Big Ten Geeks

Friday, April 11, 2014

Of nose cuts and face spites

It’s been a while since I’ve waded into these waters, but recent developments are prompting a revisitation to the topic—Northwestern has secured an initial ruling that puts its football and men’s basketball players on the road to unionization. So let’s talk amateurism.

This is a debate in which I find myself disagreeing with both sides. The NCAA, for its part, is practicing histrionics by declaring that unionization would “completely throw away a system that has helped literally millions [ed: very helpful for the NCAA to distinguish from a metaphorical million] of students over the past decade alone attend college.” There are a few problems with that statement, the first being that the players’ demands certainly don’t strike me as a wholesale system teardown. Second, the NCAA’s headcount seems misplaced when it includes the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle who, in an alternate universe devoid of post-high school waiting periods, likely would have chosen to bypass college altogether, despite all the help offered by “the system.”

On the other side, we have the players who had the advantage of starting out in a sympathetic position. Yes, they receive compensation in the form of tuition and expenses, but it’s clearly not a market rate. Further, they are in danger of having this compensation yanked away from them in the event they are no longer able to adequately perform their job, because of an injury sustained while on the job.

All of this seems to line up with Northwestern’s demands. They want stronger concussion protections, scholarship guarantees, and financial compensation to fund or reward the completion of a degree. Sure, all of that sounds nice and reasonable. But it also has me wondering—why the heck aren’t the players asking for this stuff prior to showing up on campus?

You see, in traditional organized labor environments, the workers are largely fungible. You show up at the factory, and get a job on the line. There are exceptions to this—and sports leagues are one—where the workers do have highly specialized skills. But in the NBA, for instance, the league needs anti-competitive aspects to survive. If the Los Angeles Lakers—by virtue of playing in one of the largest media markets in the world—could buy up any player it wanted, agree to pay termination costs and rip up existing contracts of other players to other teams, the Lakers would be really good. They would probably win 70 or more games every season, were they able to retain the talents of Lebron James, Kevin Durant, Paul George, Anthony Davis, and Chris Paul. And the league would be really boring. The Oklahoma City Thunder, which plays in a city of roughly 600,000 residents, probably goes out of business as it’s unable to compete. Other teams would have to fold, too. And the NBA becomes the boring 8-team league where the Lakers win every year. Eventually, even the LA diehards stop caring, and the whole thing falls apart.

That’s the theory, anyways, and the one that has justified these antitrust exemptions we see in lots of sports leagues. But for a number of reasons, the NCAA isn’t in very much danger of becoming that. So I’m back to my question—if the Northwestern player demands are important (and they certainly seem to be, given the current effort being put forth here)—why didn’t they insist on them while being recruited? Want more concussion protections? Demand them in recruiting. Want a guaranteed scholarship for four seasons? You can ask for that too—in fact, some schools are already starting to give those out. Guess what—you can ask for postgraduate scholarship money, too.

In other words, none of these benefits require any changes to NCAA rules. And there are few people on the planet who enjoy more recruiting leverage than the prized recruit being courted by a head coach. Coaches will risk their jobs and employment sanctions in order to court high school prospects. Surely, they would indulge more modest requests like guaranteed scholarships and concussion protections.

All of this tells me that one of two things is happening: either the players aren’t entirely forthright that this effort is not about the money, or they’re suffering from a severe case of buyer’s remorse. Instead of insisting on these things prior to signing onto the dotted line on a national letter of intent, they insisted on playing time, a certain style of play, or even shiny new locker rooms. If the things now being litigated over were really important to players, they would have them already.

I’m not sure there’s much more to be said about the latter possibility, so let’s focus on the former, which is that unionization is one step toward outright player compensation. And let me be clear—that’s not an unworthy goal. But getting at it via unionization probably leads us to a place where schools are paying players directly. But I’m not sure how they can do that. For one, the Supreme Court told them not to. Then there’s also the problem that there really isn’t a lot of money to go around. No, really.

First, let’s get this out of the way—it’s best to view the NCAA and its members schools as one and the same for these purposes. After all, some 96 percent of its revenues are distributed back to the schools. The NCAA is a middleman operating on a shoestring budget (and an efficient one, at that). So instead, we should focus on the schools themselves.

Let’s take Alabama as an example. If anyone would be a worthy candidate for our vitriol, it’s the win-at-all-costs football school paying a ton of money to its head coach.



