Making Things Right

How to get college athletes what they deserve

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Over the past couple of weeks I've been in a couple of twitter battles with advocates of paying college football players. It's a noble pursuit. "The man" is lining his pockets with billions of dollars off the sweat of "slave" labor.

In a perfect world the players who fill the stadiums would get paid. They're the ones who people come to see, not coaches or athletic directors. Yet they're the ones who are cashing big checks while the players get paid in tuition, room, board, books and stipends. Doesn't seem equitable.

And somehow it's become racial. But this is 2019. Everything is racial.

Sports Illustrated writer Robert Klemko tweeted this out last week:

"If the most adversely affected class was wealthy white kids and not poor black kids, athletes in NCAA revenue sports would have been compensated fairly for a long time."

Hmmm.

How did we get here? Players have been filling stadiums for about a century now.

In 1937 two Chicago high school teams (St. Leo and Austin) played a game in front of 120,000 people in Soldier Field.

In the 50's 70,000 would regularly fill Rice Stadium.

The Cotton Bowl, Sugar Bowl, Rose Bowl, Peach Bowl were all filled to the brim long before integration.

The point being, football players have been making "the man" money for a while now. Granted, the money is better than ever. TV deals are through the roof. It's a billion dollar business now but all that ticket money over all those years before integration went somewhere and it wasn't in the players' pockets. It's been this way since the beginning. This is not a racial thing. It's an economics thing.

Don't get me wrong. There's money out there. The stories about bowl directors who make hundreds of thousands, even millions off one game every year are sickening.

Coaches are making upwards of $10 million per year now. Athletic directors are raking it in as well.

Meanwhile the worker bees continue to toil for what is a minute percentage of the pie. A stipend for living expenses was added to the mix a few years ago and it's helped some but the inequity that is big time college athletics remains. Stipends and tuition, room and board and books don't come close to an equitable compensation at the highest level. The big time programs bring in millions.

The problem is that the big time programs are the exception not the rule. Not everyone is Texas or Alabama. Very few programs actually make money when all is said and done. Ask most athletic directors about paying players and the first response will most likely be "Where is that money coming from?"

I asked UH Athletic Director Chris Pezman what would happen if he needed to pay players. "We couldn't do it. We have two revenue generating sports but you can't just pay them. Title IX won't allow it. You'd have to pay everyone. We have 458 athletes in 17 sports. We'd be bankrupt."

But there is a way to get players what they deserve. Let the market dictate it. Let athletes who are in demand make money from their likeness, their autograph, their commercial appeal. Sure it would be dominated by football and basketball players but in Connecticut the women's basketball team would be the most sought after. In Iowa it might be a wrestler, at UCLA a gymnast, at Cal a sprinter.

There would have to be checks and balances. Overzealous boosters would pay the moon and the sun to get recruits to come to their school but it's not like that's not happening now. If you have to put a limit on what each sponsor can pay and a compliance department in each university run by the NCAA and not the school itself you might be able to keep the cheating at a minimum as opposed to what's going on now.

Players look up into the stands of 100,000 seat stadiums with thousands of fans wearing their jerseys and feel like there's an incredible inequity and rightfully so. It doesn't have to be that way. Let the marketplace decide who deserves to be paid. I'm not sure that the NCAA has heard but we live in a free market society. They need to start acting like it.


Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

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