictory. Why can a hockey team draft a player and maintain his rights while he’s in college, but a football team can’t?

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