The Indentured Servitude of the Big-Time College Athlete

The Indentured Servitude of the Big-Time College Athlete

It is perhaps a little late in the day to be writing about this, given the amount of ink (both real and digital) that has already been spilled discussing it, but you should definitely read Taylor Branch’s devastating piece, “The Shame of College Sports”, over at the Atlantic. It is a thorough deconstruction of what the NCAA actually is and does, and how that differs from what it says it is and does. The testimonials of the people who have been through the profit-generating grist mill and experienced first-hand the ruthlessness with which the NCAA defends its economic position are heartbreaking and infuriating in equal measure.

I was asked to kick off a thread on this because it might be of interest to League readers and members, and I’m happy to oblige. This is a subject that’s pretty near and dear to my own heart, and I’ve gotten in countless argument with friends and family over the indentured servitude of the big-time college athlete. I have a perspective on this, and it agrees pretty strongly with Branch’s perspective, but the League seems like a good place to hash out arguments on both sides. I will start by laying out what I take to be the major fault lines, and I will try to be relatively fair to all sides. I am mostly going to limit my discussion to football, because I am on much stronger ground there, but the lessons probably apply to basketball as well.

The comparison case, or control group, here is clearly the NFL. Players there are, by and large, responsible for their own economic well-being. They have control over their identities, the ability to demand salaries commensurate with their value to their teams, and the freedom to move from team to team to secure a salary they consider fair. (Again, by and large; there are, of course lots of rules constraining these factors.)

What this does, ultimately, is make the NFL kind of a soulless endeavor and a complete slog to watch. I realize there will be (vehement) disagreements over this claim, but it does represent an objection made by a lot of people, especially people who are fans of college football, including me. The players are mercenaries, they are largely interchangeable, tactical philosophy is stagnant, and the incentives tend far more toward “don’t screw up” than “dare boldly”. It is, like any other large corporation in an established market, a fundamentally conservative venture. And it’s boring.

The college game is none of these things. It is defined by exciting players, tactical masterminds with headsets, crazy schemes, and a sense of esprit de corps. A team is a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts, not just some cobbled-together band of mercenaries who are looking to win a championship and then go their separate ways (unless we’re talking about Auburn, I guess). When college football fans look over at the NFL, they see the antithesis of this, and they see the payment of players as the fundamental corrosive agent. (They do not, of course, ever really see payment of coaches, journalists, and apparel manufacturers in quite the same light.)

On another hand, you have universities themselves. The cynical view is that universities are in this for profit, and designing institutions that maximize their surplus of the gains from trade are the whole point. The less-cynical view is the one the NCAA gives us in their surprisingly stirring ads: “There are more than 380,000 student-athletes, and most of them go pro in something other than sports.” It is undeniably true that college athletics, with the exception of football and the occasional basketball program, are not a profitable enterprise. Providing 380,000 scholarships isn’t cheap, and squeezing profits out of big-time athletes is how universities pay for those.

Against these forces, you have the players themselves. As Branch lays out in painstaking detail, these are young men (and women) who are denied recompense for injuries suffered during games, who are denied rights to their own images, and who are often buffeted about by the winds of niggling regulations that they have little chance of understanding or combating. In many cases, we comfort ourselves with the thought that they will probably end up rich anyway, so who cares? Cam Newton didn’t need $180,000 because he was going to be a multi-millionaire a few years later. What about other cases, though? What about the 370,000 or more student-athletes who won’t end up rich? For that matter, what about basic justice?

The thing that really crystallized this for me was a billboard I saw a few years ago outside of Comerica Park in Detroit (home of the AL Central-winning Tigers). It was an ad for Central Michigan University, which at the time had the best quarterback in the history of their program, a guy called Dan LeFevour. If you don’t know him, he was one of the early dual-threat guys, following Vince Young and presaging guys like Denard Robinson and Cam Newton. To my knowledge, he still holds the record for career touchdowns in college football. In any case, the ad had a picture of LeFevour, and it said under him: “Dan LeFevour, Quarterback” (see above). This, of course, is fairly minor – it might even seem trivial – but it was a stark indication to me of what is at stake here. This was a guy who wasn’t likely to be terribly rich – he was drafted, to my surprise, but he has never played at the professional level – and who was undoubtedly going to experience nearly all of his fame in college. He was a legitimate star for a basement-dwelling program like Central Michigan, and basically all of his star power accrued to the university instead of to him. It would have been illegal for him to put up a billboard ad with his name or appearance on it for anyone else, even though they’re his name and appearance. I can’t see how you make an argument for that that doesn’t just amount to “Dan LeFevour works for me”.

But Dan LeFevour doesn’t work for you. He isn’t a ward of Central Michigan University. He is a guy who brings in buckets of money without seeing even a fraction of it in return. And this is just Dan LeFevour, of course. By all accounts, people like Cam Newton and Vince Young are orders of magnitude more profitable to their schools. People like to point out that all of these guys got four-year scholarships, so it’s not like they were paid nothing, but how much does that amount to at a big state school? $100,000? Does anyone seriously believe that is anything like fair compensation for the profits they earned for their schools?

