SportsProf

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Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Absurd Debate Over College Athletics

I listened to part of the discussion Mike and Mike this morning about college athletics and, particularly, whether college athletes should be paid.  The reason that I call this discussion absurd is that there are so many more important things going on in the world than college athletics.  It's also absurd because the focus on college athletics is so out of proportion to what it should be.

First, it strikes me that most college athletic programs at best break even or lose money.  Some do make money, such as schools with elite football programs that are name brands around the country.  But more than 80% of Division I (FBS) teams lose money.  Which means that, correspondingly, their school's athletic programs lose money because football by far is the largest sport. 

Second, it is a bromide that alumni donations go up when a school wins a championship, but I am not sure that it is true.  It could be that applications go up, but I'm not sure that alumni donations do. 

Third, a scholarship should be enough compensation for student-athletes, with some caveats, such as -- a) they can get scholarship monies for two additional years beyond when they played owing to the large time commitments that they had to make, b) the scholarships are good regardless of whether a player gets cut from a team (that is, they should be renewable, period), c) the scholarships should be released if a coach leaves a school because the playing field should be even (that is, if the coach can leave without penalty, why shouldn't the kids be able to leave) and d) the schools should public iron-clad metrics regarding the percentage of athletes that get degrees, what they've majored in and what their jobs are after football.  And one other thing -- give them some more walking around money so that they don't have to yield to temptation, say $250 a month. 

But don't start arguing that they should be paid.  Yes, there has been a lot of attention paid to the argument that there is no such thing as an unpaid internship any more under Federal law, that either the intern gets college credit or gets paid.  There is a lot of case law on that.  But college activities should be in a different category, even if you allow for an exception for "significant revenue sports" -- football, men's basketball at many places, ice hockey at some schools and women's basketball at some schools.  Otherwise, schools would jettison their extracurricular activities because they won't have the money to pay players, they don't want to create a Hessian class of paid athletes versus unpaid band members, they cannot afford to pay the band members or they don't think they should give college credits to band members.  The costs could be astounding and bankrupting, lest anyone forget that the primary reason these institutions exist is to educate people and not to beat the arch-rival.  Failing that, eliminate intercollegiate sports altogether and run the best intramural programs in history.  And those would involve more students and keep more in better shape physically and correspondingly medically.

At some point we have to ask the fundamental question as to why these programs exist and what is the justification for them?  There really isn't any justification for them.  If the pro leagues want minor leagues, let them pay for them.  Don't require kids to go to college; the feeder system in European soccer works just fine.  The best players go into the best clubs' academies; they don't go offer to play for Oxford or Heidelberg or any such place.  And yes, look, some of these college programs are run like professional programs, I get that.  But perhaps it's time to end the pretense, let colleges educate, and let the pros run their teams.  And then the colleges don't have to go through the gymnastics that the huge NCAA rule book requires and the schools can dedicate precious funds to benefit a broader group of students.

I don't want to be a killjoy; there are parts of this country that revere their fan experience with college athletics.  I get that.  But there have to be limits as to the extent a school may go to land key players.  Paying them should just not be one of them.

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