Monday, September 05, 2011

Fixing College Football: Pay the Kids, or Don't

cross-posted from Dagblog

It's college football season, and that means corruption and scandal. (Margaret Soltan at University Diaries blogs superbly and tirelessly about that corruption.) We've actually gotten to the point where Sports Illustrated, not the Chronicle of Higher Education but Sports Illustrated, has called for a major university football team to be disbanded. But the moral conversation about college sports remains so focused on abstractions like tradition and idealism that the "moral" conversation itself is corrupt, and corrupting. Arguing about ideals is fine. Mistreating actual human beings in the service of your ideals is depraved. By that standard, few institutions in America are more fundamentally depraved than the NCAA. The ideal of the scholar-athlete is not a bad thing. But it becomes a bad thing when it is used to exploit and mistreat people and to promote dishonesty. The NCAA, which is essentially a group of college athletic directors, doesn't protect the kids who actually play college football and basketball, or allow them to behave honestly. It is actually focused on punishing the exploited kids even more, and on forcing them into hypocrisy. (One of the big football scandals this year centers on some players who traded their autographs for discounted tattoos. The NCAA views that as major wrongdoing.)

Let me propose two simple principles for college athletics: 1) the powerful should not abuse or exploit the powerless, and 2) lying is bad. That still leaves some room for things like school tradition, nostalgia, and the romance of the scholar-athlete, but those things have to operate inside the framework of the two principles. If your hallowed college traditions really can't survive without lying, exploitation and abuse, then something is wrong with your traditions and your school.

How should college football (and college basketball) continue without lying, cheating, and mistreating the players? Three steps.

1. Let colleges pay athletes openly. And make them pay.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with running a minor-league professional sports franchise. There is nothing wrong with an 18-year-old kid signing up with a minor-league sports team, getting a chance to develop as an athlete and hoping for a shot at the big leagues. And there is nothing wrong with that athlete getting paid. It's strenuous work, that involves both specialized skills and significant personal risk. When your enterprise is making millions of dollars off people who are risking concussions, spinal injuries, and damage to their ACLs, you should not be asking yourself if it would be wrong to pay them.

Nothing is wrong with a high school graduate who signs up with a minor league ball team. People who want to be professional baseball players but don't want to go to college have an avenue to do that. They get a job, and people pay them. Baseball players who do want to go to college are free to do so, and college baseball doesn't have the kinds of scandals that college football and basketball have. Kids who want to get paid in the pros do, and kids who would rather go to college do that instead. No one's confused. Nobody's lying. Neither minor-league baseball nor college baseball are hotbeds of corruption. And the most important reason for that is that the athletes are allowed to choose, and to pursue the rewards they actually value. A baseball player with no interest in a college education can just get a job, and those who want a degree can get one.

In football, and with a handful of exceptions in men's basketball, there is no choice. If you want to be an NFL player, you must first pretend to be a college student. You are not allowed to just train for your sport. Aspiring NFL and NBA players are forced to play for free, even when the colleges and coaches make many, many millions of dollars. (The sports media whines and moans when basketball stars get paying jobs after only a year or two of unpaid labor.) Talking about "amateurism" in this context is a lie, because the players do not choose to be amateurs. Rather, they are forced into unpaid labor by an unofficial but very effective cartel. The NCAA is, in effect, the price-fixing arm of the NFL and NBA.

If football players could choose between working as professional athletes or forgoing that in order to play college ball, then we could talk seriously about amateurism and scholar-athletes. In fact, many of the "amateurs" are indentured servants, and the education they are given in exchange for their labor is often a sham. The sheer demands of training in a pre-professional league such as, say, the Big Ten don't really leave the time, let alone the energy, for a serious full-time degree program. Pre-NFL football and pre-NBA basketball are consuming, round-the-clock pursuits. And when a player enters college ill-prepared as a student, which is pretty frequent, the intensity of the sports training program guarantees that they will never catch up. In fact, they'll keep falling further behind.

Colleges that wish to conduct pre-professional sports programs, with the big TV and ticket revenue, should be allowed to operate their professional teams openly and legally, dispensing with the fiction that the players are full-time students. The usual proposal that some new football minor league be created is unrealistic; that league would quickly be killed off by the existing college franchises, with their advanced development, capitalization, brand recognition and market share. A startup league could not compete with the professional-except-in-name-league. The solution is to rename the existing leagues and admit what they are.

