Friday, April 4, 2014

Pay is Coming for College Athletes… Eventually

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter is attempting to form a Player's Association for college athletes. Hence, the sign on his podium.
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

Yesterday I wrote one sarcastic sentence about the Chicago office of the National Labor Relations Board's decision that Northwestern football players are, in fact, employees of their school.

With that decision comes the right for these players to form a union. It's important to remember that this ruling ONLY affects Northwestern football players, and that it is far more important for symbolic reasons. This thing isn't even done being appealed by Northwestern, so I wouldn't exactly expect a National Collegiate Football Players (NCFB) union popping up any time soon.

But this ruling, along the NCAA's increased feelings of squeamishness over Ed O'Bannon's anti-trust lawsuit against it, clearly signal that some change is coming.

The change being that people will view college athletes with a little common sense.

Let's talk money.

I was (half) kidding when I said Northwestern football never made any money. While the Wildcats play at only 48,000 person capacity Ryan Field, a far cry from the 100,000-plus spectator super-stadiums elsewhere in the Big Ten and in the SEC, the football program generated an astonishing $235 million in revenue over the last nine years.

For those of you that played basketball at North Carolina, and thus, never had to learn anything past a 2nd grade level, that is an average of just over $26 million per year.

Think about it, that's freaking Northwestern, the smallest program in the Big Ten and a national afterthought in most seasons. Now imagine what programs like Texas, Alabama, Florida, USC, Ohio State and Florida State pull in every year.

Well, I won't make you imagine anything, you can check out this Business Insider article from early 2013. It details the Top-25 football revenues of the 2012 season, and keep in mind that new television deals in the Big Ten, Pac 12 and SEC have since kicked in, giving schools in those conferences even more money, while Texas' "Longhorn Network" is increasing cash flow in Austin.

If you don't feel like reading the article, just know that the University of Texas' football program generated $104.5 million, and that 17 different programs earned at least $50 million in 2012. Northwestern is peanuts compared to these big boys.

The point is, football programs make some serious cash, and it seems silly that the people responsible for much of the product are not compensated.

But wait, scholarships!

Yes, surely a student athlete should be thankful for the right to attend a prestigious university such as Northwestern. That scholarship (which can be valued as high as $50,000 at some schools) is definitely worth something, no doubt, and I hate when people scoff at the value of a scholarship.

That being said, let's use some common sense and understand that Division I college football and basketball players are not normal students. One of the biggest critiques I've heard from people my age about paying college players goes a little something like this:

"Oh, so we should just pay these dumb jocks?!?! I'm a (doctor/lawyer/random professional) now, and I had to pay my way through school and work hard. They already go to school for free, why should we pay them for their work when I wasn't paid for mine?"

Not a bad point, but with all due respect, you weren't making your school any money. Also, it should be pointed out that universities DO give academic scholarships, they're just highly competitive and nearly impossible to get. You know, kind of like it's REALLY hard to be a Division I athlete in any sport, much less the two major revenue sports.

Anyways, I would liken the Division I football/basketball player to the position of my wife, a Graduate Research assistant. Because she is super smart and generating science for her university, her schooling is not only free, she is also paid a livable yearly stipend.

The only difference is that instead of bleeding mice and producing data, this student is generating insane amounts of money in television rights, ticket sales, merchandising and school branding. Like I said, my wife is very smart, and surely an asset for her school, but I doubt we'll see her on the side of a university bus any time soon, nor will anybody head to our bookstore to buy gloves modeled after the ones she uses in experiments.

I'm not saying we have to pay college athletes millions of dollars, I'm just saying we should probably get the kids that make the NCAA $16 billion each year on this plan.

Sure, they're undergrads and I'm proposing a plan based on graduate research work. But, since there's no "sports grad school," this will have to do.

Let's also address the other straw man question of "well, do we have to pay water polo/tennis/field hockey players?"

In a word, no. Water polo programs don't rake in millions of dollars. In fact, most smaller sports programs at major schools operate in the red, and are funded by larger programs like football and basketball. For those reasons, I have to say sorry to my tennis friends, but only football and basketball players truly deserve to make money. It's not fair, but it is basic economics.

Now, there will be some gender inequality questions, but that doesn't mean they can't be solved. There will surely be some Title IX issues with paying male athletes and not female athletes, so I'm sure some concessions will have to be made, (perhaps paying women's basketball and soccer players) but paying athletes a livable yearly stipend is not out of reach.

Also, as long as you enforced a minimum and maximum allowable stipend, why not let schools show how committed they are to winning. If the max were $40,000 per year, I'm sure Alabama would pay it without a second thought. But, if my alma mater, Purdue, was only paying the minimum of $20,000 a year, I might laugh at them when they tell me I need to pay more for season tickets.

It would put the question of money and effort right out into the open, and let fans know just how hard their athletic departments are trying to win. Some programs, like Northwestern, might be happy paying less and trying to find gems. That's fine, but at least it would be clearly spelled out where your program sits in the landscape of college sports.

Then, if your favorite team strings together a few good years, ala Boise State, there would be room for upward mobility and increased stipends as profits went up. That would give programs something to work for and fans something to hope for.

Listen, I obviously don't have all the answers, but until we acknowledge that college athletes are far from normal students, this isn't going away. People are beginning to realize that the NCAA's self-serving "amateurism" policy is nothing more than a false ideal, promoted to further a business model built on free labor.

Change is coming. We don't know when or what that change will look like, but now that people are looking at college sports like any other business, it is inevitable.


Caity said...

Wait... you're not interested in buying gloves modeled after the ones I use in experiments????

Joe Parello said...

Maybe if they looked like these

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