So What Do We Do About College Athletics?

Ryan Noonan

Ryan Noonan is an economist with a small federal agency. Fields in which he considers himself reasonably well-informed: literature, college athletics, video games, food and beverage, the Supreme Court. Fields in which he considers himself an expert: none. He can be found on the Twitter or reached by email.

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28 Responses

  1. ted whalen says:

    I think that universities should also be required (or at least allowed) to insure players against chronic and disabling conditions which result from their participation in college athletics. Either that, or put the players into the Workers’ Compensation system.Report

  2. Patrick Cahalan says:

    Cost of Attendance: I’m down, absolutely

    Multi-Year Scholarships: Especially with Cost of Attendance, coupled. Yes.

    Full Medical Insurance: You don’t mention, but ought to be included. “Game-related injuries only” would be more fair, but it’s too easy to leverage that against the player.

    Pay the Players: If you don’t want them to get a job, and you’ve already done #1, #2, and #3, there’s nothing wrong with a small stipend for having fun money. It’s better than having the boosters do it. It has to be uniform, though, coming from the NCAA out of their television deals, not out of the university budgets. No “Michigan State offers you $4k and a Macbook, were USC gives you a free leased car, $10k, and an entire suite of iLife products!”

    Image Rights: provided this is negotiated by a collective bargaining agreement *or* it is supplemental to all of the above (or both), I’m okay with it. Having Johnny Q get $50K a year from Nike while his linemen are in the same situation they are now is right out.

    Pay the Players (Salary): In this case, just formalize the relationship between the NCAA and the NFL and be done with it. All the players join the union. Otherwise, I don’t like it.Report

    • Your comment is much better than mine.Report

    • I’m nitpicking, Pat, but regarding this:

      “Pay the Players: If you don’t want them to get a job, and you’ve already done #1, #2, and #3, there’s nothing wrong with a small stipend for having fun money. It’s better than having the boosters do it.”

      I think that you will have colleges pay fun money stipends AND boosters will continue to illegally pay players.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Tod Kelly says:

        Sure, this will happen.

        It will probably happen less often, though. And we can all feel better about kicking the poor kid out of the game when he gets caught. Self-righteousness and all that.

        Reduce the temptations by making it feasible to play for an NCAA team for four years and get the equivalent of a free ride and fun money, and only the really greedy will go for the illicit money, right?

        I realize there will still be outliers, but there will be fewer of ’em.Report

        • I dunno. If every school is paying each kid $1000 bucks a month, I still see the Oklahomas, USCs and even Oregons of the world having boosters make sure the Cam Newtons of the world (and their families) get serious, serious coin to choose their alma mater.Report

  3. Will Truman says:

    I’m not going to rehash all of the reasons for my opposition to paying playings. The image rights way is the least objectionable way of doing it, from a philosophical perspective. From a practical perspective, unless very well done, I fear it mostly would serve as a way to even further differentiate the fortunes of the haves and have-nots (“Come to our university, and we have $200,000 a year’s worth of image endorsements already lined up for you!” “Errr, become a Bronco, and you can appear on advertisements for GM of Boise?”)

    Multi-year scholarships and Cost of Attendance, however, are both, as you put it, “no-brainers.”

    From a philosophical perspective, I think #1 is the correct way to go. I don’t think it would actually make college athletics “small time” though. A lot of very good baseball players still go through the college system, and that’s despite the lack of exposure it brings. Add in the exposure of the college games, I suspect that a very good number will still go that route. The main difference would be that the kids that just don’t want to be there won’t be there. And they’d have that choice. And that would be a good thing.

    From a practical perspective, the NFL has a free minor league system. I don’t see them giving that up. I consider a good part of the problem on their heads. Maurice Clarett, for all his faults, was right. At the very least, they need to do away with the 3-years rule. And if they’re worried about kids not getting the training to be ready to go immediately into the big game? Bring back NFLE or something like it.Report

  4. Plinko says:

    I’ve long mulled over how we could get to a real minor league for football, mainly from a ‘if I won a massive lottery payout’ fantasy mindset which is, obviously, really divorced from any real path to actualization.

    I think you’re wrong in saying there is no constituency, the players are one and a pretty big one at that. I’ve always thought the main reason various semi-pro leagues have failed is that they go after the NFL where they’re bound to lose instead of the NCAA where they could conceivably win.
    The obvious downside is that if a significant number of talented young players stopped going to NCAA football factory schools, I believe it would probably tear apart the smoke and mirrors that hold the NCAA together for FBS football as the big time conference schools decide they’d rather pay their players and hold their own postseason, thus moving the university schools even closer to being an actual minor league.
    I’ve never really understood why the NFL opposes creating such a league other than not wanting to repeat their mistake in NFL-Europe. The only thing I can think of that makes any sense was a side note in the Taylor Branch article about some part of the anti-trust status of the NFL came alongside some kind of deal to let the NCAA have Saturdays and the NFL Sundays and they’re afraid of opening a can of worms if they go up against the NCAA.