Colleges who wish to do so should be allowed a charter or license to operate professional football and basketball franchises. They might be allowed some special tax exemption, so that the sports revenue can be used to run their non-profit. And they should be allowed to pursue different approaches. Some schools will want to operate their teams themselves. Others might outsource the sports franchise to professionals for a fixed annual revenue, essentially licensing the team's history and brand. (This should make schools conscious of the value of their brand.) Teams that go pro should be allowed to play teams that stay amateur, and vice versa. If Notre Dame wants to stay an amateur school, but keep playing teams that have become pro, they should be allowed. Whether or not this is a good idea will become clear in time.

Some schools, of course, will simply stay amateur, just as many have kept from having truly pre-professional teams. The Dartmouth Big Green is going to remain a team full of future surgeons and bond traders. Some schools will field a mix of amateurs and young pros, just as they do now, and that is also perfectly fine. Pro teams who want to add a college scholarship to their pay package should be permitted to do that, but not to stipulate that the scholarship be taken while the athlete is playing. (If you want to pay a kid to play tight end for three to six years, and give him the option of going to the sponsoring college for his BA when his playing days are over, that's a good thing.)

But if you're not going to educate a kid, pay him. If what he wants is playing time and a shot at the bigs, give him a salary and benefits. The market will work out the price for that. The economics of big-time college sports might change a bit. The coaches might not be able to demand seven-figure salaries when the players are no longer free. But an enterprise generating tens of millions of dollars, the way televised college football does, should be able to budget reasonable five-figure salaries for the kids whose bodies are out there on the field. And if big-time college sports can only make money by making the kids play for free, then it is morally indefensible.

2. Set up legal penalties for pretending to field amateurs

What you shouldn't be allowed to do is have a professional team and call them amateurs. This should not be policed by the NCAA, which has compromised morals and a ludicrous idea of what constitutes a penalty. Having a "high-minded" outside arbiter come in to "void" previous championships doesn't stop anything. Allowing people who have been wronged to sue on their own behalf, in court, can curb misbehavior quite effectively at times.

If a college sets up a professional team, or a team with a number of professionals on it, and then presents them as amateurs, then they are committing fraud. They are falsely pretending amateur status in order to increase fan interest, and they are defrauding the real amateur teams they play, who get made to look bad and whose student-players are put at physical risk. If a team full of pre-meds who train twenty hours a week wants to play a team full of young pros who train for eighty hours a week, that's one thing. But the amateurs, and their coaches, should know that they are playing the eighty-hour pros.

A team that falsely claims amateur status should be liable for all their football-based revenue, plus penalties, to the team they have played. If you want to get a prime holiday matchup against Notre Dame by claiming to be a bunch of scholar-athletes, and then use your under-the-table pros to beat up Notre Dame on TV, Notre Dame should be able to sue you for your share of the TV money, the ticket fees, the concessions and souvenir sales, the whole megillah. And the US Attorney should be able to come after you for fraud, including tax fraud. (Those who pay kids under the table do not pay employment taxes. QED.) The penalties have to be substantial, to make the financial risk of cheating prohibitive.

If boosters or assistant coaches have done the paying, the team should be held liable but allowed to recover their costs from the booster or assistant.

3. Set up legal penalties for infringing on the education provided to student-athletes.

If you're going to give a kid an education instead of cash, you should be required to give him the education. Telling a kid that his reward for playing football is a college education, but then making the demands of football so intense that he can't avail himself of that education, is the cruelest exploitation imaginable. If you're not going to give the athlete a salary, give him time to learn organic chemistry.

Don't let the NCAA set the rules for how many hours students can be made to train or practice every week, or how many classes they can miss for road games. Those rules and that policing have been completely ineffective. Give players who want the option of full-time sports training a chance to play in pro leagues, and allow scholarship athletes to sue if they are deprived of the value of their scholarship. This isn't about ideals or noble traditions. It's about contract law. Athletic scholarships offer a consideration in exchange for a service; you can get four years of tuition if you'll play on this specific team. If the student leaves the team, they give up the scholarship. But that has to cut both ways; if you're holding the eighteen-year-old to the requirement for athletic service, you have to let them get a real education. If you don't, they should be able to sue the school, and there should be potential criminal penalties as well. This of course will sound scandalous to many American sports fans, because it treats student athletics as real work, and the athletes as real people. It's considered terrible when a student athlete looks after his own interests. But if people are not allowed to take care of their own interests, or to be rewarded for their work, we aren't really having a moral conversation.

No comments: