Pay For Play

Increasingly those who claim to be in the know suggest that athletes at the NCAA Division I level should get paid to play the games they play in college — especially the revenue sports such as basketball and football. The argument runs that paying the athletes to play will circumvent the sorts of scandal that are all-too common in collegiate sports these days.

For example, Zion Williamson, the extraordinary basketball player who recently completed a sensational Freshman year at Duke University finds himself involved in a scandal resulting from the claim that Nike gave his mother a considerable sum of money to make sure he would thereafter wear their product. Allegedly, Nike also made it “convenient” for him to attend Duke University which is a “Nike” University — i.e., a university that  receives (as does its basketball coach) baskets full of money to have their players wear their shoes and clothing. In a word, the players become walking endorsements for the Nike products, which makes it obligatory that young kids spend many, many dollars to wear Nike products worn by their heroes and heroines (and frequently made in sweat shops in the “Third World”).  It’s allegedly been going on for many years, but the F.B.I. has recently become involved because laws may have been broken.

Clearly, there are moral laws broken here and there, but we tend to look the other way as long as our team continues to win. But the question remains: should those athletes simply get paid for the job they do, since there is such a huge amount of money involved? Surely, they are the ones earning the money their colleges and universities pocket after the season and the tournaments are over. Laws or no laws, it simply seems to be the fair way to doing things. And if it reduces the instances of fraud and corruption so much the better.

Nearly 20 years ago, in the Fall of 2001, I published a paper in the Montana Professor in which I argued that athletes at the NCAA Division I level (in the revenue sports) should be paid to play their sports. I gave my reasons and I still think my plan is more honest than anything I have heard recently that is supposed to solve what is clearly a moral problem — if not a legal one. Here’s the heart and soul of my argument:

[A]t the Division I level . . .  I would recommend eliminating all pretense by admitting that major sports at that level are a proving ground for professional athletics–especially football, basketball (both men’s and women’s), and, to a lesser extent, baseball. Young people who choose to participate in athletics at that level should not be required to attend classes and they should be paid a fair salary to play: athletes at the major universities thereby becoming members of minor league teams wearing school colors and sponsored by the universities and their alumni. . . . .

In the event that some of the athletes on these teams actually want to pursue an education, they can pay tuition along with everyone else. Presumably, they will be better able to do this with the money they make from their sport. This step would remove the hypocrisy that exists at present, and the universities would be able to apply the most promising of current business practices to organized sport, without worrying about interference from the NCAA. In the event that the costs of fielding a professional team become prohibitive, the universities can eliminate play-for-pay and move to the Division II level where, even as things now stand, financial losses from athletics are typically considerably less than at the Division I level. Eliminating athletic “scholarships,”  would further reduce costs. In the event that costs are still prohibitive, the universities would have to eliminate some of the sports programs–a reasonable proposal given the large number of sports that involve such a small number of students (and one that is already being adopted by a number of Division I schools). Dropping football at a typical Division II school that currently offers “scholarships” to athletes, for example, can save that school close to $200,000 a year, according to a recent NCAA study. To encourage greater student participation in sports, a larger share of the athletic budget could then be allocated to intramural sports, which involve a great many more students.

The strength of this model is simply that it is more honest, since very few of the athletes in major sports at the Division I level are students in anything but the loosest sense of that term. On a more positive note, since the perks that athletes currently receive at the Division I level–posh living accommodations, scholarships, meals, medical treatment, automobiles, etc.–“do not come close to representing the value of the athletes to the school in publicity, revenues, etc.,” this model would acknowledge that these athletes are professionals and treat them accordingly.*

This may not solve the problem altogether, because where such huge sums of money are involved there will always be corruption. But it does, as I say, seem to be the most honest way to deal with the problem. One thing for sure, it will bury the myth once and for all that these kids are “student-athletes.” They are athletes who may choose, if they pay tuition, to be students.

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*For the complete essay, “The Tail That Wags The Dog,” see my blog main page and check the URL in the comment for a clearer copy.

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Cheaters As Heroes

I have blogged before about America’s poor choices when it comes to picking people to call “heroic,” but the situation doesn’t seem to have changed. I would have thought my posts would have done the trick, but apparently not. So we will take another crack at it.

Our choices are especially odd when it comes to our sports heroes, and that’s where most of our heroes can be found — in sweaty locker rooms and beating up their wives. We also indiscriminately refer to every soldier who ever wore camouflage as a “hero,” whether they ever did anything but serve slop in the cafeteria at boot camp. Anyway, the recent case of Pete Rose is worth pondering as he was given a “prolonged” standing ovation in Cincinnati prior to this year’s All Star game.

Rose, of course, played for the Cincinnati Reds for years where he was known as “Charlie Hustle,” and he seemed to be a shoe-in for the Hall of Fame until it was revealed that he had gambled on baseball games. He was banned from baseball and could no longer be considered a candidate for the Hall of Fame. He continued for years to insist that he had not gambled on the games in which he played and has appealed his situation in order to once again become eligible for the Hall. Then it was revealed on ESPN, complete with graphic evidence, that he had, indeed, gambled on the games he had played in and was therefore guilty of lying in addition to breaking the rules of the game he claimed to love — and assuredly played very well.

And yet, he was given a standing ovation by the thousands of fans who recently attended the Hall of Fame game in Cincinnati. Puzzling.

