A few more thoughts on the NCAA’s pay for play proposal

It’s worth spending a little more time on the subject, with the Sun Belt’s surprise announcement that it’s all in on the cost of attendance scholarship.  And here’s the intriguing part:

… The big thing to note here is that each school will have the freedom to divide up any additional aid as they see fit. Theoretically, the amounts of additional aid could not only vary from school to school — the NCAA recommended that conferences develop a “common application” for such money — but from athlete to athlete within a variety of sports.

I can see this working if it’s not necessary for a school to adopt a one size fits all approach.  Although I do wonder if there will be a lawsuit coming out of that down the road.

Meanwhile, Charles Pierce (right now, my favorite political blogger simply because he writes so damned well) makes a comparison between NCAA athletes and baseball players before the reserve clause was tossed out.

… Something like that has happened over the last 20 or 30 years in regard to college athletics. Every few years, some angry, stick-waving prophet would come wandering into the cozy system of unpaid (or barely paid) labor and start bellowing about how the essential corruption in the system wasn’t that some players got money under the table, but that none of them were allowed to get any over it. Sooner or later, these people said, the system would collapse from its own internal contradictions — yes, some of these people summoned up enough Marx through the bong resin in their brains from their college days to make a point — and the people running college sports had best figure out how to control the chaos before it overwhelmed them. Nobody listened. Very little changed, except that college sports became bigger and more lucrative, an enterprise of sports spectacle balanced precariously on the fragile principle that everybody should get to make money except the people doing the actual work.

There’s a part of me that resists this because, like so many others condemning things as they are, Pierce conveniently ignores the contribution the NFL has made in creating the mess.  But his next argument sure is compelling.

… On October 27, undoubtedly in response to all of this, and in an obvious attempt to keep order within the help, the NCAA voted to allow its member conferences to decide whether to pay their athletes an annual stipend of $2,000 to cover the “incidental costs” of a college education. NCAA president Mark Emmert was firm in his denial that this constituted “pay for play.”

Nonsense.

Of course, it is.

And that’s the ballgame right there. As soon as you pay someone $2,000, you cannot make the argument that it is unethical to pay that person $5,000, or $10,000, or a million bucks a year, for all that. [Emphasis added.] Amateurism is one of those rigid things that cannot bend, only shatter. Amateurism is an unsustainable concept. It could not last in golf. It could not last in tennis. It couldn’t even last in the Olympics, where it was supposed to have been ordained by Zeus or someone. It is the rancid legacy of a stultified British class system in which athletes were supposed to be “gentlemen” and not “tradesmen.” Which is to say that sports are supposed to be for Us and not Them, old sport.

I think that’s right.  I’m not sure the NCAA understands what it’s getting itself into here.  (In fact, given how clueless Mark Emmert has been on a number of subjects since he took over the reins, I’d say it’s a pretty safe bet the NCAA has no idea what it’s unleashed.)  And the real problem with opening Pandora’s Box here is that you can also place a pretty safe bet that nobody on the NCAA side has begun to study how schools are going to be able to afford the brave new world the organization is creating.

Which brings me to another brilliant article, this one by SI’s George Dohrmann which explores a number of steps the NCAA could take on the cost containment side to… you know, actually pay for all that play.  The first of those would no doubt be the most controversial, but it’s also the most logical:

… In addition to 85 scholarship players, rosters balloon with walk-ons. Mississippi had 126 students participate in football in 2009–10, Louisville 119, San Jose State 106 and Oregon 105. There is little justification for rosters that large, particularly given the expenses (equipment, training) that come with each player. Also, the more football participants a school has, the more female athletes it must accommodate to comply with Title IX.

Thus football rosters would be capped at 90, and the number of available scholarships would drop from 85 to 63. To help compensate for their losses, football coaches could fractionalize scholarships, a common measure in most nonrevenue sports, but one now prohibited in football. If a recruit received a quarter scholarship from one school but a full ride from another, he would know where he stood with each.

That’s a lot of savings, both from football, but also from scrapping scholarships handed it out in non-revenue sports in the name of Title IX.  It also would have the benefit of creating a good deal more parity across the board in college football.  (That would drive Nick Saban nuts, wouldn’t it?)

Read the whole thing.

Both the Pierce and Dohrmann pieces are linked in this Dan Shanoff post, which tries to offer the last piece to the puzzle.

… The crux of the problem is the perceived exploitation of the star college football players, the ones who are worth far more than any college could ever afford to pay them, under any system.

The simplest solution is to create a pro football minor league that allows the best/star players (read: top NFL prospects) to skip college at any point — before their freshman, sophomore or junior years — to enter a minor-league system that (a) prepares them for the NFL better than college would/could and (b) pays them rather well for it.

