It isn’t entirely accurate, this sweeping outrage that college athletes in revenue-rich sports are sweatshop slaves working for nothing. They do receive full-ride scholarships worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. They are accorded ample media coverage akin to ongoing, nationally televised resumes for their potential employers, not something the science major gets. Judging by the grandiose facilities at prominent programs — Oregon’s $70-million Football Performance Center has $30,000 lockers with stink-free ventilation, Ann Sacks mosaic tiles in the bathrooms, a farm-to-table dining room with walnut decor, a barber shop with chairs manufactured in Milan, walls draped in football leather, Brazilian Ipe hardwood in the weightlifting area, 250 flat screens, shelves that charge up phones without power cords and stone floors from a Chinese rock quarry — well, you might assume some of these kids are living better than 99 percent of Obama’s America.
That said, their considerable talents still are being used to fill enormous, multi-billion-dollar pots of gold for: (1) institutions of (cough) higher learning; (2) several major television networks; (3) megaconferences with their own television networks and growing affiliate fees; and (4) the bumbling, teetering NCAA. From those pots, the student-athletes (cough, cough) are receiving absolutely nothing, which is the working definition of exploitation. That’s why allegations of Johnny Manziel cutting a five-figure deal with an autograph broker last January — the latest in a trail of drama that has turned our swaggering Heisman Trophy winner into a perpetual hot mess — are greeted not with additional resentment toward Johnny Football but, rather, the most heated debates yet about compensating college athletes.
Should they be paid for commercial use of their likenesses? Should they be allowed to sign autographs on memorabilia for money? Should they, ultimately, share a percentage from those pots for their workloads in games and practices and for bringing untold residual benefits to the aforementioned recipients?
After years of fighting the idea, I do think, yes, that college athletes should be paid beyond their current scholarship-and-designer-showroom perks. I do think the most popular athletes deserve money for their signatures. I do think they should be paid when the NCAA and video-game companies capitalize on their likenesses. And I do think some of that reform will happen soon. You can feel the high-pressure system blowing in, ready to rip apart a business model aching for significant change. Adding the Manziel autograph affair to the Ed O’Bannon legal case — which will determine who owns an athlete’s likeness — is the equivalent of sticking a gas hose into a fire pit. Thoughtful discussion about the issue should lead to a fitting conclusion: massive courtroom financial penalties for the NCAA and radically reduced budgets in the biggest athletic programs. Most importantly, there will be a new way of distributing some financial resources to athletes.
Certainly, the NCAA did itself no favors in recent days, looking disgracefully hypocritical when ESPN’s Jay Bilas discovered that jerseys for top college football and basketball players were being sold on the ShopNCAAsports.com site. Manziel can’t make a cent off an autograph, but the NCAA can sell a Texas A&M jersey with his No. 2 — and splash “football” across the back, if you can swallow that — yet somehow not feel scummy about making money off Manziel? It’s frightening to think Bilas broke this news by typing names such as Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney into his search engine when the man paid handsomely to run the NCAA, president Mark Emmert, claimed to know nothing about this merchandise on the e-commerce site. Isn’t it his job to know everything happening under his umbrella? And in announcing the NCAA no longer would sell the jerseys, didn’t Emmert severely damage his defense in the O’Bannon case? If the NCAA president doesn’t think his organization should profit off player jerseys, isn’t he acknowledging the other side is right?
“I can’t speak to why we entered into that enterprise, but it’s not something that’s appropriate for us, and we’re going to exit it,” Emmert said. “In the national office, we can certainly recognize why that could be seen as hypocritical, and, indeed, I think the business of having the NCAA selling those kinds of goods is a mistake. It’s not something that’s core to what the NCAA is about, and it probably never should have been in the business.”
What a shame he couldn’t have come to that realization on his own. By reacting only after a media member did some digging, Emmert again revealed himself again as a weak, clueless leader in an organization crying for strong direction. It reminds us of an underlying reality: Even if an administrative screwup leads to compensation for players, it does nothing to comfort us about the cesspool that still reeks in college sports. Do you actually think paying a player $300 a game will end the scandals? Will it stop Manziel or others from signing autographs for five figures? I use that figure because it’s the amount South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier, the old ballcoach, suggested during SEC Media Days last month. Continuing his annual crusade on the subject, he said all the league’s football and basketball coaches have talked and would agree to pay players — out of their own pockets. For football, Spurrier mentioned $300 a game as a fair amount — which computes to about $3,600 a year per player, and an outlay of about $280,000 a year for each coach.
“I’m going to keep fighting for our guys,” he said. “If President Obama would say, `Spurrier, you and those coaches need to quit fighting for your players, that they get enough, they get enough full scholarship,’ then I’ll shut up about it.”
There are other complications beyond the awkward nature of a coach opening up his personal bank account, which isn’t going to happen. A school would pay $300 to the star quarterback and the same amount to the third-string safety? Title IX requires women athletes to be paid, too. Once the pursestrings finally open, things grow messier, and people become greedier. Spurrier would want players to use the $3,600 on travel expenses for their families. How many would blow it on beer runs and who knows what else?
Maybe these questions would be better answered if the NCAA wasn’t so dysfunctional. The ShopNCAAsports.com snafu is the latest in a series of recent catastrophes, including enforcement-related mistakes that make the NCAA sleuths look like so many clumsy Inspector Clouseaus from the old Pink Panther movies. Loose lips in the Shabazz Muhammad case, improperly collected evidence in the University of Miami case, the dismissal of the NCAA’s enforcement chief — Emmert’s army looks feeble, hapless. And while commissioners from the five football superconferences claim they want to work directly with the NCAA when they inevitably form their own bloc, be real. I’m thinking they’re about to crush the NCAA and create their own enforcement division — meaning, each school patrols itself individually, cheats out the ass and never, ever commits a violation. Then they’ll appoint ESPN president John Skipper as commissioner of their Fantastic Five. After all, doesn’t ESPN own college football now with its purchase of the new tournament and championship game? Not that running an entire sport is supposed to be the function of a journalistically responsible TV network.
It’s almost hysterical that college sports, in its corrupt and convoluted form, somehow is connected to the ideal of higher academia. In truth, nothing is funny about this. No matter what an athlete is paid in a new system, the creeps will keep funneling dirty money, the NCAA will be too inept to investigate, and the biggest conferences and programs will be operating too independently to care.
Besides, there are Corian countertops to order for the coaches’ quarters. And several types of men’s cologne to place atop the Corian countertops, Burberry among them.