Your eyes do not deceive you—football and men’s basketball pay out more revenue than they take in. Those sports are subsidizing the “non-revenue” teams. Some of that is because schools want to. Some of that is probably because they have to.

Schools capitalize on men’s basketball and football players in order to subsidize expenses in other sports. That’s largely what’s happening. Sure, some people are getting rich, but Saban’s salary accounts for roughly 5 percent of the University of Alabama athletic department’s expenses. And it’s likely that his talents increase the overall department budget—if Alabama fired him tomorrow and gave his replacement a salary of $50,000, the whole department budget likely plummets as revenues drastically decline. And that’s Alabama. For most schools, the department loses money.

This is all a very long way to illustrate that when people say that the schools should start compensating players at something closer to market value, what they necessarily mean is that schools should stop investing so much in non-revenue sports. Others have pointed this out as well (much more succinctly, it’s worth noting). And it’s not necessarily a loser, either. Stereotyping is a dangerous undertaking, but I’m fairly confident that high schoolers that are good enough to earn rowing scholarships have socioeconomic backgrounds that are—on average—better than those that go on to play men’s college basketball or football. Should we be using the talents of the worse-off to fund the educations of the better-off? Maybe not. I’m not going to weigh in more on that debate today, except to say that there seems to be a dearth of pro-player’s union pieces that are raging against the women’s soccer team.

Of course, from a practical level, you’re asking schools to risk non-compliance with federal law and running afoul of Supreme Court directive, to say nothing of the outcry that naturally comes from pulling the plug on hundreds of varsity teams. Stranger things have happened, but not much stranger.

My preference at the moment, however, is we simply table that debate. Schools don’t need to pay players outright—let them go get jobs like the rest of college students. If that job happens to signing a contract to put his likeness on a jersey, good for him. The counter-argument I’ve heard to this is some mix of boosters and shoe companies wreaking havoc and reducing Rome to rubble. Frankly, that’s a vote in favor, from my view. Henny Penny wasn’t right, after all.

I’m also not sure there’s much more time for the NCAA to act on this. As we’ve seen before with the Sanity Code (and more importantly, what came immediately after it), once we march down one path, it snowballs (as the current 430-page rulebook demonstrates). Unionization is not the best outcome for either the players or the NCAA and its member schools. But it’s the one with the most momentum right now.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Purpose

This post has nothing to do with basketball. You've been warned.

True story: I wrote this post yesterday, and just as I finished, I deleted it. It's certainly not necessary or expected (or welcomed, for some I'm sure) for me to comment on the Penn State scandal or the NCAA punishment, and so the threshold for actually sending words out into the ether was just whether or not I had anything interesting to say. Yesterday, I didn't think that I did.

Then I read one opinion. Then another. Both from authors whom initially thought the NCAA had no business in this matter, who later changed their minds. And both articles convince me that a very important point has been missed. Specifically, I cannot figure out what the purpose is behind the NCAA's punishment.

Put aside whether or not the NCAA had "jurisdiction." That's always been a complaint raised by those who use the word without understanding its meaning. Yes, the NCAA has jurisdiction, inasmuch as there's no test that exists for it. Jurisdiction is generally something that we require of our public institutions--such as a police force or a court of law. It's not something we apply to private actors, and certainly not in the context of a voluntary organization. This isn't to say that the NCAA doesn't have boundaries, but those boundaries are set by the laws of the United States and/or Indiana and/or other states in which the NCAA conducts business.

But the fact that the NCAA has jurisdiction to act does not mean that it should. I would go even further, and argue that even armed with jurisdiction and presented with heinous crimes, the NCAA does not need to punish. Punishment makes sense when there's a point. Here, I don't see what the point is.

It goes without saying that what happened at Penn State was deplorable, that men in power abused that power and put the welfare of those who could not protect themselves behind the interests of a football program. That's a terrible thing. Those men deserve to be punished, and those victims deserve to be compensated.

But the NCAA's punishments don't do either of those things. From a punitive standpoint, the sanctions don't touch the men responsible. Those guys are no longer (or soon to be no longer) associated with the Penn State program. To the extent they are alive, they will (and in one case, already have) receive punishments. At least one individual is headed to jail. More will face trial. None of this is the NCAA's doing, mind you. The only arguable way that the sanctions punish any of these men is by scrubbing a record book.