College football would be fine — it doesn’t need “star” players. It needs its teams and its traditions. That college football put an emphasis on its biggest future-NFL talents was a huge reason it got itself into this mess (the media have been complicit). The perceived exploitation — not to mention the levels of compensation in a pay-for-play system — would be mitigated.

The players would be better off: They would be getting paid. They would be focused full-time on maximizing their NFL potential. Back on campus, scholarship slots would be given to players with no pro future — the ones for whom a full-ride college scholarship helps set them up for a non-football future.

I couldn’t agree more with him on that.  But where I think he runs out of steam is with the next (unfortunately necessary) step.

… The NFL would be better off: The league doesn’t need the marketing bump of college football to get fans excited about its rookie players. And instead of college players learning college systems and playing for coaches with no incentive to train them for a pro career, they enter a system whose entire rationale is to maximize their NFL potential. While paying them.

I don’t know whether The League needs the marketing bump from college football, but it sure likes that it gets one without spending a single red cent.

… I wish Mark Cuban would stop futzing around with a college playoff when the more valuable arbitrage is so obviously the three-year gap between the moment a star player enters college football and the moment they leave for the NFL Draft.

There’s probably a good reason for that.  Cuban hasn’t been able to find the profit angle for a pro football minor league.  And there’s the rub – the reason college football would be fine with this is exactly the same reason a football minor league wouldn’t.  There’s no way a professional league set up as a glorified training program is going to have a shot in hell of generating the traditions and the fan base passion that will ensure financial success.  (How likely is it that players and their agents will go for Shanoff’s suggestion that the minor league be funded out of players’ NFL contracts?  Not very.)  If the new system costs the NFL anything, then why should the league embrace it?  And if you can’t convince the owners that it’s worth going along, they’re not coming.

The NFL ain’t a non-profit, you know.

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22 Comments

Filed under College Football, It's Just Bidness, The NCAA

22 responses to “A few more thoughts on the NCAA’s pay for play proposal

  1. The league doesn’t need the marketing bump of college football to get fans excited about its rookie players.

    Riiiiight. And the MIAMI Dolphins had a “Celebrate the Florida Gators” day that coincided with Tebow making his first start of the year for…. charity? Surely it wasn’t to drum up attention for a game between two hapless teams that even the locals didn’t care about. Tebow is one of the biggest stories in the NFL on a weekly basis, and he isn’t even a good QB. Andrew Luck is talked about on a near daily basis.

    Minor correction: The league doesn’t need [to pay for] the marketing bump of college football…

    • Speaking of the GPOOE™, can you imagine (1) the buzz he would have gotten for turning down the opportunity to play in the minor league to stay at Florida all four years and (2) the amount of time ESPN would spend obsessing over the question of whether he made a mistake in doing so?

      It’s the small things in life I’m grateful for sometimes.

  2. Faulkner

    I really hate the idea of a NFL minor league. The league would suck and it would make the college game less interesting. I love football, but I’m not watching Division II talent every weekend, I’m watching the big boys in Div I.

    All these pundits who bitch about the current system need to find something else to write about. Is it perfect, not by a long shot, but right now it’s pretty damn good and a free ride is still a sweet deal.

  3. opsomath

    “Amateurism is one of those rigid things that cannot bend, only shatter.”

    I’m sorry, Senator, but I just don’t agree with this. I did grad school on a small stipend as well, and believe me, there is a world of difference between that and a real paycheck. The real problem with the amateurism rules is that (in combination with the demanding nature of college athletics) they essentially prevent scholly athletes from doing _anything_ to earn money. Providing a kid enough cash to live on while he attends school is a far cry from hiring a professional athlete, as long as the value is such that it doesn’t edge smaller schools out entirely. Many of the better academic scholarships have a small stipend, and no one is up in arms about that.

    • The difference between your situation and that of a star football or basketball player’s is that in the case of the athlete, the market is going to continue to put pressure on moving the bar upwards.

      • Keese

        The market would be indirectly tied to the student-athlete.

        • Keese

          As a former scholarship player (baseball), we already get paid stipends/meal money etc. It really is not enough for those of us that don’t have additional financial support from family. But every damn cent in a scholarship you earn. Since it’s impossible to have a part time job, an extra $2k/ month is fair. Acting like $2k a month is going down a slippery slope is not really accurate. We produce the product but the school/NCAA/fans make the market. These rules are even more so pronounced in football. I had a choice to be in minor league ball or not

      • One Who Loves Cigarettes And Beer To Excess

        So what. I thought you believed in the free market. If the market pushes the amount up then it should go up.

