For all that the ongoing FBI investigation into college basketball’s underground economy has and could yet reveal, nothing is more obvious and undeniable than this: The on-stage performers in a multimillion-dollar entertainment industry do, in fact, have value beyond athletic scholarships and small cost-of-school-attendance stipends. In response, observers ranging from ESPN’s Jay Bilas to Los Angeles Lakers guard Lonzo Ball to UConn football coach-cum-NCAA resistance-joiner Randy Edsall have called for a simple, obvious solution to what looks like endemic rule-breaking. All of them, the college basketball commentator and the recent All-American and the cartoon hardass with the whistle around his neck, have suggested that the NCAA throw its amateurism rules in the trash can, and let college athletes be paid.
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The reasoning for this is simple, and probably familiar to you. No prohibition means no black market, which means no more need for subterfuge or shady middlemen or sub rosa payola dodginess. Which in turn means no more wasting tax dollars and federal manpower on wiretapping Arizona basketball coach Sean Miller’s phone conversations. Or getting to the bottom of what, exactly, Duke forward Wendell Carter and his mother did or did not eat for lunch at a Longhorn steakhouse, and who, exactly, paid for it. If any of those things are a problem, tossing amateurism aside solves it. As a bonus, launching the NCAA’s arbitrary, capricious, self-serving income restrictions into deep space would also be a hell of a lot fairer for the athletes laboring under those rules.
It would be nice to end this column here. But, of course, not everyone agrees. Some people—the most salient are the generously compensated college sports executives and the lawyers they pay to defend the status quo in antitrust court—insist that athletes can’t be paid because they’re amateurs, and that they’re amateurs because they can’t be paid. Others, like Sports Illustrated’s Chris Mannix, are sympathetic to the idea of giving players a bigger piece of the campus sports money pie, but wary of what such a shift would mean in practice:
If there is one question that advocates of ditching amateurism face more than any other, it’s this one. Hey man, playing players sounds groovy, but what’s your actual plan? On its face, this sounds like a pretty reasonable question—the kind of thing you’d ask before instituting national single-payer health care, or even a buy-one-cheeseburger, get-one-free deal at a fast food restaurant. But while it’s a step up from the NCAA’s insistence on its Amateurs Don’t Get Paid tautology, it’s still captive to the same stubborn category error that makes the broader amateurism hustle possible.
Because here’s the thing: nobody asks how’s it going to work when it comes to, say, paying dentists. Or investment bankers. Or programmers. Or professors. Or for that matter college coaches, athletic directors, and school presidents. There are no master compensation plans for those and hundreds of other lines of work because there’s no need for a plan. The very notion of coming up with a complicated, centralized set of rules dictating how much plumbers can earn and under what circumstances they can earn it would be un-American and completely fucking ridiculous besides.
The same holds true for college athletes. Let’s start there.
So what is the best plan for paying players? No plan at all. If Kentucky wants to offer basketball recruits $500,000 signing bonuses, fine. If Notre Dame doesn’t want to offer football recruits a penny more than their athletic scholarships, that’s also fine. If star quarterbacks can earn money for autographs, Olympic swimmers can get paid to be on cereal boxes, and basketball phenoms can land shoe deals, it’s nobody’s business except theirs and the Internal Revenue Service’s. A sane system would allow everyone—schools and athletes and sponsors alike—to bargain for the best possible deals, sign on the dotted lines, and go from there in accordance with existing tax, labor, and contract laws.
That is not a radical solution. To the contrary, it’s already how economic life in the rest of society more or less works. And while it’s not any more perfect or fair than any other part of the free market, it more or less works! Just ask Sean Miller. Or ask the 70 to 80 percent of college students who aren’t athletes, but are active in the labor market—a group that used to include yours truly, back when I was a Georgetown undergrad with a job at the campus book and convenience stores.
Smart, well-meaning people have attempted to answer Mannix’s question, putting forward all sorts of convoluted compensation models for college athletes. The journalist Joe Nocera—a longtime NCAA bête noire and the co-author of Indentured: The Inside Story of the Rebellion Against the NCAA—went to the trouble of laying out a five-point plan in the New York Times Magazine that included team salary caps, lifetime health insurance for athletes, and an organization to represent players. In O’Bannon v. NCAA, federal judge Claudia Wilken ruled that schools could place up to $5,000 annually into trust funds that athletes could access after leaving college, a proposal that was nixed on appeal. A number of people, including me at one point, have suggested that college sports mimic the Olympic Games, which don’t pay participating athletes directly, but do allow them to cash in on endorsements, prize money, and any other third-party income they can muster.
