The mainstream media isn't paying a whole lot of attention to it (other than professional controversy monger Jason Whitlock), but it has been getting a lot of play on the internet, both on blogs and twitter. Jay Bilas has particularly been hammering the issue, posting multiple times every day on this issue. Bilas is arguing for an "Olympic-style" system for college sports. Bilas is the college basketball commentator that I respect most, and he does a great job of analyzing games, but he couldn't be more wrong on this issue, including for reasons that I haven't seen articulated anywhere (and will get to in this post).
But I'll get to that in a moment. First, let's go through the old arguments:
Why Colleges Shouldn't Pay Players Directly:
It's interesting to me that the idea of colleges paying players directly has fallen out of vogue, because that used to be the argument I'd hear. The reason this position has become less popular has been because of the deluge of research saying that almost all athletic departments already lose money (see here and here for two of many examples).
Paying athletes in the revenue sports would mean either cutting the non-revenue sports, or cutting academic spending. And if you really believe that we should keep everybody but football and basketball players from having the opportunity to be a student-athlete, or that paying athletes is more important than paying 100 more professors, then your priorities really are messed up, no matter how much you love sports.
Jay Bilas: Use The "Olympic Model"
Jay Bilas has been on a mission the past couple of months pushing this idea. You can read about it here. It's behind the ESPN Insider pay wall, but you can read the key passages in an approving post from The Big Lead here. He's been absolutely hammering this on twitter every day for a couple of months now, and I'll go through a few of those as I analyze his arguments.
The Jay Bilas model basically boils down to letting athletes get endorsements. He points to Olympic athletes, who aren't really paid by the US Olympic team, but are allowed to do tv commercials to supplement their income. Michael Phelps gets to do Subway commercials, for example. Bilas says that athletes should be able to do local car commercials, or sell their autograph. As he argues, college athletes are already compensated, we're just debating how much they get compensated.
Legalization Of Endorsements Would Make "Endorsements" A Joke:
This is the first problem with the Jay Bilas model. Sure, there are a handful of athletes who are well known enough to get national commercials, and plenty of others that could get paid $500 to do an ad for a local car dealership. But we all know what would immediately happen: every big money booster would begin offering endorsements to every key recruit. Instead of spending $1 Million putting your name on the weight room, why not give the five incoming basketball recruits $200,000 to "endorse" your company's product?
What are the problems with this facade? Where to begin?
- If you're complaining about the current system being a joke, don't create a new system that would be a joke. Don't call it "endorsements" - just call it "payment". The idea that the owner of a local company who donates hundreds of thousands of dollars to a university's sports programs is going to make sure that the stars of the team don't get more than market value for endorsements is preposterous - nobody believes that would happen.
- Jay Bilas argues that the NCAA could review business deals to make sure they're legit, but how can you possibly control the value of contracts? Even if the NCAA did think they could tell companies what they were allowed to pay players, boosters would always find a way around it by hiring the players to do more. Hire them as consultants, hire them to give motivational speeches. Print a million posters with their picture on it. They'll be able to spend the money if they want to.
- This will negatively impact all of the other sports by concentrating the money on the players that need it least. When boosters give money to a school to improve a training facility or weight room, that often benefits athletes from other sports. And much of the money boosters donate often goes to academic purposes. That will end once boosters can give their money directly to athletes.
We Don't Even Allow "The Olympic Model" With Professional Basketball or Football
This is the angle that I haven't seen anybody talking about, and why I wanted to write this post. Yes, we do allow companies to sponsor "amateur" Olympic athletes, but we don't allow that model for team sports. Nike isn't allowed to tell players that they'll get an extra $5 Million in their contract if they come and play for a certain team. Teams aren't allowed to entice free agents by saying "We'll give you $x Million over 5 years, and we'll also hook you up with a Gatorade contract." Why is that?
Most importantly, teams would be unable to win outside large cities. Do you think Nike would be happier if Chris Paul was playing in New York or Los Angeles? Or Dwight Howard? Of course. They'll pay big money to make it happen. Smaller cities do have financial disadvantages, but American sports go through great effort to alleviate that through revenue sharing, player drafts, free agency compensation, salary caps, etc. None of those would exist in college sports - the best players would be bought by the big money schools with no recourse for smaller schools.
And this is something that doesn't apply to Olympic sports. The only way it could would be if big American companies were paying big money to buy foreign athletes to change their citizenship. Right now, US companies are just helping Olympic athletes make a living by paying them - they aren't affecting the competitive balance of the Olympics.
In fact, it's not unheard of for people to try to spend money to mess with the competitive balance at the Olympics. Qatar is famous for buying athletes. The most notable is probably Saif Saaeed Shaheen, who was known as Stephen Cherono when he broke the steeplechase world record with Kenya. Qatar also does this with other sports, including soccer.