And then there’s the case of Tom Brady who allegedly lied about any involvement in the infamous (and seemingly trivial) “deflate gate.” Every professional quarterback interviewed after the scandal insisted that any quarterback would know instantly if the balls he was throwing were over or under-inflated. ESPN even had a retired quarterback throw three balls on camera, one under inflated, one over inflated, and the third properly inflated. He picked out each ball correctly after only one throw. The evidence is overwhelming that Tom Brady knew the balls he was playing with were not regulation. He may not have ordered them to be so, though that seems unlikely, but he insisted he knew nothing about the incident, which is highly improbable. In a process in which Brady refused to cooperate, the NFL ruled against him and suspended him for four games. He is appealing, as is the NFL Player’s Association, and the punishment may well be reduced, perhaps to a fine. But in the eyes of an adoring public he has always been innocent and remains the hero of many a young would-be football hero, even though he almost certainly lied. Puzzling.

And, of course, there is the case of Tiger Woods who is from all reports guilty of repeatedly cheating on this wife and, after an ugly divorce, underwent therapy to try to calm down his racing libido. Yet he remains ever-present on the television and his appearance at a golf tournament immediately increases revenue through attendance and television audiences — despite the fact that, truth be told, he is yesterday’s news. We try these folks in the court of public opinion and we often do not know all the facts. That’s certainly the case. But when the evidence is made public there is little room for doubt and only a strange form of denial can allow us to continue to regard these folks as exemplary, the kind of people we would like our kids to grow up to be. Puzzling.

And yet the court of public opinion can be nasty as well, and perfectly willing to find a man or woman guilty of heinous crimes without the benefit of due process — as in the case of Bill Cosby, who reportedly drugged women and then raped them. But then, Cosby wasn’t an athlete — at least not a professional athlete. And he is probably not even on the radar of the millennialists who weren’t born when he was one of the funniest men around, making millions of dollars on television.  Yet, again, he wasn’t an athlete; perhaps that’s the key. We want our heroes to be famous and rich athletes — even if they are known to be cheaters. Puzzling.

Athletes As Employees

You have probably heard about the recent decision by the Labor Relations Board in Illinois allowing Northwestern University football players to unionize. In case you haven’t, here’s the lead from a recent news article:

Northwestern University football players on scholarship are employees of the school and therefore entitled to hold an election to decide whether to unionize, an official of the National Labor Relations Board ruled Wednesday.

The stunning decision, coming after a push by former quarterback Kain Colter backed by organized labor, has the potential to shake up the world of big-time college sports.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association and universities set the rules and cut the lucrative deals with TV networks and sponsors, exerting near total control over the activities of players known as “student athletes.” But now those football players, at least at Northwestern, are employees too and may seek collective bargaining status, according to the 24-page ruling by Peter Sung Ohr, the regional director of the NLRB.

Northwestern University plans to appeal the ruling and the likelihood is that the case will be in court for years making lawyers rich and everyone else frustrated — not unlike the case involving the Deadlock estate Charles Dickens talks about in Bleak House! By the time the lawyers finished with that one, the money at issue had been all used up in lawyers’ fees. This case will cost some people a great deal of money in the end as well. And, while workers’ rights are certainly part of the equation, it is money that is the primary focus.

The American football industry, housed primarily in NCAA Division I Universities, brings in well over a billion dollars in TV revenue every year and the kids who play the game want their share — or at the very least some protection from abusive coaches and unscrupulous university administrators. They are being exploited, as Karl Marx would point out, and they have finally figured out that this must stop. Whether it will or not remains to be seen. I have my doubts. The universities and the NCAA are both dead set against this and they are the ones who have all the money on their side and they like the idea of making sure they don’t kill the golden goose, and in this case the goose is named student/athlete. In effect, the kids are taking on the establishment. Go, David, kill Goliath!

What I find especially interesting is the inherent contradiction involved in the ruling that these athletes are employees of the universities. Not students, apparently, but employees: they really can’t be both. There goes the fiction of the student/athlete, assuming anyone believed it any more. The graduation rates for Division I football and male basketball players are a joke, as is commonly known. And the examples of kids who are recruited, don’t make the team, and are later discarded are legion. By making these kids employees folks like Kain Coulter, an oft-injured but terribly gifted quarterback who recently finished his collegiate football career, hope to get them the protection a union contract would seem to guarantee. At issue are such things as terms and conditions of employment, spending money, practice times, but especially medical benefits. It sounds good on paper. We shall see,

Those who have read my blogs and checked out the article on my web page about “The Tail That Wags The Dog” will expect me to applaud this effort on the part of the players at Northwestern. And I do. It helps rid us of the hypocrisy that is Division I athletics at American colleges and Universities. As things stand at present, the vast majority of those who play Division I “revenue sports,” aptly called, tend not to spend much time in class or worry overmuch about their grades and their future, in or out of the professional ranks. For years now I have recommended that we do away with the sham and hypocrisy and simply admit that these kids are professional athletes — pay them a decent wage, and let those who want to pay for their classes pursue a degree. It just seems more honest somehow. This step toward unionization appears to be the first step — if it is allowed by the courts and the powers that be. In any event, it is a sure bet that changes will be forthcoming, though no matter what comes about the colleges and universities (and the NCAA) will almost certainly not suffer in the process.