“If you are good at something…never do it for free.”
- The Joker, “The Dark Knight”
One of the great things about this nation, and capitalism for that matter, is that if you are blessed with an ability to do what few others can do, you have the right to earn whatever you can for that ability. The question then becomes, what is considered fair compensation for this unique ability? Nine times out of ten the answer is “Gobs of money.” However, there are situations where “gobs of money”, while preferred, is not the compensation, but something (or things) of similar value is. Yet there are those that cannot see the worth in it and cry up and down about how unfair it is. I think about this whenever I hear the argument that college athletes, specifically football and men’s basketball, should be getting paid by their schools for the money they generate. This argument has come back into the spotlight after the recent sanctions against the University of Southern Cal for having two of their “student-athletes”, football star Reggie Bush and Basketball Phenom OJ Mayo receive money and other gifts from agents. Two other schools (UNC and Florida) are also now being investigated by the NCAA on similiar allegations.
Whenever these incidents happen, the cry starts up again “Well, if these kids would actually receive a fraction of the money they make for their schools, you would never have to worry about this.” I get frustrated because it seems there is no one readily available to make the arguments of why this can never work financially and also what these student athletes receive for playing the sport can be of equal or even greater value. However, thanks to the lovely people that run this site, I can finally spew my theories instead of boring my wife to tears.
There are some with a national stage via print or talk like Jason Whitlock of foxsports.com and Ron Bennington of “The Ron and Fez Show” who argue adamantly that college athletes deserve to be paid. Forbes (http://www.forbes.com/2009/12/22/most-vaulable-college-football-teams-business-sports-college-football.html) recently released a listing of the most valuable College Football Programs and the University of Texas came out #1 by drawing $118MM in revenue over the calendar year while clearing just over $50MM in profit. Most of the top 20 to 30 major programs for that matter easily clear $10-$15MM per year in revenue. This figure does not even count booster donations that may go to the law school or business schools just because State U won 11 games either.
College football ceased being a pure amateur endeavor once colleges began receiving million dollar checks from TV networks and Bowl sponsors. And there is also a very linear relationship between how good a football team performs and how willing the alumni are to write fat checks back to their alma mater. These monetary windfalls are due to the blood, sweat and work put in by 18, 19 and 20 year old kids who are expected to practice 20 hours a week, watch film, lift weights, perform on Saturdays and then be up in time for Sociology Monday morning to keep a minimum grade point average. To some, this seems grossly unfair when you also factor in that NCAA rules prohibit these kids from even accepting a meal from anyone who is not a family member.
Issue #1: The Football Money Pot
There are only two collegiate sports that actually run at a profit: Football and to a lesser extent Men’s Basketball. This is from 100,000 seat stadiums, TV and conference network contracts, merchandise sales, bowl and post season tournament revenue. After expenses, the big time programs easily can clear $10-15MM every year. Some like Texas, Penn State and Ohio State can clear over $30MM, $40MM and $50MM per year just on the football. Based on those numbers alone, one would think there has to be some cash left over to give the 100 or so athletes.
When was the last time North Carolina’s Women’s Field Hockey was on ESPN? Does Nebraska Men’s Volleyball sell out a 20,000 seat arena? Anyone you know that wears an Ohio State Buckeye Lacrosse jersey around town? Of course not. These sports draw in very little money. Far, far less than what it takes to keep these programs running. These universities need the money generated by the football and basketball programs to fund them. Due to Title IX, which requires colleges to have equal opportunities for both sexes in athletics, universities simply cannot say “well, you cannot support yourself so bye-bye.” By federal law, it is required to provide these opportunities to these sports. So now, the $30MM or $50MM in profit shown by the football team is divided by at least 25 other athletic programs. (I had a roommate on Penn State's baseball team. After a home football game, his teammates and many student athletes would clean up the football stadium stands as a show of gratitude.)
While some elite football programs bring in obscene money, at least half of the 119 FBS programs barely break even or lose money. Where would the money come from if there was no football profit? If you think the best recruits only go to the top programs based on exposure and facilities, what would happen if they would go there because of better pay? You think Texas, USC and Florida are great now, imagine if they also could lure recruits $100s!
Issue #2: The Concept of Compensation
Now that we have gone over why the money simply does not exist for colleges to pay their athletes, let us now discuss why the current compensation they receive is more than adequate.
There are approximately 10,000 student athletes that are on scholarship to Division I Football programs. Of that number, maybe 250-275 get drafted or signed in Professional Football. Out of that number, there are perhaps 30-40 of them that will have a professional football career past the age of 30. Those 30, if they were smart, probably made enough money in their careers so they could retire on that alone (although a recent study stated that 65% of retired NFL and NBA players are broke or unemployed 3 years after retiring). So at the end of the day, 0.3% of Division I football players go on to have successful and lucrative playing careers. What does that mean for the rest of them?
Every college football player received a $100,000 education in exchange for playing a sport they love. Since so few players can realistically expect to make a good living playing ball, the athletes have a free “something to fall back on.” With the cost of college skyrocketing, student-athletes can have up to 5 years of tuition, room, food and books paid for in return for playing in front of 80,000 screaming fans on Saturdays. Also, many of the players who are fifth year seniors are working on post-graduate degrees.
Another hidden benefit is the booster alliance supporting these programs. A player that would never set foot in an NFL stadium will have connections to hundreds of football program supporters who would work on their behalf for jobs after college. While most of us had to wait on long lines at the job placement centers, a lot of players who did well in the classrooms, have a lot more opportunities with “friends of the program”.
Now for the “star players.” These are the quarterbacks who are Heisman trophy candidates, the bruising 1800 yard running backs, the acrobatic, playmaking wide receivers and the bone crushing linebackers. These are the talented ones who fill the seats, have their jerseys sell and keep the boosters' wallets open. Well, what do they get for their on-the-field exploits when everyone knows the only reason they are there is to wait out their 3 years for the NFL? I will tell you what they get:
1. First Class Athletic Training
2. First Class Exposure and Competition
3. First Class Experience.
Football in not like Major League Baseball where there are several layers of minor leagues. It is not the NBA where there is a track record of High School players who made the jump to the pros. Football is no longer a “dumb jock game.” Playbooks are the sizes of phone books and players spend hours in darkened film rooms discovering tendencies of their opponents. College football provides the closest real life conditions of the NFL experience. You cannot be a cop unless you go to a Police Academy and you cannot become a physician unless you graduate from medical school. Likewise, you cannot play in the NFL unless you have done so in college to some level of success.
In addition, NFL fans witness the extreme physicallity and blunt violence of the game. You cannot expect a stud RB coming out of High School who dominated against 5’7, 165lb linebackers who ran 5.1 40’s to then go straight to the pros and try to do the same against 6’6, 320lb defensive Tackles who can run 4.7 40’s. It would akin to a Pop Warner 12 year old to go and play against the local varsity High School team. It would be murder! College provides that buffer period between High School seniors and 30 year old men by allowing them to train their bodies to withstand the rigors of this sport.
Now by accepting this, and playing by the rules of the university and NCAA, young athletes receive the national media exposure and the physical training necessary to take them to the next level. It is akin to being a gifted computer programmer out of High School and getting a summer internship at Microsoft for being amongst the future best at your desired profession. You may not be hired by them by the time you graduate, but you will have the experience and resume to make yourself an attractive candidate elsewhere. Now that is why you come to college after all.