F*ck You, Pay Me

by: Michael Shields

Ultimately fed up with the incompetence of the NCAA, an argument is made to finally pay collegiate athletes….

Change, it seems, rarely happens on its own. Normally it requires a catalyst of sorts. Something that riles the masses into a collective state of appall. It takes outrage. It takes emotions bubbling over to a point where you just can’t take it any longer – and it is at that point where there is action. The straws pile upon the camel’s back, and then finally the camel falls to the ground reeling in pain.

I thought this could be the case when word spread that the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), who increasingly are becoming a villain in the eyes of the public due to its propensity for taking advantage of student athletes, had ruled to bar a Middle Tennessee freshman, who finished serving five years of active service in the Marines, from playing football this season because he played in a recreational league in the military1. I imagined that this could potentially be the rallying call for necessary and overdue reform at the NCAA. Their rules are outdated. Their decisions tend to favor profit rather than looking out for the students they claim to represent. And, I figured that enough would finally be enough2.

Reflecting deeply on the subject, I have become unnerved by the fact that the athletics I prefer to watch most often is college sports, a place where the 18 to 21 year olds who compete are not compensated justly for their efforts. This is where I lay my dollar, and plenty of it, and this is increasingly becoming frustrating. Something is wrong. There is an ever-increasing disconnect between the “payment” a student receives for their on-field prowess and the money raked in by the school that athlete performs for. I truly used to believe that room, board, tuition, and books were enough. That providing your way through a university was certainly a fair trade. Things have changed.

For years on end the NCAA has restricted compensating an extensive labor force that generates billions of dollars. Under the guise of labeling these athletes as simply “amateurs,” the reality of the situation is becoming clearer by the day. The numbers are staggering. Television broadcast revenues of college sports have soared to nearly $2 billion a year. A deal between the NCAA and CBS/Turner Sports for March Madness rights between 2011 and 2024 weighed in at a whopping 10.8 BILLION! (This is for three weeks of television per year!). On top of that, there’s a new four-year deal with ESPN that pays the BCS (NCAA Football) $500 million. The athletes who perform in these events, that we gather together in droves to watch, don’t receive a dime. Again, room, board, tuition, and books hardly seem like fair compensation.

The hypocrisy that permeates big-money college sports is jaw dropping. College football and men’s basketball have become such huge commercial enterprises that together they generate more than $6 billion in annual revenue, which is more than the NBA (National Basketball Association).

The NCAA defended its practice of profiting from players, arguing that revenues from hugely popular events, such as college football, are rerouted back into the system to help fund less visible sports. Fair enough. The diving team at Wake Forest University, for example, isn’t raking in the dough. But, the revenue generated is so ample that these sports can be carried, so to speak, with funds left over to compensate the athletes who bring in the money for their efforts, with excess income taboot3.

The NCAA also argues for this arrangement in the name of competitive balance. If players are paid, the richest schools will end up with all of the top talent (The Yankee effect!). And when that happens, the outcomes of games will be more certain and far less interesting. But isn’t this the case anyways? Recent studies show4 that in college football, from 1950 to 2005, just 10 schools held 45% of the top-eight slots in the final Associated Press rankings. And in college basketball, the best players are constantly clamoring to secure spots at Kentucky, Kansas, UConn, Duke, North Carolina, and the like.

There is a whole lot more to it. Think about the fact that even after athletes have left college, the NCAA apparently can maintain certain licensing rights in perpetuity5. Coaches of these collegiate teams, in many cases, are the highest paid state employees. And, collegiate athletes cannot even make a few extra dollars by simply signing autographs, a situation highlighted by the recent troubles of “Johnny Football.”

Johnny “Football” Manziel, the quarterback of Texas A&M and a 2012 Heisman Trophy winner, was allegedly paid for signing autographs to the tune of thousands of dollars. This could affect his eligibility moving forward (An investigation is pending.). Shouldn’t this young man, and any college athlete in this fortunate position (Think of Olympic athletes!), be able to sign a helmet or a piece of paper for a couple dollars without it being a big issue? Frankly, allowing the kids to make a little money for simply signing their own name sounds like a decent enough trade off. If the student athlete can find a way, he/she should be able to endorse products, to have paid-speaking gigs, and to sell memorabilia. Not only is the student learning how to be entrepreneurial in the real world (Isn’t that the point of college?), but that player is finally receiving money they have earned from years of blood, sweat, and tears climbing the ever-increasing competitive ladder of scholastic athletics. The estimated revenue from merchandise related to college athletes in 2012 was – hold onto your hats – 4.6 BILLION! A cut for the kids responsible for this number is certainly in order.

“Here’s the NCAA’s entire amateur scheme, in case you’re wondering: Convince the public that amateurism is noble, win legal battles, maintain the tax dodge, claim poverty, cite Title IX, keep government from interfering, generate billions of dollars, don’t share money with athletes. Rinse, then repeat.”       – Mark Isenberg, author ‘Money Players’ and “The Student Athlete Survival Guide’

Of course this opens up that momentous can of worms which is….how exactly do you go about paying these athletes? Well, it’s time for the NCAA to sit down at the table, sharpen their pencils, and figure this out.

As of now student athletes are being gorged by a system that enables misconduct to flourish (Let’s be honest – players are paid anyways, unethical activity like this will never change.). But with major reform to a currently corrupt and exploitative system, collegiate sports could potentially become more honest once players are paid. Fans will be able to enjoy football and men’s basketball without having to shield their eyes from the scandals and the hypocrisy. Economic theory suggests that athletes would stay in school longer, graduate and even behave better. It’s beginning to look like a no-brainer. And it is a shame that the places we turn to for true forward thinking – our colleges and universities – are thinking about lining their pockets rather than about the students, and about doing what is right.

  1. The rule, in essence, states that student athletes that do not enroll in college within a year of graduating high school will be charged one year of collegiate eligibility for every academic year they participate in organized competition. []
  2. The NCAA has doubled back on this decision and will allow the former Marine full eligibility. []
  3. Excess could possibly be used to lower college tuition! []
  4. By economist Jim Peach. []
  5. The NCAA did recently vote to ban selling the jerseys of its players for profit. But each individual school still has that right. []

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