Tuesday, September 13, 2011

My Conversation Last Night With Jay Bilas

As my regular readers know, I've spent a lot of time talking about the issue of paying players. And my most recent post on the topic was yesterday, and which you can read here. I tweeted about it, and was at least a little bit surprised when Jay Bilas tweeted me back. I have been using Hootsuite for Twitter, so I'll just be posting screen grabs of my Hootsuite. Here was Jay's original response (all times are central US time):

This was actually the strongest argument that Mr. Bilas made the whole night, though it's flawed. College athletics are for the athletes. The coaches provide a large part of that. Imagine a college where kids were paid money to show up to school each day but teachers were told to volunteer - how would that work out? Adults are providing the value (the value of getting to spend four years with Coach K's special attention is worth quite a lot of money, as Jay Bilas should know) and need to be paid.

The market recognizes this fact. College coaches routinely leave for head coach or assistant jobs in the NBA, D-League or Europe to get more money. But while NCAA players are all free to head to Europe and to make 6-figures, almost none of them do. There are only a couple examples each year of players leaving college early to go to Europe, and I can only think of one example in the past few years (Brandon Jennings) where a player skipped his one year of college to spend a year in Europe.

Here was how I tweeted that (you've got to read from bottom-to-top to see it in chronological order):

Here was the response from Mr. Bilas:

Here Mr. Bilas is retreating from his initial argument a little bit, and restating it effectively as "We don't know what the value of the players is, but why not let the market decide!" The problem is, such a world cannot exist. If schools/boosters can pay the top players whatever they want, the amount they'll pay will have nothing to do with the marginal revenue generated by the players. They'll pay to win. The boosters who already spend millions of dollars to pay for coaches or new locker rooms will happily spend those millions to sign the top recruits. They're not going to temper their spending because they're worried that they're going to be paying players more than the value of the tickets they're going to sell:

Mr. Bilas responds by arguing that players have no choice, which is bizarre since some players clearly do have a choice - ask Brandon Jennings. He then re-iterated that schools won't be willing to lose money to sign players - something which seems awfully naive to me:

After this we started both tweeting at the same time, so the only way for me to coherently post the discussion is to just post it in two large images. Click on them to expand them (be sure to zoom in on the image if it's too small in your browser). Again you'll have to read from bottom-to-top

Essentially, Mr. Bilas is making the argument he makes all the time, which is that other students are allowed to earn money for the work they do. But he's actually arguing two different things simultaneously, as I pointed out. It's one thing to say that kids earn a flat $8/hr stipend when they're working in a lab or at the library, just as one could argue that athletes should get a flat $8/hr for practice/game time. This is actually an argument I think you could make, although I'd still argue against you for a number of reasons. But this isn't what Jay is actually arguing.

What Mr. Bilas is actually arguing is that the schools and boosters should be able to write cash checks to convince kids to go to their school over another school. And this simply isn't allowed in any aspect of college life, as I pointed out. The band director can't have a booster give a $100,000 check to a star trumpet player to choose their school over another.

And as I've pointed out multiple times on this blog, Mr. Bilas is incorrect in saying that the Olympics have already made this model work. It's the difference between individual sports and team sports. No team sport in the world - even the MLB, NBA and NFL - allows outside interests such as sponsors to entice athletes. The NBA wouldn't allow Nike to offer Lebron James $50 Million per year to come to the Portland Trailblazers. It would destroy the league, which has enough trouble making sure teams don't cheat with their finances as is.

The final argument I make is a simple one that Mr. Bilas repeatedly ignored. I pointed out that the colleges with big athletic departments are all non-profit organizations. He first denied that, and then admitted I was right, but without acknowledging the implications. This isn't a situation like a professional team where less compensation for players means more cash in the pockets of billionaires. Nobody is sympathetic to the plight of NBA or NFL owners making less money than they could be. But universities don't have shareholders or billionaires raking in the profits.

At universities the profits from basketball and football are re-invested in the school. A lot is used to pay for the non-revenue sports. A lot also gets used for academics. Often times boosters that write big checks to the athletic department allow a percentage of that money to be used for academics (T. Boone Pickens did this with his gigantic check to Oklahoma State, for example). So if you start writing million dollar checks to football and basketball stars, that means that money has to come from non-revenue sports and academics. Should we cancel crew, track, swimming and field hockey so that football and basketball sports can make extra cash?