But first of all, this is not an issue in any country in the western world. Most people want to root for people from their own country at the Olympics - they won't feel good rooting for players that have been bought. But more importantly, international sports have all sorts of rules that keep this from being a very powerful tool. The Olympics bans athletes from representing more than one country in a three year span, so Saif Saaeed Shaheen was effectively banned from the sport for three years, which included being forced to miss the 2004 Olympics. It's even more strict in soccer, where you cannot play a competitive match with the senior level squad of more than one nation. So Qatar is forced to buy players that are very young, and is unable to get any truly elite athletes that way.
The Jay Bilas "Olympic Model" would be completely different. Athletes could be bought and sold and switch schools at will, with no need to sit out. Fans wouldn't be rooting for students that go to the same school as them, but mercenaries that went to the highest bidder.
Star Basketball And Football Players Are The Least Needy People On Campus
Many of the people I've seen clamoring for more money for star basketball and football players were star basketball and football players themselves. And I think they need to see it from the perspective of athletes from other sports. If you're on the North Carolina crew or track & field teams, you work just as hard as the basketball and football players. You give up just as much of your time. You have dedicated as much of your life. But you're not talking to tv and newspaper reporters every day. You don't have half the girls on campus wanting to sleep with you. You don't have great jobs from boosters waiting for you if you graduate and don't succeed in professional sports. In fact, you typically don't have professional sports to look forward to at all.
Basketball and football players are already treated far better than other athletes at the same school, even at schools small enough that they don't run profits from their so-called "revenue sports". They basically all get scholarships (as opposed to non-revenue sports, particularly male sports, where the whole team is often sharing pieces of just a handful of scholarships), and at any big school there is a big study center with computers, free snacks, free tutors, etc. They get better grades than normal students for the same work from star-struck teachers, or from teachers afraid to hurt the team by failing one of the players. And of course, again, the girls. Many old people may forget what it was like to be a 20 or 21 year old male, but I can assure you that most of those kids would not trade the girls they get for four years for being sports stars for $100,000 cash.
If you ask athletes from non-revenue sports, or students that aren't athletes at all, they'll tell you that the last people on campus that deserve more compensation are basketball and football stars.
What Would Happen If We Went With The "Olympic Model"?
Overnight, the number of competitive schools in the major sports would drop to a couple of dozen. There's simply no way we'd see another George Mason or Gonzaga or Butler in basketball. Jay Bilas has argued that smaller schools can't compete for the top recruits anyway, and that roster limits will keep the top schools from keeping all of the top recruits.
But this is false. The Rivals list of top recruits in the 2011 class has Top 100 recruits going to schools like Harvard, Alcorn State, Gonzaga and Charleston. And the reality is that recruiting is even more spread out than Rivals admits, because those scouting services are biased toward players going to top schools. When a kid signs with Duke or Kentucky their ranking will always move up.
And not only are smaller schools stealing top recruits, but they have a big advantage nowadays for mid-level recruits. Would you rather be on the bench for a Big East school, or would you rather star in the Missouri Valley? Many kids would now choose the latter. But what if the Big East school can have their boosters hook you up with an $800,000 "endorsement deal"?
Yes, The Current NCAA System Is Stupid In Many Ways
I get as upset as anybody else at how silly the NCAA can be at times. They crucify athletes and coaches for lying in a meaningless investigation, but look the other way at John Calipari's shading dealing, and all of the players being paid on the Auburn football team.
And yes, the concept of "student athlete" is a joke for many top basketball/football players, who never go to class and can barely spell. Though it should be pointed out that this stereotype isn't true of all players - there are kids playing at a high level at big time BCS conference schools who also have engineering degrees, or go to business or medical school after they gradate. Plenty of kids spend road trips studying and taking exams.
But the solution to all of the bad behavior isn't to throw up our hands and say "The system is broke. Let's go the whole nine yards and make NCAA sports even seedier than any of our professional sports leagues." The solution is to fix the problems we have now.
I would support new rules on coaches. I would ban them from coaching for a period of time anytime a team they coached gets a serious punishment (see: Calipari, John). I would have stricter audits of student athlete academic performances, to make sure that they're getting grades that they deserve. I would punish coaches that encourage kids to miss class. I would forbid coaches from recruiting a kid that played on a team in the past two years that had as a coach somebody currently on the college's staff, and I would forbid college teams from hiring somebody who is a relative or a former coach of one of the team's players or recruits.
There are other ideas, and certainly my ideas aren't perfect. But we can fix college sports without destroying them. I have a lot of respect for Jay Bilas. But on paying athletes he's flat out wrong.