The problem is that all of these are half-measures—partial steps toward normalizing campus athletics within the existing American economy. As such, they don’t remedy or even really address amateurism’s fundamental flaw, which is that it denies athletes the same basic economic rights and protections the rest of us take for granted, and does so because once upon a time some snooty English aristocrats decided they didn’t want to row against unwashed factory workers; the reason any of this is a problem is that our dopey colleges followed suit. A towering system of ostensibly high-minded exploitation has arisen as a result, with newer and progressively more ornate ways to treat players as inherently deserving of special rules and limitations. That system seems designed, in part, to make people like Mannix less nervous—and to address the sort of concern trolling expressed by New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, and more recently, by Chicago Tribune writer Teddy Greenstein:
… has anyone devised or seen a plan that addresses the following: Does the starting quarterback at Ohio State make more than the left guard who’s injured? What does a backup cornerback for Northern Illinois make? How about basketball? How about women’s basketball, which I assume to be profitable at a handful of schools? What about swimmers and tennis players? How would Title IX affect this?
Back to football and men’s hoops. If a player is getting paid, is he an employee? Can he be fined? Cut? Traded?
And if there’s all this emphasis on money, are we implying that the college degree is worthless?
The biggest problem with this line of argument is that it is bullshit. There is no system required to ensure that a writer at the Tribune makes more than one for Desplaines Valley News, after all, even if the Tribune writer is writing stuff like this. And does all this money talk mean that the Tribune’s stated committment to inform and lead public opinion is secondary? Neither media companies nor American universities answer these sorts of questions before paying writers and coaches market rate compensation for services rendered. If nettlesome issues arise, they deal with them after the fact. It’s not a stretch to imagine a college sports without amateurism working the same way. Start with that set of assumptions instead of the current ones, and the familiar questions about paying athletes become much easier to answer.
If athletes are allowed to be paid, then they won’t be students anymore. They’ll be ringers! We won’t have college sports, just sports with college logos.
Amateurism has nothing to do with academic eligibility. Schools and teams could continue to require that athletes be full-time students in good standing in order to compete. They just couldn’t do it without paying them for their work.
If a player is getting paid, would they be an employee?
If they’re being paid by a school, they could be! Or they might be contract workers collecting a year-end 1099 form, just like many adjunct professors and, ahem, freelance journalists. Third-party compensation—a shake-hands-and-wave job at a local car dealership; a personal services deal with a sports apparel company; a fat sack of cash from a private friend of the program—would have nothing to do with schools under these circumstances.
Could players be fined? Cut? Traded?
That would depend on the terms of their contracts. During negotiations, some players might trade salary or benefits for a four-year guarantee or a no-cut clause; others might bargain for more flexibility. It’s doubtful either athletes or schools would want trade provisions, although I’m basing that mostly on how infrequently students and professors get traded.
If college athletes make money, won’t they have to pay taxes? Isn’t that too complicated to figure out?
Sure. And absolutely not. Academic scholarships and related schooling expenses would continue to be tax-free, and any compensation above and beyond that would be taxed. When I was working at the Georgetown bookstore, I received both a puny merit scholarship from the school and a W-2 form for my job.
What about Title IX? That seems way too complicated to figure out.
As applied to and interpreted within college sports, Title IX requires equal participation opportunity for male and female athletes in proportion to overall campus population and interest. It does not mean that schools have to spend the exact same amount of money on men’s and women’s sports, nor does it require schools to pay male and female coaches the exact same salaries. For schools that chose to pay some athletes directly, Title IX could well be a non-factor. Alternately, the federal government could decide that the law means any school pay for male athletes would have to be matched by pay for female athletes, in which case dumping amateurism would effectively introduce a dollar-for-dollar tax on men’s sports salaries that would be a boon for women. Third-party income would be unaffected. None of this really seems all that bad.