The NCAA sanctions also don't have any deterring effect. When an individual is faced with the choice of whether or not to commit or cover up a heinous crime such as this, I submit that the last thing on his mind is the fate of a football team. The threat of a jail term is certainly a much bigger stick. Were I faced with a two week jail sentence, I'd happily trade my favorite team never winning another game for the opportunity to avoid the slammer. So would any other sane (or just about every insane) person.

Finally, the NCAA's penalties do nothing to compensate victims. To Penn State's credit, it's working with the victims to properly compensate them. Again though, this is happening without the NCAA. Sure, the $60 million fine is to go to organizations that fight child abuse, but it's not a direct payment to victims. And while that's a worthy cause for $60 million, it's not like that money was previously headed to an unworthy cause. Penn State University is, after all, a non-profit educational organization. The NCAA's term that the money cannot be funded through the reduction of scholarships in other sports merely means that the squeeze will come from somewhere else--whether that's faculty salaries, financial aid, or facilities upgrades, it's important to recognize that Penn State is primarily an educational institution (and a good one). Levying a fine on a non-profit institution (that's already set to pay out massive amounts in settlements to the actual victims) isn't something anyone ought to feel good about, even if it were the right thing to do.

The prevailing argument--and the one used by the NCAA--is that the sanctions are meant to reinforce the idea that football should never be elevated to a place above the welfare of the students and community of the university. That's a noble goal, but it's unconnected to the penalties in the second place, and it's disingenuous in the first place. It's unconnected because all of those rabid supporters of Penn State--who elevated a coach to a place above questioning--would have (and in most cases, actually have) turned on him in an instant if they knew he looked the other way when presented with Sandusky's crimes. This wasn't a community-wide conspiracy to endanger children so long as it meant the team played on New Year's Day--it was a handful of terrible men that allowed for the triumph of evil. The good people of State College didn't need an attitude adjustment or a moral compass re-calibration--they needed the facts.

Moreover, the greater goal of the demotion of sports in the collegiate sphere is. as Tim Pawlenty would say, hogwash. I don't think the NCAA is the bogeyman. I've defended the NCAA before, and I'll do it again. But it's a fiction to claim that the NCAA hopes that we can all just stop caring about college sports so much. If one wanted to lower college sports' spot in the pecking order, it's not a difficult task. The NCAA could ban televising all games. It could require that admissions be double-blind, such that there truly is no advantage for athletes in admissions. I'm sure others could think of a dozen different ways to remove money from college sports. And I accept that some solutions might be better than others. Further, I take no position on whether that a drastic de-emphasis of collegiate sports is a worthy cause. My only point here is that to the extent that Penn State football is a Very Big Deal, the NCAA was a complicit partner.

So while I certainly think that the wrongdoers deserve to be punished, and that the victims should be compensated, I'm not so sure that there's much purpose to the NCAA's sanctions. Making sure that a football team stinks for years (decades?) seems like an odd way to help remedy the situation at State College.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Bottom Line Business

Two coaches were fired this past weekend in the Big Ten, and plenty has been said about them. We should feel sorry for them, we shouldn’t feel sorry for them, and plenty of people are leveraging the newly-opened jobs for a State of the Union of What This Says About College Basketball.

I don’t think either of these terminations means anything significant at all. It’s just two millionaires who won’t be drawing a salary this month. After the past dozen or so economic quarters we’ve had, it’s a minor miracle that such events qualify as news at all. But I have the luxury of this perspective. I’m just a part-time analyst and a full-time fan. I’ll never know these guys, and the only impact they’ll have on me comes in the form of box scores and end-of-season records. That’s how most of us know them. Most of us, but not everyone.

***

Probably the best perk of working with BTN is that every year, I get to sit courtside at the Big Ten Tournament. High definition TVs are really great, but it’s just no substitute for the real thing. Players are sprinting while being bumped, grabbed, and hacked--and usually, no whistles are blown while all of this happens. Up close, it’s easy to see that things like non-moving screens are a fiction of the highest order. In the post, everyone is fouled, it’s just a level of degree. You see how referees are more peacekeepers than officials, how coaches are part-attorney, part-teacher. And it’s amazing to watch a 20-year old tune out thousands of people screaming at the top of their lungs for him to fail. Every one of these guys is an awesome basketball player, and it’s the smallest of margins that separates them.