What’s worse is that these guys are pretty strictly prohibited from doing anything else for money. Obviously they can’t sign any licensing deals (although the NCAA is more than happy to sign licensing deals on their behalf, as long as their names don’t appear – consider the EA Sports video games or the jerseys sold on every campus), and they can’t accept gifts from anyone either. Maybe those don’t set you off, but they can’t have jobs either. They are pretty explicitly prohibited from getting money from anything other than their scholarships or their families. Given the socioeconomic backgrounds of a lot of major college athletes, this is not a trivial restriction. And, oddly enough, it isn’t a restriction that applies to anyone else. As Jay Bilas, hero of Twitter, reminds his followers near-constantly, people on academic scholarships certainly aren’t prohibited from having jobs. I had both of those things myself, in fact, and I was never dragged before a committee.

This is getting a little long, so I’m going to cut it off, but there are lots of wrinkles to all of this. I have barely touched on the labyrinthine efforts the NCAA uses to enforce their notion of the “student-athlete” – complicated rules, seemingly-arbitrary punishments, random meting-out of justice with little reference to relative severity of crimes – or the rampant disregard for and circumvention of rules. The system is deeply broken, and everyone knows it. The NCAA might be the least-respected-but-most-powerful institution outside of Congress, and that’s worth talking about too.

Okay, consider this the opening salvo. What say you?

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88 thoughts on “The Indentured Servitude of the Big-Time College Athlete

  1. The only thing I know on this subject is a passing mention in South Park where Cartman dressed as a southern plantation owner and congratulated the President of one of the colleges on his successful slave business and inquired as to how he could get in on the racket.

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  2. If the preferred goal is to make sure college football remains less soulless than NFL (not saying this is MY goal, but seems like yours from this post), the better solution is to draw up rules preventing the colleges themselves from profiting on the backs of the players.

    But this is actually one area where I think less rules and regulations are a lot better. Let the free market rules, as in let both colleges and players profit, since for various reasons, I think it’s really unlikely that the NCAA would actually do anything to prevent colleges from making a profit. In this case, one-sided rules seems to be worse than no rules at all.

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  3. They don’t really have this problem with baseball.

    They don’t really have this problem with baseball, because baseball has its own farm league. If you want to play college baseball because you want to play for your alma mater (or, because you’re a decent baseball player but you’re never going to be good enough for the minors), you get to play college baseball. If you want to play for pay, you go into the minors.

    This introduces another, different dynamic. Minor league baseball is not a picnic, obviously, but if you wanna shoot for the pros, that’s likely where you go.

    Neither basketball nor football has a farm league. They don’t have a farm league because it’s neither in the best interests of the NFL or the NBA to pay for creating such a critter when they already have one (the NCAA), and it’s not in the best interests of the NCAA when they make piles of money off of basketball and football.

    When’s the last time anybody cared about the college baseball world series? The last time they played it, of course, but the people who cared were *real, college-level baseball fans*.

    You want this ongoing song and dance about money and college football/basketball to go away? Tell the leagues to open a damn farm league.

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      • No, I’m solving the problem by aligning what people say they want with what they’re getting, so they have to stop bullshitting themselves about what they actually want.

        “I want to watch college football, but I want the game to be pure! None of this crazy money turning it into the NFL!!!”

        “Well, a small percentage of the biggest impact players in college ball are only playing college ball because there is no farm league for the NFL. They’re trying to become NFL players. So we’ll put them outside your game, and then you get what you want.”

        “But then my team won’t be national champions every Nth year!”

        “Shut. Up.”

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      • Note: to be fair, when one looks at the difference between a minor league ballplayer and a college-recruited football player, you’ll probably find their lives aren’t much different. A lot of the rights discussion in your initial post sort of vaporizes, though, because instead of “not getting their share of the NCAA pie”, the players are getting “their share of the minor league football pie”, which is going to be (obviously, as you point out), not so grand.

        Of course, that’s a voluntary exchange, they signed up for it. The rights discussion vanishes.

        But the existing pseudo-marriage with the NCAA is part of what creates the value for everybody. The NCAA provides a hard-core group of stupidly addicted fans (note: I’m stupidly addicted to lots of things myself, this isn’t intended as pejorative, just accurate characterization). The NFL gets trained players without having to form their own sub-league, and they also get nice “star” value for some of their incoming players.

        But the marriage is what creates that additional value. The NCAA isn’t really stealing anything from these players, because if they went out and worked for a farm league instead, they (at least the cheating ones) wouldn’t be getting fat sacks of cash from boosters, a big house, and five cars.

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        • While it obviously depends on how they set up the system, it’s not necessarily true that minor league players would only get “their share of the minor league football pie”.

          Bryce Harper, for example, an 18 year-old drafted first overall by the Washington Nationals, signed a 5-year contract for $9.9 million. He is being groomed for the majors, but has so far spent his entire professional career in the minor leagues.

          NFL teams presumably would also use the farm system to develop players that aren’t ready for top tier football (Tim Tebow?)

