So What Do We Do About College Athletics?
(Note: This is not a real Denard Robinson action figure, even though it should be. It was designed by the insanely-talented Jeremy of The Art. The Art. The Art! He was kind enough to let me use it here, and I am very, very grateful for that.)
Last week, I instigated a discussion about the state of affairs in college athletics. That was fun, and it was interesting to get down in the weeds with y’all about some of the moral concerns on both sides, but now I want to move to a more policy-related track. If you accept that the system doesn’t really work (and I think most, but definitely not all, of us were on that page to some extent), how do you go about fixing it? Some thoughts, from more to less radical:
Minor League. Pat Calahan was the first person to suggest this, so he’s getting the credit. Probably the most radical thing you can do with college athletics is to divorce the athletics part from the college part. This, of course, is basically how baseball does it. Players are compensated according to a more market-oriented structure, they have a full-time job that is explicitly their full-time job, and there is little to no exploitation of any kind involved (except insofar as the big leagues exploit their labor, but there are players’ unions that are responsible for combating this). You could even leave small-time athletics in the university situation, where the people who continued to participate would be actual student-athletes rather than athletes who basically sell out their bodies to the university in exchange for the promise of future compensation.
To Pat’s credit, this is almost certainly the most just way to approach the problem. That said, it’s completely impracticable. The NFL doesn’t want it, the universities don’t want it, and fans don’t want it. There is basically no constituency in favor of sending Cam Newton to the Triple-A Asheville Cardinals (or whatever) rather than Auburn.
Pay the Players (Salary). So why not pay the players at the universities? You could do this a couple ways: directly (the university negotiates or the NCAA sets some standard rate or schedule) or indirectly (boosters), and there are various ways this could shake out. Generally, it would allow the players who are generating revenues for their schools to recoup some of those revenues, as in most cases the players would be able to deploy their talents at the places that could pay them commensurately.
This one might actually be more radical than creating a minor league, despite my earlier indication that it wouldn’t be. It fundamentally undermines the educational mission of the universities (although, to be fair, they’re doing a fine job of that already), and it institutionalizes a system in which the rich continually get richer (again, though, we are already doing this to some extent). It has a small advantage over the minor league option, in that the NFL probably has no opinion about it, but schools and fans would lose their minds.
Image Rights. Okay, here’s the first idea that I think actually has some chance. Why not adopt the Olympic model of giving athletes the rights to their own images? The schools are not on the hook for paying them, they have no role in any capacity other than running the teams and managing the student-athletes, and the athletes are allowed to leverage their abilities and market themselves as they see fit (within some boundaries of acceptable behavior, obviously). Dan LeFevour would be allowed to pose for his own billboards, with Nike or Gatorade or whoever wants him. I remember when I was in college in 2004 or 2005, after the Olympics. Michael Phelps enrolled at Michigan, but he wasn’t allowed to compete on the swim team because he had taken endorsements during the Olympics, so he became an assistant coach instead. Call me a homer who just wanted a better swim team, but what interest did that serve exactly?
Pay the Players (Stipend). Okay, so if not a salary, what about a smaller stipend? Granted, this is maybe a minor difference, but it solves a real problem. Players aren’t allowed to hold jobs, and while there are sensible enough reasons for this, it still creates a situation in which athletes can’t actually cover their living expenses. Are we so committed to the purity of the student-athlete that we want to make it hard for them to have quintessential student experiences like getting drunk and ordering a pizza at 3am (only if they’re 21 or older, of course)?
Multi-Year Scholarships. This one’s a no-brainer. When a school takes in a student-athlete, it has a responsibility to that young man (or woman). No more one-year scholarships that can be revoked when a kid isn’t helping the team win quite enough games or the coach finds someone else he’d rather have on the team (paging Nick Saban). You admit an athlete, you pay four (or even five, in that athletes are often kept an extra year because of redshirts) full years unless he (or she) does something to void the scholarship (bad behavior, poor grades, etc.).
Cost of Attendance (COA). By far the easiest thing on the list. It’s so easy, in fact, that the NCAA is already moving in this direction anyway (and they’re moving on multi-year scholarships as well). Now, to be fair, this is fairly similar to a stipend, so it’s not totally fair for me to separate it out, but I think the framing matters a little. So I’m separating it. In any case, one of the things that a lot of people point to in this discussion is that full scholarships currently only cover tuition, room and board, and books. Those are the major costs of college attendance, but they certainly aren’t the only ones. If you’ve ever gotten one of those “estimated cost” breakdowns from a college, you know this. Outside books, incidental food or travel, laundry, supplies. There are lots of things students spend money on that aren’t “official” costs, so there is a gap between what scholarships cover and what students actually pay. Closing that is fairly easy (although there’s wide variance among schools that needs to be addressed), and that’s why this proposal is already on the move.
For full disclosure purposes, I think covering COA and giving multi-year scholarships are easy calls. Those basically only paper over the basic responsibilities a university owes its students and student-athletes in the first place, though. Of the more radical proposals, giving students the rights to their images strikes me as the least disruptive way to let them harness some of their own value to their institutions. It isn’t perfect, and I hope you’ll tell me all about the unintended side effects I’m not thinking of, but it seems like a beginning that really takes seriously the kinds of money surrounding these programs and the actual people who generate it. Plus, I kind of want to see a commercial where Denard Robinson outruns a Chevy Impala without any special effects.