But the best and most eye-opening part of live action comes from sitting directly in front of the families. If you could fill a stadium of 15,000 player parents for the home team, you’d have the loudest arena in all of sports. Ears would literally bleed. And it’s not just volume, it’s resilience, too. Simply put, they don’t shut up. Whether up by 15 or down by 30, they’re shouting at full volume. Every foul called against one of their own is a hose job, as is every foul gone unnoticed. They plead for their kids to take the ball, to grab the rebound, and when the players do the smallest thing well, the reward is effusive praise. In short, they behave exactly like you expect supportive parents to behave. When you watch the game on TV, you forget the players are only a couple of years removed from being children. When you sit in front of the family section, that reality is jarring.

***

“Mixed emotions” is probably a fair way to describe how most parents feel when sending their kids off to college. As proud as they are, they’re also worried about how their kid will fare on their own. I doubt many parents are ready to fully let go when their son starts unpacking his dorm room, and I suspect that’s no different even if he happens to be a McDonald’s All-American. And while I’m sure many players (and parents) harbor dreams of NBA riches in their futures, the more immediate goal is getting through college, for as long as they decide to stay. And in that respect, a college coach is somewhat of a transitional parent. For 18 years, it’s Mom and Dad telling their son what to do, but once the college athlete is in school, they take orders from the coach. There’s usually a bit more freedom granted by the coach, sure, but to the parents, the issue is the same. This is the man to whom you are entrusting with your son, who you don’t fully trust to navigate the world on his own.

***

And I think that’s why almost no matter the reason for a coach being fired, there are some who will always be saddened by it. These coaches have been trusted by families to help their sons get through the first years of adulthood. That’s a big part of the job, and some might argue the most important. And that’s all well and good, but that’s not what anyone signed up for.

It’s usually the NCAA that’s painted as greedy, but that argument falls flat when one recognizes that almost all of the money the organization collects is ultimately paid out to the schools, much of it in the form of scholastic aid for student-athletes (who, as we’re often reminded, are irrelevantly going pro in something other than sports). If greed exists in college sports, the kingpins are the coaches, especially for men’s basketball and football. They are the individuals who receive the largest checks, after all.

Those checks are funded by ticket sales for people who want to watch the games live, television deals which are in turn funded by advertisements targeted to viewers that want to watch the games at home, and merchandising for both sets of viewers to collect. In other words, coaches are paid by the fans who don’t give one lick about what great father figures they make. They want pretty box scores and won/loss records. And it’s hard to take seriously the fact that such-and-such coach was a good man as a reason he should be retained, because that same coach has previously negotiated for a extremely lucrative contract.

It’s a bottom-line business, and frankly, we should all be OK with that. If it weren’t, if coaches were happily drawing $50,000 salaries to teach life lessons and a little basketball on the side, there would be thousands of athletically-skilled high schoolers that would all have to search for jobs at the factory or the local big box retailer, instead of pursuing higher education. So the tragedy isn’t that nice guys are being fired, but it would be quite sad if they weren’t.

This isn’t to say that every firing is a good one, even from a bottom-line perspective. The grass isn’t always greener, and it all depends on context. They’ll name a court after you at Gardner Webb for performance that will get you fired at Kentucky. Moreover, every coach that’s fired was once seen as a savior of the program by the same people now calling for a change. But whether or not the change ultimately turns out for the better, it’s unequivocally true that it’s appropriate and positive that the fanbase has standards and demands accountability.

***

In some ways, I think coaches are glad to get the axe. Most of the time, the writing has been on the wall, thanks to those meticulously-negotiated buyout packages that tend to delay terminations until just before the torches and pitchforks have been brandished. And I can only imagine how much it sucks to hear 15,000 people that you considered supporters emphatically shower you with boos. Getting away from that, and being paid for the privilege, has to be at least a minor relief.

I first heard Bruce Weber’s name from a girl I was dating. She told me how her school’s team just took down an Indiana team led by Jared Jeffries (this same Hoosier team later beat my alma mater by 31 points). “Floorburn U” was the moniker bestowed on his Southern Illinois teams, and defense was the calling card for his Illinois teams until the past few seasons. I suspect watching his teams graciously escort opposing teams to the rim has worn on Weber more than anything else.