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        • “The NCAA isn’t really stealing anything from these players, because if they went out and worked for a farm league instead, they…wouldn’t be getting fat sacks of cash…”

          The point is that the farm league would pay everybody, and it would be explicit that the players were doing this as their profession, and they’d have the right to proceeds from exploitation of their image and reputation.

          As opposed to the way it is now, where (as Ryan points out) the college can trade off of Dan LeFevour’s fame without paying him a dime.

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              • No, my claim is that most of his fame wasn’t “appropriated” by the university at all. Most of his fame sort of belongs to the university.

                Most of his fame came part and parcel with his position at the university. If this guy was playing football for the CFL/XFL/NFL Europe/some minor league NFL team, he’d have as much fame as a minor league baseball player has, which isn’t much.

                Playing for Miami/Oklahoma State/USC… these are what make you famous.

                Here, let’s not talk about the top tier players who play for the top tier schools: we’re talking about double outliers there.

                Let’s illustrate the difference between “I get most of my fame by being good” vs. “I get most of my fame by being a good player *on* a particular team in the NCAA” by talking about one of the best players who ever played football, and the school he played for.

                Jerry Rice.

                How much of the NCAA pie would he “deserve”?

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                • I think you’re getting this backward. Dan LeFevour, in particular, is not a guy who is famous because of the university he played for. He played for Central Michigan, not Actual Michigan. He made the university more famous than it did him. The Jerry Rice example is similar.

                  In any case, I’m not sure what it means to talk about exactly how much someone “deserves”. That’s the situation we’re currently in, where the NCAA or the university or some other giant corporate entity puts price tags on athletes. It’s the thing that generates all of this, and it’s the thing market mechanisms usually sort out better.

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                  • Right. It *is* the thing that market mechanisms usually sort out better.

                    And the university isn’t actually in the business of making sports franchises for the public sphere…

                    … so…

                    (see my comment #3) :)

                    (edited to add)

                    Pop quiz: how many people know where Jerry Rice played college ball?

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              • These arguments are always opaque to me. It simply isn’t true that the athletics program “loses” over $10,000,000 a year. The athletics program draws eyes to the university and keeps alumni connected and donating. If the program were a massive net loss to the university, they wouldn’t keep doing it.

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                    • I think you misunderstand my point. In Portland, the city went nuts in 1989 when Rich Brooks took them to the Independence Bowl. Not a lot of those guys went to the NFL. But in Portland, they are all over the place. They own car dealerships, and restaurants, and have talk shows, and run insurance agencies, all with their name attached. Because playing ball in Oregon drew eyes to them.

                      It turns out that has a lot of value, even 30 years later.

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                    • How many universities lose money overall? That is, how many operate at a net deficit when you consider all revenues and expenses from all programs, departments, etc?

                      The vast majority lose money, if you’re excluding institutional support. They’re propped up by direct institutional support. CMU is not the exception here. I was even wrong about Boise State. They rely on $3m a year in institutional support.

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                    • Oh, sorry, misread. All (or almost all) public universities lose money in the sense that they are subsidized by the state (hence being public universities).

                      If you want to say it’s okay for athletics departments to run deficits, I don’t actually disagree. But it is a pretty severe strike against the notion that the players should be paid because the athletics departments are making all of this money.

                      The universities are get non-monetary benefits for having their athletics programs. As are, in my view, the players. Most of whom will never play in the NFL and a great many of whom would play even without scholarships, if they went to college in the first place.

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                • First, you assume rationality where it does not apply.

                  Second, for all of the attention CMU’s athletics program brings in, almost 2/3 of it has to be funded by the university. Over 10x what they make in ticket sales and 10x what they make in athletics department contributions. There is simply no way that this pays for itself.

                  It’s a school pride thing. It’s a keeping-up-with-the-other-directional-schools thing. It’s not a money thing. Which is what it would need to be to talk about giving the QB money for his contributions. As a publicity thing, the school got theirs and he got his.

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                  • I think the root question is why you feel qualified to make the decision on LeFevour’s behalf. When you strip everything away, your position is that there is nothing wrong with forcing an economic relationship on someone who has very few choices because it seems okay to you.

                    I want to see the moral argument that says there’s nothing inherently objectionable about creating an economic relationship that someone isn’t able to negotiate for himself.

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                    • I don’t feel qualified to make the decision on LeFevour’s behalf. Nor do I feel qualified to make it on Central Michigan’s or the NCAA’s.

                      The relationship you refer to isn’t just the NCAA’s. I think Maurice Clarett was right about the NFL’s 3-year requirement. If LeFevour is good enough, he ought to be able to go pro immediately. Maybe he can (I don’t know what Arena’s, the UFL, and CFL rules are).

                      LeFevour could forego NFL aspirations entirely.

                      But the NCAA offers a take-it-or-leave-it deal. Four or five years of coaching, training, and conditioning, as well as an education if he is inclined to take advantage of it, in exchange for playing football.

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      • The NFL can’t draft out of high school, actually. Players have to be three years out of college. That’s what the Maurice Clarett lawsuit was about.

