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.