They say they want a revolution. Well, you know, we all want to change the world, as John Lennon said, but one problem right away with college football players organizing a mass movement to protest their lack of monetary compensation is this:
Young men, you are being paid.
That four-year scholarship you receive when you bring your athletic talents to an institution of higher learning? In the years ahead, it will be worth more than $100,000 at an in-state-tuition program and upwards of $300,000 at a private university. Many U.S. families can’t afford to send kids to college at those prices, and if some do anyway, they plunge into debt forever.
The protesting players kind of forgot about that perk, didn’t they? They’re also receiving vast media coverage that can be considered an ongoing, nationally televised, multiple-network resume for potential employers in the NFL, something the math major isn’t getting. And as I pointed out recently, some of these players are living better than 99 percent of Obama’s America — Oregon’s $70-million Football Performance Center has $30,000 lockers with stink-free ventilation, stone floors from a Chinese rock quarry, Brazilian ipe hardwood in the weightlifting area, a barber shop with chairs manufactured in Milan, Ann Sacks (who is Ann Sacks?) mosaic tiles in the bathrooms, a farm-to-table dining room with walnut decor, walls draped in football leather and 250 flat-screen TVs. Guess that blows away Alabama’s video arcade, anti-gravity treadmills, healthy-cooking classes, shoe-drying room and mist-spraying cool-off tents. And the gargantuan complex at Oklahoma State that includes a private stall for the team mascot, a horse named Bullet, who, contrary to rumor, doesn’t get high during games or sneak off with escorts.
So let’s eliminate the notion of sweatshop slaves, OK?
Still, there is an enormous, multi-billion-dollar pot of gold that will be split, for the foreseeable future, by the universities, ESPN and other TV networks, the megaconferences with their own TV networks (and growing affiliate fees) and, of course, the suddenly wayward, undefinable NCAA. The players do not see a penny of that, which explains why allegations surfaced of Johnny Manziel signing thousands of autographs for money, and why pay-for-play scandals — impermissible benefits, in the institutional vernacular — pop up about once a week, most recently in exposes by Sports Illustrated and Yahoo! Sports. All of which has led to the most heated and elaborate debates yet about whether college athletes should be compensated from the same pot of gold, and why Time magazine placed Manziel on its cover with the headline, “It’s Time To Pay College Athletes.”
It was inevitable that players on several teams Saturday drew attention to a reform mission called All Players United — representing the National College Players Association, an advocacy group — by scrawling “APU” on wrist tape and towels during televised games. This first was reported by ESPN, which happens to own the college football industry, literally. Among the players: Georgia Tech quarterback Vad Lee, Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and five Georgia offensive linemen, including Kolton Houston, who was ineligible the last three seasons after the NCAA said he failed a drug test, then returned this year after proving a banned steroid had been prescribed because of shoulder surgery. Yes, players have made it very clear they want to be paid, recalling recent money-grab gestures during games by Manziel, Clemson’s Tajh Boyd and Alabama’s T.J. Yelden. But Saturday was the first time the movement resembled something out of the ’60s. Compensation is only part of the agenda. NCPA is supporting players who join concussion lawsuits against the NCAA, aiming to “force the NCAA to finally take meaningful steps to minimize brain trauma in contact sports and provide resources for current and former players suffering with brain injuries.” And NCPA is supporting those who have “stepped up in the O’Bannon v. NCAA, EA Sports lawsuit regarding the use of players’ images/likeliness, which could unlock billions of dollars in resources for current, future, and former players” — referring to the Ed O’Bannon case that could produce major financial damages for former and current college athletes.
“Players will continue to wear the `APU’ throughout the season and spread the word,” NCPA president Ramogi Huma told ESPN.com’s Tom Farrey. “They’re taking the reform effort to television, which has never been done. They’ve been using their bodies to make money for the people who run NCAA sports. Now, for the first time, they’re using their bodies to push for basic protections at the very least.”
From every direction, this is about money. After years of fighting the idea, I do think, yes, that college athletes should be paid with a stipend — 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. You can feel the high-pressure system blowing in, ready to rip apart a business model aching for significant change.
But if you think a few weekend demonstrations will lead to a quick resolution or any real progress, you also think Arkansas Razorbacks can fly. A lot of people missed this the other day, but NCAA president Mark Emmert strongly reiterated that players won’t be paid, even as they’re being exploited to feed the megabucks monster. He said university presidents still aren’t interested in sharing the wealth with students — and why would they, with ridiculous profits rolling in? — and their resistance only will strengthen next year when the five power conferences (and Notre Dame) close ranks with ESPN in a 12-year, $7-billion deal for the four-team national championship playoff.
“One thing that sets the fundamental tone is there’s very few members and, virtually no university president, that thinks it’s a good idea to convert student-athletes into paid employees. Literally into professionals,” Emmert said in Milwaukee, per the Associated Press. “Then you have something very different from collegiate athletics. One of the guiding principles (of the NCAA) has been that this is about students who play sports.”
Yet Emmert is just as quick to acknowledge college football’s continuing financial boom — and how the players are creating that economy with their performances. “(There’s) enormous tension right now that’s growing between the collegiate model and the commercial model,” said Emmert, who appeared on a Marquette University panel on the topic. “And, by the way, this is nothing new. This tension has been going on forever and ever. It has gotten greater now because the magnitude of dollars has gotten really, really large.
“The most valuable (television) products are things you have to watch in real-time, and that’s sports and `Dancing with the Stars.’ So we’re seeing an explosion in the value of sports media properties and that’s injected a lot of revenue into sports. … That’s led to a lot of the discussion. This whole notion of, first and foremost, treating student-athletes in fair fashion while still maintaining the student-athlete, is at the core of all of this.”
Plus, how do you disperse the money? It’s easy to say “pay Johnny Football,” but legally, I don’t think you can pay Manziel five times more than the second-team punter — they have to be paid the same. Female athletes must be paid, because of Title IX. And how would athletes at smaller, out-of-the-loop football programs be paid when schools might not have the budgets?
Emmert suggests a radical solution: Athletes shouldn’t take the scholarship if they don’t want to be in college, instead going straight to the pros. That path is more realistic in the NBA, where more players are ready for the big time in their teens, though they’re more league-mature now that they’re required to at least play a one-and-done college season. The physicality of football, and the raging concussion crisis, makes it impractical and dangerous to have teens jumping to the NFL. “It’s a dynamic tension that we really need to work on because it’s at heart of part of what talking about here,” Emmert said. “Why would we want to force someone to go to school when they really don’t want to be there? But if you’re going to come to us, you’re going to be a student.”
Which is a good thing, by the way, young athletes pursuing higher education. Too bad so many of them think it’s anathema.
Everyone likes a healthy protest. It wouldn’t be America if collegians didn’t want to change the world. But these in-game reformists should know that the system isn’t going to change regardless of how widespread the protests extend this season, even if Johnny Football spray-paints “APU” on his buttocks and moons a national audience. Certanly, Manziel should be ticked off that Texas A&M reported a record $740 million in donations and pledges since Sept. 1 of last year, a lot of it related directly to his huge popularity and the football team’s success. But has he considered that the built-in college football mechanism also helped him become Johnny Football, which ultimately may propel him to riches? Without the mechanism, where would he be showing off his multi-purpose stuff?
As for Vad Lee, Kain Colter and the rest, go ahead and stage your revolution. But if solidarity leads to no alteration in your weekly paycheck, which is zero, answer this:
What exactly are your options?