        NFL Europe is the NFL’s only real attempt at a farm system. CFL really doesn’t count. While some CFL talent goes on to NFL success, the difference in play makes conversion a little different. Not as different as Arena, but more different than NFLE.

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            • Fair enough. Let me rephrase that last:

              Regardless, any other football league is really not going to amount to much as long as you have NCAA football and the NFL.

              There aren’t any good enough players left to populate another league that people will pay to watch.

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              • There aren’t any good enough players left to populate another league that people will pay to watch.

                We’re mostly arguing wording here, but I think that there isn’t room for another league for reasons not having anything to do with the number of players or good players. There are lots and lots of good players. But there is too little room on television, in sports news media, and so on, to give attention to the players no matter how good they are. Unless they’re better (and more well-known) than the NFL, in which case they could supplant the NFL.

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                • > There are lots and lots of good players.

                  I think we now have a point upon which we think the other guy is nuts.

                  The difference in the mean and the Super Bowl Champion since the league decided, no foolin’, they really were going to enforce the salary cap, has gone down quite a bit.

                  The 1994-95 San Francisco 49ers were the last time a team was (depth-chart) substantially more awesome than most of the other teams in the league. That team could have lost almost anybody at any position (possibly multiple somebodies) in that last game and they still would have beaten the Chargers to death.

                  It used to be you could have 4 really good offensive linemen, and 2 good backups. Now you’re lucky to have a line with 4 really good players at all, and an injury puts your rook in there and all of a sudden your run game drops 2 yards per carry and your quarterback gets sacked .8 more times a game and by the end of the season he’s gone soft in the head.

                  The bell curve of player capability matters, in a league. You add four more teams, you’re going to see a lot more injuries and shorter careers at the skill positions.

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                  • Yeah. We disagreed on this in a previous thread, too.

                    I find it extremely difficult to believe that if you added four, eight, or even twelve teams that you would see anything remotely like the talent and size differential in FBS college football (nevermind that they share their field with FCS teams as well). But the game soldiers on.

                    In terms of the population, professional football has not come *even close* to the nation’s population growth. Throw in how football is the new national passtime, and I see a lot of room for expansion.

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                    • Thankfully, we’ll never know for sure, so we can both choose this ridiculous topic to stake out un-empircally testable opinions and bloviate about ’em and our nice thought constructions that are based upon those previously mentioned untestable opinions :)

                      It’s not like we’re arguing about public policy that matters, after all.

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          • Our point–and, I thought, yours too–is that the NCAA should not be the de facto farm team for the NFL.

            I think the problem with the “farm team NFL” is that an NFL career has to start early in a player’s life, and doesn’t last very long. It’s not like baseball, where you can (theoretically) spend four years in college, six years in the minors, and then go on to a twelve-year career. A farm-team NFL would pretty much have to be an alternative to college.

            Which is an amusing notion; sort of like a trade school for playing football! But given that professional sports are mostly a form of entertainment anyway, perhaps we should look at it more like acting or singing or art.

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  4. I’m not really sure where I fall in all of this and this will likely just be a dumping of my thoughts with no real, proper structure. Like you said most schools use the profits (if they make any) from basketball/ football to fund the scholarships of non-revenue sport athletes which is awesome (and multimillion dollar salaries of coaches, which is insane that anyone can make that much money for the job). With all they bring in, it would be great to give them something more than an education (full cost-of-living scholarships that are for four years instead of renewable one year scholarships are a no brainer, but do you give these to all athletes? Or only those in revenue sports?) Also the cost-of-living thing is made slightly odd when certain sports break up their scholarships into partials for multiple people. I guess in that case everyone just gets slightly more money? But, when the athletes on these teams aren’t allowed to make money outside of the scholarship (other than summer jobs) they need to have enough money for housing, bills, food, etc. (though a lot of them do use parts of their stipend for non-living essentials like large tvs and other luxery items, but given how much money they bring into the system I think it’s fine if they buy an x-box or 8.)

    The issue with directly paying players is obviously one of balance. Do you put a salary cap on schools the way they impletmented the scholarship cap? Or do large revenue schools get the advantage that they can pay more? Is it a flat rate for all players? This is also the issue with outside jobs. It’s idiotic that they can’t hold jobs, but when they’re allowed to what stops rich boosters from hiring them and paying them large amounts of cash for not doing any work? Wasn’t there a qb from Oklahoma a few years ago that got a job like that at a car dealership? So, again rich schools with rich boosters can buy teams and we’re left with smaller schools having no ability to compete with the big boys at all.

    So, I just wrote a lot of words and I’m still very split on the topic. These kids should get more than what they currently get but what’s the limit? Is there one? Or do we just make this the NFL with collegiate ties and younger players?

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    • I think a lot of these are solid points. I am considering doing a follow-up post in the next couple days with some notions about exactly what to do to fix the problems. The “getting a job doing nothing for lots of money” objection seems fairly strong to me (also, yes, you are correctly remembering Rhett Bomar’s job) – although it’s worth pointing out how much money I got paid to write this post instead of doing my job…

      In any case, this is a really knotty problem. It’s possible that Patrick’s incredibly unsatisfying solution is the one that correctly balances everyone’s rights and responsibilities here, but that seems kind of unlikely and really depressing.

