By Jeff Weyant
Yesterday we published Part I of this series highlighting exactly what is wrong with the NCAA, and how to its basic nature, the organization is hypocritical and biased. Today in Part II, we lay out a solution.
A growing segment of the sports world is beginning to point out the unfair position of the college athlete, particularly the superstars like Tim Tebow, Cam Newton, and Kemba Walker. These players are paid on average $7,000-12,000 a year in tuition, room, and board to play for their institution, an activity which brings in astonishingly large revenue figures (a middling Pac-10 school like Arizona State University draws over $13 million in ticket sales alone). More and more people are suggesting greater compensation for college athletes. After all, if a school like Texas brings in over $120 million from athletics and if college football in general tallied $2.2 billion in revenue in 2009, there’s got to be some money somewhere, right?
Well, actually, no. I haven’t seen this connection made (which probably just means someone already said it and I missed it) but one reason we’re unlikely to see a pay-for-play program is that there’s no money with which to pay athletes, unless you dramatically restructure the financial infrastructure of collegiate sports departments (good luck).
To see what I mean, head here and here for databases that catalogue the precarious economics of fielding a successful college sports department. The reality is that more and more schools are dealing with significant debt resulting from the upkeep costs associated with their athletic programs.
Take the University of Cincinnati, which left Conference USA in 2005 to join the Big East, and won conference titles in football in 2008 and 2009, culminating in high-profile bowl appearances, and also high-priced upgrades to help deal with the increased attention. As of 2010, the school had accumulated $24 million in athletic debt, leading to an enlarged dependence on university subsidies - money that’s essentially taken away from other areas of the academic institution to fuel an entirely non-academic enterprise.
In 2007-08 the athletic department at Cincinnati received $10,699,504 in university subsidies and still managed several million dollars more in expenses than in revenue. Which means athletics cost the university well over $13 million that year. A student in the English department pays tuition and thus contributes to his or her education, but the athletic department spent $6,667,940 on tuition and fees for athletes (part of their scholarships), meaning college sports actually takes money away from the university.
So that $2.2 billion in college football revenue from 2009 seems deceptive, because just about all of it goes to pay for college football. If you go through the databases in the links above, you’ll notice that just about all athletic departments break even in the long run. They go over a few million one year, save a few million the next year. Hence the big question: if we’re going to start paying college athletes, where exactly is the money going to come from?
Of course, we have to agree to pay them in the first place, and what a battle that’s going to be. One side espouses the integrity of being a student-athlete while the other side claims injustice. “These kids are getting a free college education,” they say, “it’s an amateur league, they’ll get paid when they join the pros,” and so on. To which the other side responds, “But what about all the money Tim Tebow draws for the University of Florida, an amount staggeringly higher than the cost of attendance?”
Here’s how I’d respond to both camps: What if we created a sports league or a set of sports leagues that funneled directly into the professional leagues and had no connection to academic institutions?
Sure, it’s messy and complicated but before you shake your head in disbelief and close the browser window, hear me out. America isn’t the only country that ties its most popular sports to academic institutions, but it is the only one that prejudices the academics over the sports. In France, for instance, there’s a network of schools designed to develop the athletic talents of young people while continuing their standard education in the usual subjects. In spite of the academics, there’s absolutely no insincerity about what the main goal of the institutions is: turn young athletes into professional athletes.
Tony Parker, for instance, was talented enough at 14 to receive an invitation to attend one of these institutions. He played on an amateur squad for two years and then signed with a professional club at 19. His story isn’t so very different from Kevin Durant, who played four years of high school ball and one year at Texas before being drafted into the NBA. Except Parker was paid a competitive salary on an amateur team and Durant settled for a high school diploma and two semesters at the University of Texas.
France may be the butt of jokes inside the United States, but at least they’re honest. They don’t try to hide the fact that student-athletes are often more interested in playing in the pros than they are in reading books and cramming for tests.
In the U.S., though, there’s at least one organization that seems to regard college sports as merely an obnoxiously large stepping stone to going pro: When the news broke that Derrick Rose shouldn’t have been admitted to the University of Memphis because his grades were doctored (and thus didn’t meet Division I standards) the NBA world was noticeably silent. Rose had already completed an entire NBA season and the reaction from fans and journalists alike was: “Who cares if he shouldn’t have gone to college, HAVE YOU SEEN HIM PLAY?”
But elsewhere there’s a lot of hemming and hawing. “But college sports is a tradition, these kids are getting an education, what about all the people that don’t want to go pro?” The first is a barrier to change rather than a meaningful argument. The second is meaningless because just as it’s not economically feasible for everyone in America to own their own house, it’s also not plausible that all young people are capable of attaining a college degree, or that they even need one. The third issue, however, is pretty important. When I called my solution “messy and complicated” this is what I had in mind.
All I can say for the moment, without delving deeper into how the French do it (though that appears to be a rewarding experience), is that it must be possible. Other countries do it and get by just fine. I imagine we can find a way.
But even if this solution is impossible to implement, the problems remain. Many universities (often from the power conferences) are draining more and more money from the non-athletic student body to pay for the general upkeep, which can’t be very good for the quality of education. Most academic institutions the last several years have suffered hiring and wage freezes, state budget cuts, and faculty firings. Which means a lot of the schools increasing the burden of the average student to maintain the athletic programs are doing double damage to the original purpose of an academic institution.
The issue of schools being unable to adequately sustain a competitive sports department without harming their original (and more important) educational aspirations is a bigger deal than whether or not it’s unfair for college athletes, particularly in football and basketball, to be paid so little. This is true even if it’s pretty clear that something’s afoot financially, as it is right now when athletes who bring in untold millions in revenue for their university get in trouble for selling jerseys to pay for tattoos. And when the average annual salary for a major-college football head coach is close to $1.5 million, people are not upset unreasonably.
The larger issue, beyond pay-for-play arguments and insolvent athletic departments, is that academic institutions are way points on the path to becoming a professional athlete in a major sport like football or basketball. Particularly when authority figures, like student government president Tom Lolli from the University of Cincinnati, claim that a successful team is “something that connects students to the university other than going to class.” Or when Michael Crow, the president of Arizona State University, recently unveiled a plan to guide the school’s downtrodden football team back to national prominence because good football teams are good recruiting tools.
The point of an academic institutions is to educate. When universities and colleges lose sight of this goal, there’s something wrong. So perhaps the solution isn’t to completely distance pre-professional sports from universities and colleges, but priorities are skewed and people suffer because of it, not only those who just want to hit the books, but also those who just want to play for the Dallas Cowboys.
So if we can’t agree on a reasonable pay-for-play scenario, we have to at least stand up for a system in which academic aspirations aren’t trampled underfoot by our very-much-okay desire to watch and play sports. In the words of that one lady from The Simpsons: “Won’t somebody please think of the children!?”
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