The point lost by people like Jay Bilas is not understanding that a public university is not supposed to be run like a for-profit business. Universities aren't supposed to eliminate the liberal arts department because none of those professors drive revenue. They aren't supposed to get rid of the debate team, chess team and political organizations because they don't drive revenue. And they're not supposed to get rid of fencing, swimming and softball because they're not driving revenue. Universities are supposed to provide education and opportunities for students. Whatever revenue comes into the school is used by the school for students. All of the money is used to make things better for students at the school as a whole.

Any kid that wants to cash in rather than be a part of the school can. European basketball teams will happily pay them. But star basketball players at big time programs already have around-the-clock care from top notch coaches, trainers, tutors, medical staff and (often times) chefs. They get to be on tv, they get to play before huge adoring crowds, and they get to be kings of campus. Is it really that important that we sacrifice academics and non-revenue sports so that those kids can make a little cash on the side? I just don't understand the obsession.


At the end of the night Jay Bilas actually deleted all of his tweets. It was really bizarre. I tweeted him about it and got no response. Hootsuite saves all of them, which is why I was able to grab the screenshots today, but if you were to search twitter yourself the only evidence you'd have that I wasn't talking to myself are a couple of tweets by Bylawblog (@bylawblog) in response to our conversation. I don't know if Mr. Bilas was told to delete them by somebody at ESPN, or if he felt that some of his language was inappropriate. Either way, I'm certainly not afraid of leaving my posts up so people can judge them on their merits.

This is a conversation that should happen. ESPN and a lot of other sports media organizations are only giving one side of the story, and the criticisms that I and others have brought up needs to be addressed.


DMoore said...

I think a lot of your points are correct about how paying players would impact the game. But I think a lot of your details and examples just aren't true.

"[Giving kids money to convince them to come to your school] simply isn't allowed in any aspect of college life"

That's just not the case. There is absolutely nothing preventing a music booster at, say, UCLA, from telling a kid that if he moves across the country to go to his school he'll give him a record deal. There is no incentive to do so, as there isn't the competitive spirit around bands. But there's nothing preventing it.

"No team sport in the world...allows outside interests such as sponsors to entice athletes."

What do you consider a team sport? Nascar teams often consist of more than one driver. Sponsors control who drives. Sometimes they get the team to add a driver who can win. Sometimes they add a driver with marketing appeal (Danica Patrick). Tour De France race teams are a similar example. There are sports that center around sponsorship, and those that don't.

I would very much like to know if sponsorship is allowed in European basketball leagues, or in soccer leagues around the world. If it is, I expect that you would find very strong examples of athletes being enticed to change teams there. In the NBA, does a free agent who is contracted to Nike freely go to a team with an Adidas affiliation? I don't know, but I'm very curious.

Finally, I think the definition of non-profit is very fuzzy. Look at Oklahoma State and T Boone Pickens. Pickens gave big gifts to the school, but with the requirement that the proceeds be invested in his hedge fund. I suspect he could have easily (and may have actually) required that the school invest more finds with him than he donated. There is absolutely profit there. I think there are absolutely ways that boosters can profit from the schools they support.

Jeff said...

Those are good points.

The thing with sponsorships in team sports (such as European soccer, Tour de France, NASCAR, etc) is that the sponsors are paying the teams. The teams are still the ones that pay the players.

We already allow companies to sponsor college teams, in that sense. Nike provides all of the clothing Oregon players wear and pays them money to do it. But Nike can't go and pay the top recruits to come to Oregon, the same way Gatorade can't offer endorsements to anybody that comes to play for the Jacksonville Jaguars, and Under Armour can't pay the top baseball players to play for the Orioles.

Music producers can pay college musicians in individual music contracts, but that's not a team competition. The example I gave was something different - we don't allow schools or sponsors to pay cash to kids to pick their school to win an inter-school competition.

If there was some way that college athletes could actually get sponsorships like pro athletes then that would be a compelling argument, but we all know that's not how it would turn out. Phil Knight is going to offer kids "sponsorship" money that he'd never otherwise give them because he wants them to come to Oregon to help the Ducks win.