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      • I never said it was a fun solution.

        Really, though, we don’t need the college football phenomenon we have now. We need college football to be more like college baseball: where kids who really want to learn but also want to fart around on a diamond wearing their school colors are the dominant driving force in the activity, and the people who show up are the people who care about kids who really want to learn but also want to fart around on a diamond wearing their school colors.

        If you just want to get snocked in the parking lot and eat a bunch of hot dogs with your old buddies and go sit in the stands and scream about how Notre Dame is a bunch of pansy-ass… yeah, I don’t see that as being something that really adds to the gravitas of the university experience much.

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        • Another possibility that I give some weight to is the idea that minor sports are too competitive. How much time is really appropriate? Some of the drive to win comes from the student-players but not all.

          I think there’s at least the possibility of a divergence of interest between the players and the coaches. The coaches get paid to win. The tradeoff in the players’ time and attention doesn’t necessarily matter, therefore they can always ask for more of it.

          The NCAA has limits of course, but as the article mentions the NCAA isn’t always the most fair or disinterested judge. In a way it’s more defensible in the major sports, because the athletes can believe they are in training for a career, delusional or not.

          A little digression: just about every nation (and all of the first world ones) have universities. None of them have college sports like the US does. The warrior-competitive ethos exists elsewhere, of course, but somehow the odd combination of education, amateurism, and athleticism only happened here.

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      • Actually, I don’t think college football would skip a beat if a lot of the best players went to a farm system (it’s worth noting… a lot of them wouldn’t). If you ever watch FCS football, it’s really not all that much different. There is *a lot* of talent out there. The main difference is that the talent would be somewhat smaller. You see this in leagues like Conference USA and the WAC. It actually makes for some really exciting football.

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        • (Potential) Counterexample: College Baseball.

          Granted, college football has a larger fan base than college baseball, but I think one can make a solid case that this is an artifact of the MLB farm league.

          Now, one can certainly guess that college football will still be a media giant, because it is one already. The Network Effect is real, after all.

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    • I struggled with these same issues. Certainly not being able to have a part-time job is crazy. But I think this rule was born of good intentions. To avoid the rich schools buying all the good players instead of spending money on education, athletes cannot be paid. To get around this, boosters would put the athletes on the payrolls of their companies and give them money for no work, as Funkutron mentioned. To prevent this obvious loophole, the NCAA dictated that athletes cannot hold any job whatsoever.

      It’s not a great solution, but it’s also not a rule designed to make money. It was probably the easiest thing for the NCAA to enforce–the resources required to investigate the validity of 400,000 part-time jobs would be staggering (not that the NCAA doesn’t have those resources).

      Maybe having the athletes control their own images is the right answer. I don’t know of any other scholarship program that forces you to give away those rights, but there are many research scholarships that claim for the school the IP you produce while under scholarship. Is athletic image like IP? Certainly the image of the athlete is created at the school using the school’s resources, so if athletes are allowed to use their image to earn money, should research scholars be able to sell their results derived from the school’s resources to the highest bidder? I don’t know.

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  5. I used to be a huge fan of college football, not as much any more. There’s a lot here, but here’s a few snippets that make resolving the problem difficult.

    First of all, college athletics in general don’t make money. College football and basketball make money, the rest of the sports cost money, and the athletic departments are in the net red at most places. Given that, who do you pay?

    Football, as much as I’m a fan, seems like an anachronism. The NFL makes sense, in that the violence that it creates is reasonably well compensated. I don’t see much point in high school or college football, as huge as that is. It’s really odd, but somehow the idea of questioning their existence never really came up over fifty years or whatever.

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  6. A few counterpoints:

    (1) In response to Pat, Ryan mentions that nobody watches minor league baseball. This suggests that the value of college football isn’t actually in the individual players but rather in the institutions. Take the Alabama Tide and make them the Tuscaloosa Talons and nobody watches. This is in contrast to the NFL, where if all of the NFL players left and formed their own league, it would actually be at least competitive with the NFL.

    (1a) If college players really were worth all that much on their own, some enterprising individual would actually make money off of them and pay them along the way. It wouldn’t be hard to outbid the NCAA for all of the best non-NFL players, after all! But everybody knows that nobody watches the UFL.

    (1b) And as such, the players would still probably opt for the NCAA because the NCAA provides the benefits of (a) training under well-paid coaches and using well-furnished facilities and (b) a national platform with which to impress everybody.

    (2) The vast majority of athletics programs lose money. When we talk about “how profitable it is” we’re talking about a few dozen schools, at most. Maybe as few as 14. And a whole lot of that is football with its 80 scholarships, well-paid coaches, and so on.

    (2a) You can’t really separate out football from the other sports. First, because of Title IX. If you pay 80 football payers, you have to pay 80 women athletes as well. If you take part in the NCAA Division I, you have to have x-number of sports, even if they’re going to lose money. So you have the “profits” from college football, where they exist, going towards subsidizing women athletes and other male sports.