    I’d like to think and write more on the other parts, but not sure if I can mull over them and respond as thoroughly as I’d like. But I do want to say I’ve really enjoyed all these posts on the subject.Report

    • Will Truman in reply to Plinko says:

      How do you propose they compete with the NCAA? I think that even if a league let in 18 year olds (which I think they should), most of the young players are going to be outdone by Troy Smiths and Graham Harrells. I guess you’d need an age limit, but without the connections to long-standing state and city institutions, I don’t see much interest developing.

      If I were the UFL, I would probably go ahead and move to spring and (if they presently have an age limit – I’ve never been able to find out) go ahead and let 18 year olds in so that a freshman phenom somewhere or even highly-touted high school athlete can come to the league and bring publicity. It’s pretty rare that any of them would have an impact, though. By the time they would be ready to, they’d be graduated.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to Will Truman says:

        Well, if the NCAA was playing by its own rules, they could compete with the NCAA.

        But the NCAA doesn’t play by its own rules, so there’s no real incentive for Joe Runningback to leave USC where he gets that Hummer (and a hummer) and a free ride and NFL scouts winking and telling him that he’ll sign a contract for $2mil a year in three years to go to a UFL league.Report

      • Plinko in reply to Will Truman says:

        There are a lot of medium-sized cities that are 50+ miles from either an NFL or a Division I football program in areas of the country where high school football is huge, I think you’d have a real chance to do well with attendance and local TV if you went hard for the regional angle by making sure that a big part of every roster is young players with local ties.
        Going up against the NFL is foolish. There’s way more revenue over there among only 32 franchises. They’ll always have better talent and a bigger marketing budget, you have nothing to offer potential fans except that you’re not the NFL, which is why the XFL bombed and no one watches the Arena League.Report

  5. Renee says:

    I know I am going to sound like a combination of jock-hating nerd and old curmudgeon (despite that I like watching college football and I’m not old, although I strive every day to be curmudgeonly) but . . .
    There seems to be a lot of concern for the players (who I think are being exploited) and the fans, but what about the fundamental academic mission of the schools? I am all for the notion of sound mind and sound body, but no one seriously contends that NCAA football serves the purpose of creating ‘balanced’ individuals, do they? By lowering academic and moral (sex parties for recruits… yes I went to that school) standards, the academy not only degrades itself, but inverts its mission. Athletics should augment the curricula (extra-curricular), not be the central focus of how we think of a school.

    I don’t labor under the impression that once upon a time things were pure and good (at least we aren’t killing football players anymore!), but I feel like schools have made a deal with the devil and don’t know how to extract themselves.

    I’d be interested in hearing anybody’s thoughts on the above proposals as to the overall mission of the school. I certainly like the minor league idea, although I agree with its impracticality.Report

    • wardsmith in reply to Renee says:

      Let’s not forget Arena League Football. That’s where a certain multi NFL championship ring wearing QB honed his craft. It also is more fun to watch, especially in person. No 6-9 snoozefests, the scores look like basketball games.

      As for the rest, debilitating injuries aren’t even covered in the NFL with all /their/ money. Just like other healthcare arguments, the problem is costs quite literally go exponentially north.

      I had a friend in high school who won a college scholarship. By the end of the first season his knee was toast. He stayed at the school however, and doubled down on academics (something sorely lacking as an athlete). He went on to a tremendously successful business career. His knee is still gone however.

      The conundrum is schools know the alchemy here. Winning teams equal loyal (and generous) alumni, students (not athletes) want to go to winning schools so enrollment improves, they can start winnowing out the lower quality students so academics improves, those university advertizements during NCAA games are free, part of the package and finally winning teams more than pay for themselves in direct and indirect revenues. It is no accident that the highest paid staff member of most major universities is not the president of the school, but the coach.Report

      • Patrick Cahalan in reply to wardsmith says:

        Well, Ward, a football player who has a contract for $3 million and is careful with his money* can probably handle having his knees blown out without going into poverty.

        Some kid who has never earned a dime in his life, maybe not so much.

