Wednesday, August 17, 2011

What the Miami Scandal Means For Amateur Athletics

The movement to pay college basketball and football players has been on the rise over the past few months, and I've already talked about it to a great extent here. It was inevitable that we'd hear all about this with the Miami scandal.

Those who think we should end amateur college athletics are gloating about how this scandal proves their case. Jay Bilas can barely contain his glee. Jason Whitlock posted this:


I've never quite understood why corruption and scandal make a good argument that we should add more money, more agents and more disparate, unaccountable interests into a sport. And let's not pretend that these kids didn't know what they were doing. Whitlock's tweet would make sense if some Miami kids got "hoodwinked" when they received poor investment advice from Nevin Shapiro. Some of these kids took envelopes with thousands of dollars, participated in sex parties, and did all sorts of stuff that went far beyond being "tricked". The kids knew what they were doing.

I don't blame the kids for claiming that they didn't know they were breaking rules. Most Americans don't know what it's like to be a college athlete, and so they don't know how compliance departments work. Coaches use the "I had no idea!" defense as well. Remember when Rick Neuheisel claimed that he had no idea that betting thousands of dollars on the NCAA Tournament was against NCAA rules because he was just betting with friends?

The fact is that compliance offices pound all student-athletes at any Division I school with rules that after a while seem laughable. I remember receiving multiple e-mails telling me that as a student-athlete I couldn't even enter a bracket in an NCAA Tournament pool where the loser had to do the winner's laundry (that was the example they gave, I'm not kidding). I was so scared straight that when my dad proposed doing the same pool with my brother that we'd done the previous few years (winner picks a place for dinner, loser pays for everybody) I said I couldn't do it until I graduated. The odds of anybody finding out that I'd bet a dinner on the NCAA Tournament with my family were 0%, nor would anybody have cared if they had found out, but I was scared straight.

Not all students are that way, of course. But let's not pretend these kids didn't know exactly what they were doing.


Somebody needs to spell out for me just how eliminating amateurism would have prevented this scandal. Does anybody think that if we pay kids an extra $1000 a year to cover living costs that they'll turn down exclusive parties on yachts with strippers? They'll turn down $50,000 cash? Or the $200k+ that Cam Newton apparently took at Auburn?

And if we legalize "The Olympic Model" (the Jay Bilas plan), Mr. Shapiro actually could have done all of his damage legally. He could have had his parties with players and paid them tens of thousands of dollars to endorse some product he invested in. Or he could have had them "invest" in his Ponzi Scheme and gave them dramatic returns. All of that would have been fine under the NCAA rules that Bilas wants.

As I talked about in the piece I linked to earlier, the biggest mistake that those arguing for "the olympic model" are making is that they don't realize that college athletics are team sports. A sponsorship system can work if you've got a sport of individuals, and where there's no incentive for any company to be dishonest. But if you care about teams, there's every incentive for rich boosters to promise recruits huge endorsement deals in return for their signatures. Imagine if the US Olympic Team could buy up all of the best athletes in the world by promising them seven-figure deals from Home Depot and Gatorade? Would you still enjoy the Olympics?


One great article that was written after my original piece that I wanted to link to is this piece from Joe Posnanski. He starts off by talking about what I had, which is that the value of the scholarship is far more than just the cost of education. Getting all of the exclusive help from the coaches and tutors, getting the great training facilities and the opportunity to be such a huge national star is a tremendous value. But then he talks about something I hadn't even discussed, which I'll just quote directly:

Ask yourself this: What would happen if tomorrow every single player on the Auburn football team quit and re-formed as a professional team called the Birmingham Bandits. Who would go to their games? Anyone? How much would those talented young men get paid?
Ask yourself this: What would happen if all the ACC basketball schools dropped their players and replaced them with Division II talent? Would North Carolina-Duke suddenly play in empty arenas?
Ask yourself this: Say the first, second and third All-America Teams in college football tomorrow went into the NFL. They just left. How many fewer fans would the college games draw? How many fewer people would watch Texas and Tennessee and Iowa?
Ask yourself this: Why do we care about college football? We know that the skill level in college football is vastly inferior to the skill level of NFL teams. Heck, many Heisman Trophy winners are not even NFL prospects. Yet, by the millions, we watch. We cheer. We buy. We rejoice. We gripe. We wear. We eat. We live it. Many of us even argue that we PREFER the quality and style of college to pro, we LIKE watching those games more. But is it the quality and style we prefer, or is it passion, youth, exuberance and that we feel closer to the game?
No, college athletics is not ABOUT the players. College athletics is FOR the players, but that’s a different thing, and that’s a distinction that we don’t often make. College football only works on this grand scale, I believe, because it’s about the colleges. The alumni connect to it. The people in the town connect to it. The people in the state connect to it. People are proud of their connection to the University of South Carolina and Clemson, they are inspired by Alabama and Auburn, Penn State and Notre Dame and Stanford, they identify themselves through Missouri and Wisconsin and Florida and Texas A&M. The players matter because they chose those schools, they play for those schools, they win for those schools and they lose for those schools, too. Everyone, of course, wants them to be the best players available, and some are willing to cheat the current system to get those players. But soon the players move on, and the love affair continues, just as strong, just as vital. The CONNECTION is what drives college football.
Otherwise, without that connection, it’s just football that isn’t nearly as well-played as the NFL.

Posnanski is absolutely right. There's a reason why it's almost impossible to find a minor league baseball game ever on television but the College World Series is on ESPN, despite a much lower quality of play than even A-level minor league ball. There's a reason why the women's NCAA basketball finals draws approximately seven times the viewership of the WNBA finals.

The reason why figure skaters shouldn't make $100 Million for winning the Olympics is the same reason why the best basketball players on Kansas or North Carolina shouldn't be making $10 Million. The individual isn't why people watch. Fans tune in because they care about the country or the school.

Someday somebody will present a coherent argument for paying college players. But pointing to the Miami scandal and saying "See!" isn't it.

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