    (2b) And even when athletics programs are making money, they’re going towards the non-profit institutions themselves and not to shareholders. It’s going towards academics, new buildings, new facilities, and so on.

    (3) We can argue that the difference between a money-making program and losing program are the players themselves, and so they are adding value. Except… look at Boise State. One of the best football programs in the country. They’re barely breaking even. Kansas State, meanwhile, is making good money, as is Oregon State.

    (3a) The value of the player is secondary to the value of the institution. And the value of the player is only value comparatively from one program to the next (separating Boise State last year from San Jose State). And all of this exists within the context of college football and the academic institutions therein.

    (3b) Which brings us back to Point #1, which is that college football is successful because of its attachments to the institutions. This cannot be emphasized enough. I do not watch my alma mater because of how great its players are. I watch it because it is my alma mater. Take all of the players in FCS Division football (which is losing money) and bump them up to FBS, and nothing really skips a beat. More people watch that than the minor leagues where all of the FBS players went.

    All of that being said, I do favor some reforms. Scholarships ought to cover the entire cost of attendance. And I would really like to see a minor league NFL. Opposition to that comes as much from the NFL as anybody and it’s not really in the NCAA’s hands. Minor League Baseball loses money and Major League Baseball is on the hook for that. The NFL would want no part of it.

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    • “Which brings us back to Point #1, which is that college football is successful because of its attachments to the institutions. This cannot be emphasized enough.”

      Of course, but that in essence that is the real fraud of major college sports (and only tangentially mentioned in The Atlantic). The athletes represent the institutions but then again they don’t. They don’t graduate, they don’t go to class, they have very little if any participation with rest of the student body.

      That wouldn’t be such a big deal, except that there are real “student-athletes” out there, and there’s no real good way of telling who is who.

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  7. Great post. Someone may have already touched upon this in the comments section, but I’m not so sure I agree with the premise that the Dan LaFevours of the world “don’t see a dime” from their labors.

    Most of the people we are talking about fall into one of two different categories: the small time sport athlete, such as someone on the cricket, fencing, or swimming team. In these cases I think we can all agree that they aren’t really creating any wealth for the universities, so I assume there’s no hangups with them not being paid.

    For the others – the ones I assume we’re discussing, the Oregon or Oklahoma Football stars, or the starting five for the Georgetown Mens BBall team – there’s no question that they’re creating huge amounts of wealth. But they’re also getting paid handsomely in kind.

    Out of state tuition for the University of Oregon is upwards of $20,000 a year, and there are living expenses on top of that. I assume someplace like G-Town is much, much higher – on both the tuition and living expenses ends. Over a four year period, that is a rather large amount of money. And in addition to the cash value, there are substantial differences in the future income levels of HS grads vs. college grads.

    Th counter argument to this is that a lot of these kids don’t go to class, and drop out once their football is done with nothing to show for it. And that’s true, but so what? If Clemson had paid Cam Newton $100k and the guy had pissed it away on junk and bad investments, would we say Clemson owed him another $100k? In both cases, someone that’s probably too young and immature makes really, really poor decisions. (The difference might be that if you’re a FB player and your “bad decision” is you don’t go to class, it might be a blessing compared to the “bad decision” an immature 19 year old with $25k in his pocket might make.)

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    • In addition to room, board, and tuition, they also get extensive training for a potential future NFL career. They get access to first-class facilities and an army of coaches that help them build strength and get better at what they do. In that sense, you can look at it like an apprenticeship of sorts.

      Not to mention they get to be on TV and get a platform by which to impress NFL scouts.

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    • Is that really all that much money? A major basketball star at Georgetown presumably generates a lot more than $250,000 (or whatever amount we’re working with) over four years. Although, to be fair, a major basketball star at Georgetown isn’t likely to stay four years.

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        • Georgetown gets a ton of free labor and profit on the assumption that it will pay off for the student later. And if he gets horrifically injured while playing for Georgetown, they’re off the hook since he’s not an employee.

          This is a pretty sweet deal for Georgetown.

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            • I don’t know. What if someone told you that you have to work for nothing for the next four years, at pretty extreme risk to your health and well-being, and then you’d have a somewhat decent chance of making a ton of money for the next twenty years?

              Is that a fair thing to force on you? Is it a fair thing for you to force on someone else?

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              • This is where I think you have to think of football differently than any other sport, independently of organizational considerations. It’s just the nature of the sport.

                I don’t think any college athlete necessarily puts themselves at grave risk to their health and well-being (at least to the extent of negative expectation) except football players.

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                • Well, on the one hand, you can die playing softball (witness the debate about metal bats.)

                  And on the other hand, people are starting to recognize that the size and speed of modern players has made football a lot more dangerous than it used to be. Not to mention the fact that people are more aware of the effects and risks of injury, and less tolerant of them. My dad had two concussions in a row playing high school football in the 1960s; the medical treatment consisted of handing him a bag of ice and telling him to drive home and take a nap.