        * I realize that most football players might not be careful with their money.Report

      • BSK in reply to wardsmith says:

        What multi-NFL championship ring wearing QB played in the Arena League? I know Kurt Warner played there, but he holds only one Super Bowl ring.Report

        • Mike Schilling in reply to BSK says:

          Beat me to it. Still, that’s a nitpick — change a few breaks, and he’d have three.Report

          • BSK in reply to Mike Schilling says:

            Oh, indeed! I wasn’t so much nitpicking as I was curious if there was some NFL great with a history I was unaware of. I was thinking, “When did Elway or Brady play in the AFL?”Report

            • wardsmith in reply to BSK says:

              Blame it on my Friday night drinking parties. I was only imagining he’d won those games. Still not bad for an AFL player who never got drafted to even take 3 teams to the big dance. And he did get NFL rings for the divisional championships so I can pretend I’m sorta right. 😉

              Ok, too much vino, time to slow down on the typing. Will check my one other post from earlier to see how badly I screwed it up, then off to bed. Ok, maybe one more drink then off to bed…Report

  6. Steve S. says:

    I gave my suggestions in the other thread and will restate them here. There are similarities to some of your suggestions above. In order of my personal preference (though not necessarily in probability of occurrence):

    1. The major problem is not with college athletics, it is with the NFL and, to a lesser extent, the NBA. If there is a problem go where the problem is.
    2. A group of entrepreneurs could start a league of their own, recruiting talent right out of high school.
    3. The stipend.
    4. Make the football programs quasi-professional, licensed by the universities, with no pretense that the athletes are students (unless they are willing to abide by the NCAA rules). That is, the Auburn Tigers could still be the Auburn Tigers, but most of the players would receive above-board benefits and not be living on campus or attending class. Sort of like your local municipal league flag football except with honesty about the ringers.Report

    • Steve S. in reply to Steve S. says:

      Sorry, forgot to add, pay the players a salary — that is, keep the present system but cut Denard Robinson a large check — is the awfulest of the alternatives, IMO.Report

  7. Brandon Berg says:

    I don’t have a lot of strong opinions on this issue, but I’m dead set against putting them in boxes and selling them to the highest bidders.Report

  8. Kolohe says:

    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)

    I do not believe the player’s union has much sway over the minor league franchises (it’s why, for example, drug testing was able to be instituted in the minors well before the majors)

    One other factoid – almost half (48%) of minor leaguers are foreign born (a little under a quarter of major leaguers are foreign born)

    I think once the players get to the US, it’s not very exploitative* (the farm teams for the Braves used to go out of their way to acculturate the Latin American players, giving them English lessons, and helping them get part time jobs to augment the relatively meager minor league salaries)

    But the stories you hear about when these kids** go through the baseball talent search machines down in the Caribbean – it’s not Triangle Shirtwaist, but it does leave even this gliberatarian with a bad taste in the mouth.

    *otoh, this may have been more of an indication of a really good PR department

    **literallyjoebiden, they start when they’re about thirteen or so if not youngerReport

  9. A Teacher says:

    Here’s the thing: What is the ~Point~ of college athletics?

    Is it to have a way of raising revenue and improving school prestige? Then by all means pay the players like semi-professionals.

    Is it a way to provide athletic competition to students? Then hold students accountable to be ~students~ and then from that pool let some compete. If Johny Football couldn’t get in without being a football player, then he doesn’t get in. If a college is shown to be laxing any standard for someone who can slam dunk then fine them into oblivion. Problem mostly solved.

    It seems the problem is that there are too many people who have made too much of “Their School” winning sports that they forget the goal of all of it. So we’ve got these millions of dollars floating around, and we’ve got rampant profiting and no one seems to really want to talk about ~why~ the kids are in college.

    Frankly if you’re not there to get an education/ degree, you don’t belong. I don’t care how accurate you can throw a spiral.Report

    • Renee in reply to A Teacher says:

      Teacher – this is a clearer statement of the point I was trying to make. At some point we are going to have to realize that college isn’t just a place to go after you graduate high school and that it has a particular purpose. Being the NFL’s minor league and atttracting booster dollars are not the purpose.Report

  10. superdestroyer says:

    The problem with all of the proposals is that they are college football specific. Most college athletes other than football and basketball players only receive partial scholarships. Paying athletes and making the scholarships four years would destroyer all of the “olympic sports” since those are all partial scholarship sports and are usually comprised of students who are real students.

    Giving more benefits to football and male players would destroyer the other sports. And without the other sports, the schools would be out of Title IX compliance.

    If you want to give more benefits to football players, why not give a break to regular students and forbid the universities of giving money to the athletic departments. If the departments want to give more benefits then they should have to raise all of their own funding and stop receive student service fees .Report