It’s serendipitous that the SIU job happens to be open just when Weber is looking for work. He’s not my team’s coach anymore, but I hope he gets a look there. I have little doubt that he’d be successful once again in Carbondale, where he’s remained an ally to the program. Floorburn U hasn’t been an appropriate nickname for the Salukis in a long time, and I’d like to see SIU Arena packed once again, with chants of “S-I-U!” and “Gray Dog! Brown Dog!” reverberating through the bleachers. So would my former girlfriend, now my wife, who hasn’t been back since the NIT became an unrealistic goal for her team. If Weber does make his way back, we’ll make the trip down and cheer for the Salukis, albeit not as loudly as the parents.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

"Ask me if I care"

As a child, I remember hearing this phrase a lot. By "a lot," I mean more than my own name. To be fair, my mother raised five children so I can understand why she didn't sweat the small stuff. But there may be something genetic to the phrase as well, because I find myself asking the same question with respect to those who clamor for level playing fields when it comes to student stipends.

On the table is the Big Ten's wild hair to increase stipends for athletes in revenue-generating sports, namely, football and men's basketball. The thrust of the opposition to this plan seems to be that if the Big Ten adopts this practice, those athletic departments will be at a significant advantage to schools that do not. As a result, the Big Ten (and any other schools and conferences that will inevitably follow its lead) will secure the nation's finest recruits and henceforth claim a monopoly on national titles from here on out.

The first response I had to this argument was confusion as to how this hypothetical scenario presents any change from our current situation. The last time someone other than a power conference team (or Notre Dame) won the football national championship? That was 1984, when BYU (the Mormon version of Notre Dame) went undefeated. In truth, you really have to go back to the 1920s before you see any "real" mid-majors win championships. And in those days, the Ivy League was a power conference. As for basketball, the last time a mid-major team cut the nets at the Final Four was when UNLV won it all in 1990. Though I think we can agree that there were extenuating circumstances surrounding that team. And before that, the Golden Era of mid-major success was the 1950s and early 1960s, when schools like La Salle, San Francisco, and Loyola (in Chicago) won championships. So if the complaint is that under the Big Ten's proposal, only the power conference schools will win championships, well, that particular complaint comes about 50 years too late.

The second response I had was "who cares?". Brian Cook over at mgoblog asks that question, but I don't think he answers it, instead focusing on the fact that the Big Ten's proposal is not the high monetary hurdle that Gasaway makes it out to be. And I think Brian makes a couple of great points, most significantly that these schools are already paying absurd (non-Wall Street division) sums of money to men who teach other men how to throw a ball into a basket. Say what you will about the rigors of coaching and the virtues of men like Pat Kelsey but at the end of the day that a head coaching job at a Division I university is a job that plenty of people would gladly accept (present company included). It's a notoriously difficult profession to break into--contrary to popular belief, suddenly quitting office jobs at Eli Lilly is not the recommended fast track to a big break--which is another way of saying it's a very coveted job. My point here is simply that schools could certainly afford to cut coach salaries quite a bit before the nation suffers from a basketball coach shortage.

Further, implicit in the opposition line of argument is that we have substantial equality now. While that's true in the context of student stipends, it's demonstrably false everywhere else. It's warm and sunny at UCLA but cold and often dreary in the Midwest. The academic programs at Duke are top notch, with SAT scores that nearly double those found at schools in the SWAC. And there simply is no comparison between the training facilities at power conference schools with those found elsewhere, by and large. The fact is that we are all unequals, right now.

And if we carry that inequality over to student stipends? Well, some schools will follow suit, and others will not. That much is clear. And these stipends will undoubtedly become an additional factor for prospective student-athletes in choosing what college to attend. But so what? It's not like an extra $3,000 would trump all other considerations. Nor is it necessarily true that mid-majors would be too cash-poor to participate in the stipend spree, as Cook points out.

I'm also confused by Gasaway's insistence that "basketball is different" with respect to competitive balance. Seems to me that for every Butler or VCU there is a Boise State or TCU. Though both sports have failed to crown a mid-major as champion, both sports have seen mid-major schools crash the Final Four and BCS bowls in recent seasons. But there is one aspect in which the sports are different--money. A great football program brings in a lot of dough, while a bad one is quite expensive. Thus, I could see why a school with a great basketball team and a mediocre football team (like, say, Butler) might opt to pay out stipends in the former, but not the latter. Considering this comes with a price tag of about $60,000 a year at the high end, I reject any claims of poverty associated with the practice.