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            • It’s definitely an awesome deal for a good chunk of the college players.

              It’s not an awesome deal for a very small number of outliers.

              Not sure this is all that much different from any other organizational approach to anything, in principle. Just the number of outliers and the differentiation from the mean is what makes this an actual conversation.

              Mostly the differentiation from the mean.

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              • Actually, it’s somewhat unclear. We don’t have a lot of good data on this. The only study is by an advocacy group:

                http://rivals.yahoo.com/ncaa/football/blog/dr_saturday/post/Study-puts-six-figure-price-tag-on-NCAA-s-most-v?urn=ncaaf-wp6253

                If that’s correct, the average player at almost all schools is severely undercompensated. It’s probably not correct, by and large, but I think as a rough order-of-magnitude it’s stark.

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                • Severely undercompensated in comparison to what?

                  > A national college athletes’ advocacy
                  > group and a sports management
                  > professor calculate in the report
                  > that if college sports shared their
                  > revenues the way pro sports do, the
                  > average Football Bowl Subdivision
                  > player would be worth $121,000
                  > per year, while the average
                  > basketball player at that level
                  > would be worth $265,000.

                  This is a pretty glaringly huge assume; both because (as Will pointed out earlier), there are structural reasons why the NCAA *can’t* be like the NFL (Title IX, for one), and also that the value of a NFL franchise (which is tied quite a bit into both its TV market and its ability to win Superbowls) can be compared to the value of an NCAA “franchise” (which ain’t, at all).

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                  • Severely undercompensated in comparison to how it would work if college football were the NFL. I agree that it is hard to make college football work exactly the same way, but I didn’t make a mysterious claim. The average player appears to generate a lot more revenue for his school than he receives in compensation, if you’re willing to grant this study any credibility at all.

                    Also, I’m not sure how you can say the value of a college football franchise isn’t tied to its TV market and ability to win. This is, of course, what conference realignment is fundamentally about.

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                    • Sure, it’s tied.

                      I’d hazard a guess, however, that by far the vast majority of the real value of an NCAA “franchise” (as it were, I’m going to drop the quotes after this) is in what Will’s talking about.

                      Boosters. Alumni. The 20,000 kids currently on campus, 15,000 of which are gonna drink a keg of beer and show up at the game and scream at the Trojan band when they play that damn song. For four years. And then remember that, for the next 40, and tie in all the nostalgia of their college years and the brain comfort-food that comes from that and channel it all through watching the game on Sunday while liveblogging it with their old drinking buddies. Which makes Neilsen and Google note that Jesus, these guys really care about football and advertisers will pay to know that and put ads in front of their faces.

                      Sure, moving from conference from conference might get you 5% more a year in revenue, *in the context of the existing NCAA market* (which, to be sure in case there is any doubt, I agree is broken).

                      But in a very large, dominant, means-more-to-the-discussion than anything else, the College Football market is about the College Experience more than it is about Football. Because that’s what the people who actually *provide* the value – the consumers – remember.

                      I assert this without evidence, granted :)

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                    • Boise State fields one of the best football teams in the country, and they’re still stuck in a lousy TV deal. Economically, there was simply *no reason* why Utah should have been chosen for the Pac-12 over BYU. The Pac-12 put the kibosh on OU and UT despite the fact that it would have resulted in the conference making more money.

                      Money is a big part of realignment, but there are also all sorts of other factors. No matter how good or popular Boise State ever becomes, it will never be a part of the Pac-12 (unless they become an august academic institution). It’s unlikely BYU ever will due to its Mormon ties. And so on, and so on.

                      It all goes to the fact that college football is not (just) business. If it were, the vast majority of athletics programs would close up over night. I am quite glad that this is not the case.

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  8. Great post. I think Koz has a great insight that in this conversation the purpose of the academic institution is often left out. I think most of us recognize that the academic requirements for (major program) athletes are different from that of the rest of the student body. Note that I am not criticizing the athletes: I never had two-a-day practice schedule while trying to study — but it is different.

    I also think Truman’s point about institutional loyalty is right on.

    So . . . would it be possible to maintain a link with the parent university but separate the financial and academic requirements? I currently don’t think that most of the CU football team attends class regularly, and I am still a buff fan. That wouldn’t change if I knew they weren’t attending class at all.

    This isn’t well thought out (obviously) but for Varsity sports:
    – Keep 4 year eligibility (Don’t lock out the system to new athletes)
    – Athletes are awarded ‘Athletiships’ (this has nothing to do with scholarship)
    – Athletes are accepted to the parent university for up to 5 years after their last year of athletic performance (allows students who might not otherwise be eligible to get an education)
    – The AD is financially and administratively separated from the university (I am ambivalent to whether or not there is a cap to the value of ‘athletiships’ or other payments – as others have pointed out, the athletes gain from apprenticeship, facilities, etc.)
    – ADs must revenue share (Admittedly, I don’t know the econ here – but you enforce a system to maintain the competitiveness of small market teams)
    – Club and intramural sports are unaffected

    College football and basketball are big businesses. Let’s accept it and treat it for what it is.