    • Darrron Rovelll

      Look the very foundation of amateurism is based on an antiquated fundamentally flawed concept that was originally designed to keep block competitors from lower socio-economic classes and different enthcities than majority of people who attended the British Public Schools in the Victorian Age.

      While I would disagree that amateurism is one those rigid things that cannot bend, it cannot bend without eventually breaking. It has been broken in all other athletic competitive environments in this country with the exception of collegiate athletics, despite the fact holding onto amateurism for so long at high level collegiate athletics is probably the leading cause of corruption.

      • TomReagan

        Darron’s point about the flexibility of ametuerism is supported by the very fact that college kids-who are paid by receiving a service, if not cash-are considered by all to qualify. I agree that it won’t bend much further than that, though.

      • Cojones

        Darron, I could buy your argument if you woul tell me where we wouldn’t expect corruption from your system.

  4. One thing that worries me a little bit about this approach is that it may open up a big advantage for schools in “higher cost of living” areas. Some schools up North may be able to justify giving their athletes up to 10 times as much money to “live off of” than a player would get in the cheap little town of Athens, Auburn, Tuscaloosa, etc.

  5. BulldogBen

    That “college football would be fine” if there were a minor league is asinine.

    Allowing college basketball’s stars to leave early had big impact on that sport. Look at it in 1984 vs 2011. It’s been relegated to an also-ran during the regular season.

    Also, the benefit would be completely minimal. No one cares, for the most part, about minor league sports. Maybe small towns but is that reason enough to take away CFB’s biggest stars? Not to mention stuff like Arena Football is losing teams every year. People want to watch the best.

  6. Skeeter

    My brain hurts!
    It’ll have to come out!

  7. AusDawg85

    Interesting that the NCAA and college presidents, looking out for the best interests of the student athlete and all, never talk about just raising the academic bar substantially higher. This would have the most repercussions throughout the system…would High Schools actually begin preparing kids better? Would the NFL have to step in with some sort of alternative in order to grab football talented kids who can’t make grades? Would the money flowing into athletic department budgets get re-allocated to strengthening education assistance?

    Paying marginally academically qualified kids to play collegiate sports for a few years to chase the dream of the pro leagues hardly seems to be an appropriate mission statement for higher education.

  8. JG Shellnutt

    We will not get the NFL to spend money that they do not have to spend.

    But, it is not the NCAA’s place to change their longstanding rules just becuase colleges started letting in folks that would not qualify to get into school any other way.

    If we want to let the market bear what it should…let the agents pay the players. That way, only the superstars get paid, the NFL has to pay no more, the NCAA gets to remain ‘amateur’ and the agents just have the players on retainer. The 3rd string longsnapper does not get paid, nor does the starter on the women’s equestrian team. Only the money generators get paid, but not by the school and not (directly) by the league.

    • Mayor of Dawgtown

      Then why don’t we let the gamblers pay ‘em, too. “Here, kid. Take this envelope full of Ben Franklins. You guys can’t beat the spread, though. got that?”

  9. Boz

    Forget a new system of minor leagues. Let the NFL purchase (or partner) with the CFL and open the doors to 18 year olds/graduating highschool players. Players and their families that need the financial help can make the decision to play ball and the CFL can take the risk in developing the player at a cost. This would keep operating expense down, and allow the opportunity to open up TV revenue, despite the geographic issues.

  10. Cojones

    Pandora’s Box suddenly has a new meaning to me.

    I knew there would be a new pundit with a dipshit idea pontificating every week or so when the subject first came up, but never did I think it would flare up later like an infectious brain cancer. Logic has no part in their arguments and, when challenged, no answer comes back. Reminds me of one of Isaac Asimov’s Trilogy stories about the permeation of computers in society, asking them to answer the question each generation until thousands of years into the future: “Who is God?”. Finally man and machine are just energy blobs , but the question never gets answered. Finally there is nothing. Just darkness. And a voice says,” Let there be Light.”

    Would that we could just pronounce those words directly into the pundit’s brains early and get an answer to the question of how you can have a system that would not destroy college football and amateurism if you paid players. No answer will ever come back. We can ask the question into the next millineum , but certain vapid minds will never grasp the question while all the time trying to push the sport into nothingness.

  11. 4.0 Point Stance

    The proposal to fractionalize/reduce scholarships would have both effects you suggest – it would reduce costs, and create more parity among teams.

    These are also two classic hallmarks of a cartel agreement – benefitting the producers (the schools) to the detriment of the workers (players) and customers (fans). Of course, the NCAA has long gotten away with behavior that would be considered a clear violation of antitrust law for almost any other actor. why should this be any different?