Frankly, the argument I thought I would hear is one of slippery slopes--that if an extra $5,000 was OK, what about an extra $10,000? $15,000? $30,000? There's some line-drawing that will have to happen here, and that line will be drawn by the NCAA, an institution with a spotty record of line-drawing.

Additionally, the "competitive balance" argument may also have an impact on the NCAA's protected status under the antitrust laws. Over the past 30 years, "competitive balance" has been the lynchpin for antitrust exemptions for sports leagues. While the NCAA has historically relied on educational goals and pursuits in fending off antitrust challenges, it's possible that the association would wish to preserve an additional layer of protection from the antitrust laws. But that's all conjecture at this point, a bridge to be crossed later. For now, I support adding a modest sum of cash as a real consideration to the high school prospect's college decision.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Captain Renault would be so proud

I'm not quite sure what to make of the sudden rash of analysis regarding money and the NCAA. On the one hand, it's surely an important issue worthy of our concern. On the other hand, this is not exactly recent news. The income disparity between the NCAA and collegiate athletes has been around for quite some time. If I give the media cycle the benefit of the doubt, perhaps we can pin the recent chatter to the fact that some 11 months ago, the broadcasting rights for the men's basketball tournament were sold for some $10.8 billion. Perhaps last April was the proper time for all the college basketball analysts to collectively navel gaze, but that ignores the plethora of "Gone Fishin'" signs hung by said analysts after all the nets are cut.

But before I delve into the subject, I insist that everyone reading this go read what John Gasaway wrote on the subject just yesterday. Go on, read it. I'll wait.

Gasaway makes many points, but the biggest one seems to be that while the NCAA hauls in quite a bit of money, it gives back the vast majority of that to the schools in the form of hosting other non-revenue championships as well as outright distributions. This is an important point for those who want to hold the NCAA accountable as a solitary bad actor. The NCAA's offices in Indianapolis is not some skull-carved lair and as far as I can tell Mark Emmert does not have mustache he curls as he hatches evil schemes. To the extent that the NCAA is guilty of anything, that guilt must also pass on to the schools.

One complaint going around seems to be that the NCAA has erred by making lots of money off of the student-athletes. Frankly, this does not make sense. Surely, it's obvious to everyone that the NCAA has to make money. The organization does a lot of things--hosting other tournaments, for one, and also for going all Eliot Ness on athletes accepting cash (more on that in a bit). Once we accept that the NCAA has to make money, I don't understand the complaint that it tries to make as much as possible. This is a non-profit organization, after all, it's not like Warren Buffett is lining his pockets with TBS dough. While some NCAA employees are highly paid, that's really a debate about non-profits generally. And believe me, that debate exists, and it's been going on for quite some time. All of this is to say that the NCAA is not unlike other non-profit organizations, in that the ethical lines of executive compensation make us squeamish.

The bigger complaint, however, is that student-athletes are not allowed to capitalize on their talents in a commercial manner. This is where things get interesting. The characterization on this state of things is that the NCAA is "greedy." Once again, this makes no sense. The NCAA did not investigate Reggie Bush in the hopes of collecting his cash. The organization is not acting as a crooked intermediary between the agents and the collegiate players. While there might be a limited possible exception* to this, generally speaking, the NCAA is not made richer vis-a-vis outlawing student-athlete compensation.

On that topic, it's worth noting that Gasaway has previously argued for the student-athlete right to seek compensation. Morally, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Gasaway's argument. In fact, student-athletes are getting paid, right this very second, but yet I anticipate many fans will nonetheless tune in to watch this weekend's championship. For alumni of the school that wins it all, it will be one of the happier moments of their lives. The sport isn't tarnished because athletes cash some checks. It may, however, become tarnished when the penalty for rule-breaking pounds once-proud programs into the ground.

I suspect, however, that Gasaway knows better than believing that because the ethics are workable, that the solution is as well. After all, if allowing student-athletes to make some money did not make the NCAA (and by extension, the schools) any worse off, then why not let them? Mark Emmert does not need the headaches of being attacked by Frontline and HBO, to say nothing of being defended by Gregg Doyel. So why hold out?