If we have a free market without some sort of pay framework and salary cap, smaller, poorer schools won’t be able to compete with the power conference schools for the best athletes. Parity will be dead.
They don’t compete now! Kentucky and Duke compete with each other for top-tier high school basketball talent; Ball State and Davidson compete for lower-rated players. Introduce competitive bidding, and that stays mostly the same—well-funded bluebloods will be bidding against peers for McDonald’s All-Americans; mid-majors will be bidding against other mid-majors for the three-and-four-star players they already chase. I’ve explained this before:
An old joke holds that if you encounter a hungry bear while hiking, you don’t need to run faster than the bear in order to survive. You just need to run faster than the person next to you. The same holds true for college sports sans amateurism. To land the nation’s No. 1 high-school linebacker in a truly free market for talent, Alabama (2013 athletic department revenues: $144 million) may have to spend quite a bit of money to outbid wealthy rivals like LSU ($117 million) and UCLA ($84 million). But that doesn’t mean Boise State will have to break the bank to land the country’s 250th-best prep linebacker—not if the Broncos ($43 million) are simply trying to outrun Fresno State ($34 million). Worrying that financial competition between Kentucky and Ohio State will force cash-strapped Gonzaga University to abandon hoops is like worrying that a future arms race between the United States and China will force Canada to disband its military.
If anything, a free market could help smaller schools procure better players, provided they picked their spots.
… under current rules, Ball State will never beat out Kentucky for a basketball prospect, but if the school’s boosters could pool their cash and target, say, Kentucky’s fifth-most-coveted prep player, they might be able to win a few recruiting battles, and over time construct a more talented roster.
Okay, but if there’s no overall limitation on player pay, schools won’t be able to afford football and basketball players unless they cut non-revenue sports.
If the price of attracting talented football and basketball players rises, schools could respond by cutting other sports, and thus incurring backlash, bad publicity, and ire from alumni and fans alike. Or, alternatively, they could simply spend less on coaches, administrators, and building new, lavish facilities, none of which count as fixed costs.
But sleazy agents will prey on innocent college athletes!
Nick Saban, who once called agents “pimps,” is represented by Jimmy Sexton.
But crooked shoe companies will, uh, give money to college athletes!
The obvious part of this is obvious, but also shoe companies already give money to college coaches, and they don’t even wear their shoes.
But boosters! BOO-STERS!
This wise Internet user has things right:
You can’t pay the starting quarterback more than the third string tackle, it will destroy team chemistry!
Every other office in America—from the New England Patriots locker room to Alabama football’s coaching cubicles to the headquarters of this very website—is populated by people earning disparate amounts of money. Some of those people are totally overpaid; others make peanuts relative to their productiveness. Yet somehow, some way, they manage to get shit done without murdering each other because of that particular injustice.
I don’t want to be too glib about this—inertia is real, and change is scary. We all have a bias for the safe and familiar, for things that work well enough as is even if we’re not self-interested institutions profiting off that unfairness. College sports are pretty fun, and great television to boot. I get where Mannix and others—including the Ninth Circuit judges who overturned Judge Wilken’s proposed $5,000 trust fund payments for being a “quantum leap” beyond current NCAA pay restrictions—are coming from. Allowing college athletes to be paid really can seem like an enormous, earthshaking shift.
But that’s only if you think about it the way the NCAA wants you to think about it—if you think of college athletes as a special and peculiar class for whom work is play, rights are privileges, and making money is at best deeply suspicious and at worst downright evil. That is bizarre on its face, but also that’s the underlying moral calculus of amateurism—the insidious, upside-down reasoning that labels a labor-exploiting, self-admitted cartel clean and the mere act of earning what you’re worth dirty. It’s also something like the logic behind the FBI’s investigation, too. Is Andy Miller’s sports agency guilty of corrupting campus hoops? Or are its only real crimes meticulous bookkeeping and aggressive business development? College athletes don’t need a pay-for-play plan, because pay-for-work isn’t a quantum leap. It’s just a small step in the direction of the world the rest of us already inhabit. The NCAA loves to talk about how college sports prepare players for The Game Of Life. There’s an easier and much more just way to do that.
Patrick Hruby is a Washington, D.C.-based writer, editor, and journalist. Contact him at www.patrickhruby.net.