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  9. “People like to point out that all of these guys got four-year scholarships, so it’s not like they were paid nothing, but how much does that amount to at a big state school? $100,000? Does anyone seriously believe that is anything like fair compensation for the profits they earned for their schools?”

    As always with this issue we end up asking the wrong questions. The question that first and foremost should be asked is, “if Cam Newton is good enough to play football for money right out of high school what is preventing him from doing so?” If we attempt an honest answer to this question we’ll immediately see that the problem lies primarily with parties other than colleges and the NCAA.

    Colleges wish to maintain at lease a pretense that they are colleges, but will naturally seek to maximize their moneymaking potential as well. This has the unfortunate side effect of exploiting some college athletes. What to do? The typical answer is to institute a system where you give Cam Newton a scholarship AND cut him a check for $100,000 (or whatever). For those of us who want to keep a semblance of colleges being what they are supposed to be some far more logical solutions suggest themselves:

    1. Address the actual problem of why Cam Newton (I’ll be using him as an example even though he’s no longer in college) is being prevented from playing for money. That means hiring some lawyers and going to court against an extremely wealthy and well-connected cartel of megarich businessmen. But who doesn’t like a challenge?
    2. Have some clever entrepreneurs start a professional league that expressly recruits talent straight out of high school.
    3. Spin the football programs away from the universities, though they can remain affiliated in name. For instance, you could have something like “Citi Presents the Auburn Tigers, starring Cam Newton”. The athletes are not housed on campus and there is no pretense that they are attending classes. They sign up for a four year commitment and in exchange get an honorary bachelor’s degree and a hundred grand (or whatever).
    4. Keep something like the present system but give all athletes (not just the football and basketball players) a modest stipend. Of course, it would be nice if we as a society could give ALL students scholarship aid instead of turning them into a vast debtor class, but I digress.

    But for the love of god don’t keep the present system with the present joke enforcement AND cut an official check for $100,000 to Cam Newton. If those who advocate such a “solution” can’t see the myriad of problems it would create on top of the ones that already exist then they aren’t thinking very deeply about the issue.

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  10. “A [college] team is a thing that is greater than the sum of its parts, not just some cobbled-together band of mercenaries who are looking to win a championship and then go their separate ways.”

    Do you really believe this for major college teams (beyond Auburn), with their recruiting complexes? It seems to be that lower level college teams and high school would be the only place this characterization applies. But those aren’t the players that the Branch writes about – the ones from big schools that create economic value and, thus, deserve compensation and insurance.

    But that’s a small point. I, too, was blown away by Branch’s piece, and I hope some of these anti-trust lawsuits work out. It would be sad to see the beloved NCAA turn into a farm system, but that’s where the arc of justice bends. Perhaps the most frightening aspect to me was the fact that players have to get their scholarships renewed on a yearly basis. On the surface, this seems fair enough, but one injury or a series of bad performances and, suddenly, you’re on your own for both academics and finances.

    Perhaps every player that goes to a major college football team should be given all the information about how incredibly unlikely an NFL career is and be given realistic career-ready academic courses, in order to mitigate bad consequences. Maybe they already do this. It just seems that, at the very least, the NCAA shouldn’t *deliberately* screw these guys over.

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    • Do you really believe this for major college teams (beyond Auburn), with their recruiting complexes? It seems to be that lower level college teams and high school would be the only place this characterization applies. But those aren’t the players that the Branch writes about – the ones from big schools that create economic value and, thus, deserve compensation and insurance.

      The “small schools” represent the vast majority of athletics programs. The suggestion is that everything should change for the dozen or two schools which actually do make money.

      Players that create value should have a place that they can go and be paid. That destination should not be the NCAA and the NCAA (a collection of almost uniformly non-profit institutions where excess – when they exist – go towards the university’s prime mission) is under no obligation to be that place.

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  11. The NCAA Final Four gets about the same ratings as the NBA championships, sometimes more, sometimes less. The revenue generated by the players in the NBA championship games allows them to demand multi-million dollar salaries. Yet the players in the NCAA Final Four, who are surely generating comparable revenues, get a dorm room and free classes in music appreciation, art history, and golf management studies.

    I think the problem originated when multi-millionaires started founding universities so they could have their football teams beat those of other multi-millionaires (Carnegie, Duke, etc). So we’ve inherited a college system of multi-millionaire egomaniacal sporting contests by unpaid, disposable proxies, accepted it as normalcy, and tried to codify the rules so the contests are fair, not the system itself.

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  12. “how much does that amount to at a big state school? $100,000? Does anyone seriously believe that is anything like fair compensation for the profits they earned for their schools?”

    It’s worth noting, perhaps, that the quarterback in not the only guy on the team. I think D-1 schools get something like 85 scholarships. Times $25,000 per year, that comes to more than $2 million a year in “wages.”

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  13. College athletes in the major sports get the training and experience to leave college and earn more the most folks will ever see. They also get that degree thingy which helps if they don’t make it in sports. So I have no sympathy for folks complaing that they have to live frugally for four years.

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