An alert reader pointed me to this piece about the lawyer driving the existential threat to the NCAA’s amateurism protocol. The whole thing is worth a read, but there are two passages in particular worth highlighting.
First, the big bucks that are involved. Really big bucks.
The big business of college sports, meanwhile, has only continued to explode. Today, the men’s NCAA Tournament alone provides the organization with nearly $900 million annually in television revenue, while individual conferences have television contracts worth billions of dollars over their lifespans, and schools pay coaches and athletic directors multimillion-dollar salaries. Collectively, the men’s basketball programs that make up Division I and the football programs in the Football Bowl Subdivision generate more than $7 billion in annual revenues. Big-time college sports look more like their professional counterparts than they ever have, with one major exception: The NCAA has restrictive rules in place that prevent schools from compensating athletes beyond the full cost of attending.
“The economics here are that basketball and football have become gigantic businesses,” Kessler said. “The total revenue for basketball and football in Division I is greater than the total revenue of the NBA. It’s greater than the total revenue of the NHL. … It’s the third biggest sport by revenue in this country. The idea that these are not businesses, it makes no sense. And you should allow those who are producing this revenue to be treated in a fairer way.” [Emphasis added.]
If you continue to wonder why arguments about compensation continue to resonate, the overall context of the revenue generated by Division I football and basketball should be your answer. Amateurism operates in a totally different financial setting than it did even 25 years ago.
The second illustrates why Kessler is so dangerous to the NCAA and its member schools.
Kessler has read the headlines and heard these arguments. He knows some believe that his case could “suck the magic out of college sports” and turn them into glorified minor leagues that fans simply wouldn’t watch. But even if he wins, he argues, the outcome won’t be nearly as dire or drastic as the skeptics predict.
Kessler’s primary argument is not against the NCAA itself, but its amateurism rules specifically. What violates antitrust law, he argues, is that the schools and major conferences band together under those rules to artificially cap the compensation an athlete can receive for his services to a school. In Kessler’s world, conferences could set their own rules regarding compensation, then compete against each other: The Big Ten might stick to the current rules, for instance, while the Southeastern Conference might elect to pay athletes above and beyond the value of a scholarship. Another might follow the Ivy League model and refuse to grant athletic scholarships at all. The result would be something of a free market for men’s basketball and football players.
Alternatively, the NCAA, its schools and their conferences could follow in the path of major pro leagues, and negotiate a new system with athletes or a body that represents them.
“I know what they’re going to argue in court,” Kessler said, sitting up in his chair and clapping his hands together, his voice nearly cracking from excitement ― and frustration. “They’ll argue what they’ve always argued: that amateurism is this holy grail. The new version of it is that if you pay one penny more than the full cost of attendance … the world will come to an end.”
There are obvious parallels to his previous cases, where the NBA, Major League Baseball and the NFL all contended that more rights, and more money, for players would spell doom for their products. Free agency, of course, has had none of the dramatic and devastating effects the owners once predicted: Salaries have risen tremendously, sure, but so have revenues. Leagues, owners and players are all vastly richer today than they once were.
“It’s utter and complete nonsense,” Kessler said. “Allowing baseball, football, basketball and hockey players greater economic freedom and compensation did not destroy the NFL or NBA. It did not destroy the NHL or Major League Baseball. It made those sports fairer and better. It did not decrease popularity or interest in the Olympics.”
That’s some tough precedent for the NCAA to argue against. Even tougher, if it tries to claim that college sports have a special attraction and value because of amateurism, how does it explain away the trends that have driven those same college sports in the general direction as those same pro sports from which it wants to distinguish — conference expansion, postseason expansion, conference networks, massive increases in coaches’ and AD’s salaries, etc.?