Moreover, the NCAA seeks to market a particular brand of football -- college football. The identification of this "product" with an academic tradition differentiates college football from and makes it more popular than professional sports to which it might otherwise be comparable, such as, for example, minor league baseball. In order to preserve the character and quality of the "product," athletes must not be paid, must be required to attend class, and the like. And the integrity of the "product" cannot be preserved except by mutual agreement; if an institution adopted such restrictions unilaterally, its effectiveness as a competitor on the playing field might soon be destroyed. Thus, the NCAA plays a vital role in enabling college football to preserve its character, and as a result enables a product to be marketed which might otherwise be unavailable. In performing this role, its actions widen consumer choice -- not only the choices available to sports fans but also those available to athletes -- and hence can be viewed as procompetitive.
To give some background, this excerpt from the Supreme Court came within one of the many antitrust challenges that the NCAA has been fighting off for decades. When you have a collection of entities that decide to join together, make some money, and agree between themselves how to limit employee compensation, you're going to get some antitrust challenges. Further, when it comes to marketable collegiate sports, the NCAA is the only game in town. To be sure, the NCAA is not alone in this behavior. Take a look at the professional leagues, what with their salary caps, rookie payscales, and luxury taxes. All of these instruments are simply a means to limit employee compensation. The preferred antitrust loophole for these leagues is the collective bargaining exception. Because there exists a players union, we'll allow the anticompetitive behavior to continue. The thinking is that so long as the employees have a voice in these matters, they will be treated fairly.

Meanwhile, there is no collegiate players union. In the absence of this, the Supreme Court carved out an exemption based on the idea that so long as collegiate sports was primarily an educational endeavor, then it was subject to less antitrust scrutiny. And in order to make collegiate sports more "collegiate" and less "[commercial] sports," we need the NCAA out there cracking down on player kickbacks. To use the parlance of my industry, this is a legal fiction of the highest order. The takeaway on all of this is that so long as the NCAA is out there busting down doors to ensure that players aren't paid, then antitrust challenges from players will be less successful.

In other words, if the NCAA started allowing the Kemba Walkers of the world to accept cash advances from agents, it risks lawsuits from high school players who complain that the NCAA's rules will not allow their prospective colleges to pay them in exchange for a verbal commitment. In this scenario, money would be taken from the NCAA (remember, that's the schools) and given to players. One would expect that John Calipari's recruiting budget would have to expand quite a bit, and that certainly would come at considerable cost to Kentucky.

That's the problem I have with the problem with amateurism. It's an attempt to leave Pandora's Box slightly ajar. Mind you, I don't necessarily advocate the regulatory framework we're working within, but it's a fool's errand to try and undo three decades of litigation.

So what's the solution? Well, one plausible strategy is to look at who is actually getting rich (with all this money, someone must be), and thinking of how to divert some of those dollars to the players. The prime candidates would seem to be the coaches, with their multi-million dollar salaries and shoe endorsement deals. Alas, restricting those salaries is illegal too. I leave it to others to query how it can be legally problematic for schools to either allow player compensation or restrict coach compensation.

Alas, there is no solution that I think will satisfy everyone. However, there are some things the NCAA can do. For one, it can make sure that kids like Joseph Agnew are not cast aside in the future. Just as player compensation would not be toxic from a moral standpoint, multi-year scholarships will not grind the Earth's rotation to a halt. And sure, it would be nice if the player's families were given assistance to travel to more of their kids' games. And the players' budgets are a bit thin--why not give just a bit more to these kids so that they're not living like poor college kids on top of going to practice all the time? Sure, I was once a poor college kid myself, but I also spent many afternoons napping on the quad or drinking on a sun deck. And hey, to Emmert's credit, he's thinking about doing some of that (compensating players, that is. Not the drinking at inappropriate times.).

The NCAA (and by extension, the member schools) is not greedy nor evil. The structure and rules of the NCAA are not perfect, and unless some enterprising lawyer takes on Supreme Court precedent, they likely never will be. But we can do better. And we should.

* The possible exception being in the form of naming rights for video games and such. Conceivably, a video game maker would have to pay the NCAA as well as the hundreds of athletes depicted in its game. More practically, the more efficient means would be for the NCAA to collect all the money and then cut checks to the players. This still doesn't really solve the complaint that the most marketable athletes are subsidizing others, however.

Monday, November 1, 2010

And we're back

Back at the Big Ten Network, that is. This time, it starts in the back with Wisconsin.