A couple of days ago, I linked to that NYT op-ed piece about player compensation, in which the author, a former Division I college basketball player, had this to say, in part:
Forcing the N.C.A.A. to pay student-athletes would undermine opportunities for the vast majority of them. It would create a winner-take-all system in which only a handful of top recruits would get a paycheck on top of earning a diploma debt-free.
Similar problems would arise in the case of so-called third-party payments, in which student-athletes could be paid for things like endorsements. Major brands like Nike would pay top football and basketball talent at the biggest schools, while student-athletes in other sports or at smaller programs would be ignored. Currently, corporate funds go to athletic departments and are generally distributed among all sports; with third-party payments, those funds could instead mostly go directly to a few student-athletes, starving the rest.
By the way, this guy’s a law student, and he characterizes the relief the Alston plaintiffs seek as “forcing the N.C.A.A. to pay student-athletes”? Dude, I hope you employ better reasoning in law school than that. But I digress.
Anyway, the argument here is a common one. If schools pay players in the revenue producing sports, that will by its very nature cause these same schools to divert funding from non-revenue producing programs, thereby depriving those student-athletes of opportunities to play. If that’s the case, what’s the story at D-1 programs that currently don’t make any real money from their revenue producing programs? Wouldn’t his logic suggest their non-revenue programs are already starving student-athletes?
You probably know where this is headed. McDavis played basketball for Northern Colorado. Here’s the story there:
The ban on paying wages to athletes has done nothing to stop schools from ruining their budgets to pour money into athletic facilities and making coaches their states’ highest-paid employees, in what is already a hopeless winner-take-all competition. Here’s how the Denver Post described the financial situation at McDavis’ own alma mater last year, a decade after it jumped to Division I:
UNC will end this fiscal year with a $10 million deficit and faces a similar shortfall next year, officials said, although the board of regents was told recently that deficit is now down to $4 million. Still, faculty members were told earlier this spring that the school’s reserves will be exhausted by 2021.
According to a spreadsheet of staff salaries on the university’s website, the athletic department at the University of Northern Colorado currently employs more than 70 full-time coaches and administrators, including a Senior Associate Athletic Director at $91,304, an Assistant Athletic Director at $53,070, a Director of Administration at $50,000, a Director of Sports Performance at $51,000, a Director of Marketing and Fan Experience at $50,000, and a Director of Strategic Communications at $50,000.
Sure seems like there’s fat to be trimmed if you don’t want to starve some of your student-athletes’ opportunities.
How would paying athletes make Northern Colorado’s situation any worse than it already is? McDavis warned that if an ongoing lawsuit ends up with a judge ruling in favor of college athletes getting paid, it will ruin the current system:
The top 25 or so schools will pay because they can afford to. The remaining 325 or so will be forced to make a decision: not pay their athletes (and risk losing top talent to schools that do) or find a way to pay.
But there aren’t 325 schools’ worth of Zion Williamsons to be paid for. Northern Colorado isn’t at risk of losing high-priced talent to Duke under some new set of rules; it has never been competitive with Duke for talent and never will be. What McDavis presented as a threat to college athletic programs is more likely to be their salvation. As long as athletes are off the budget, athletic departments can claim to be competing by proxy, spending recklessly on administrators and facilities to try to show they’re in the big time. If the payroll is set by the talent level, it will be obvious where the money belongs, and where it doesn’t.
Here’s the thing. Some of you like to argue that there’s no requirement for kids to expect to be paid for playing, and thus it’s an unreasonable expectation. The flip side to that particular coin is that there’s no requirement schools have to turn a profit on their athletic departments in order to provide all the opportunities they’d prefer to offer their student-athletes. If it’s important for them to do so as part of their academic mission, it’s important regardless of what the football and basketball programs rake in.
Of course, it’s different if your Director of Marketing and Fan Experience is important.