Cash Rules Everything Around Me

Note: Next week’s column will be the last of the season.

“Money ain’t got no owners, only spenders.” –Omar Little

In the 1930s, University of Chicago president Robert Hutchins waged a personal war against the encroachment into American universities of what he called “athleticism.” Under the belief that certain sports (particularly football) were cash cows, universities overemphasized athletics until they stopped being mere recreation and become institutions (or isms) instead. Hutchins felt this left universities woefully misguided. Teams were popular with students and the public who filled stadiums every Saturday, and university presidents soon found themselves believing their schools were noteworthy not because of academic reputation but because of their sports teams. “Athleticism” turned the primary business of the university into that of sports promotion in an attempt to draw more and more paying fans. In an article in the Saturday Evening Post entitled “Gate Receipts and Glory,” Hutchins suggested that university presidents had watched athleticism grow over the previous fifty years but did nothing about it. Spectator sports like football simply brought too much money to the table for universities to just run away, so Hutchins offered a solution. Since money causes athleticism and all the misguidance that goes along with it, “the cure is to take the money out of athletics.”( To do this, he proposed to, among other things, universally cap football ticket prices at ten cents each.  Needless to say, it didn’t happen so Chicago decided instead to go its own way and just drop football entirely.)  I agree with Hutchins that money is the problem with college sports, but my solution isn’t to take the money out, but rather to spread it around, particularly amongst those doing the most work: the players.

We all realize how much money is at play in college sports, right?  Don’t we see that the problems Robert Hutchins noticed over seventy years ago are still alive today and that college sports are now as money-driven as ever? Yet we happily watch a coach making two million a year give an interview on a network that paid eleven billion for the rights to broadcast it and will air an advertisement for an insurance giant before showing ten guys run up and down a court with swooshes emblazoned all over their clothes, but we won’t think twice about the fact that those guys are the only ones involved doing anything for free.  That doesn’t seem weird to anyone else?  I know what you all are saying: But they do get paid!  They get a free education!  It’s an amazing gift! Think about how many billions are made in and off college sports.  A college athlete (you know, the one who does all the work and creates all the money?) in a big-time sport is supposed to think that exchange is fair?  He’s supposed to watch everyone, from CBS to Nike to his coach profit off his work and then just smile at his free tuition?  Jason Whitlock calls it a master-slave relationship because that’s his style, and though I wouldn’t go that far, it definitely sounds like a rip-off to me.

Consider the WCC Tournament, which begins this weekend.  Or maybe I shold say, consider the Zappos.com WCC Tournament, which begins this weekend in Las Vegas.  When the conference moved the tournament from campus sites a few years ago, it cited Vegas’ central location and the fairness of playing the thing at a neutral spot.  Soon, the conference started using the images of its players (including Matt Bouldin last season, for example) to market the event which was deemed enough of a success for the conference to keep coming back.  Ironically, though, those very same players whose images were used to market the tournament can’t stop at the sports book on their way to the games without being banned for life for violating NCAA rules.  Meantime, the executives at Zappos or the heads at ESPN (which holds broadcast rights for the tournament) or the coaches who get bonus checks for winning the damn thing are free to keep cashing in without anyone batting an eye.  Even more, thanks to revenue sharing, every school in the WCC takes a portion of the overall tournament profits as well as a share of the money earned by which ever team wins the conference tournament and moves on the the NCAA Tournament.  What do the players get?  The chance to earn a fine arts degree on someone else’s dime!  Yipee!  (It should be noted that even professional leagues won’t put teams in Las Vegas because they’re afraid of the implications.  The NCAA, though, has no problems with it.  Maybe it figures that everyone else it getting ripped off in Vegas, so why not the unpaid athletes as well.)

Such a situation is ludicrous.  So much so, in fact, that if I were an athlete in a big-time revenue sport like basketball or football, I’d hit the streets and convince as many of my teammates and opponents as I could to follow me.  You want to keep making bank off my sweat, CBS/Nike/the WCC?  Then you better pay me, because I’m not playing again until you do.  But since I’m not, I’ll just do the rational thing and offer a solution.  So here goes.

The La Revolucion Fool-Proof Solution to Guilt-Free Exploitation of College Athletes

The idea that college athletes shouldn’t be paid for what they do is based on an outdated ideal: amateurism.  Forever people have held up college athletes as the ultimate amateurs.  They play the game because they love it then they put on their letterman’s sweater and go home with some bobby-socked cheerleader on their arm.  Of course that’s not the case and hasn’t been for years but it’s just the sort of image that gets propped up so people can feel good about ignoring money’s influence and impact on college athletics, particularly big-time college athletics.  But money is everywhere in these sports.  Robert Hutchins tried to run away from it, people now try to hide their eyes when they see it.  Why not just embrace it?  My solution does just that while rewarding college athletes for their hard work on the field (and, as you will see, in the classroom) with something a little more tangible than free tuition.

I propose that every entity that makes money off college athletics (the list, as Goose would say, is long but distinguished) contributes a percentage of its profits into a pot relative to the amount it makes.  CBS or Nike or some other company that makes the most would contribute the most and so on down the list.  The NCAA, conferences, the Orleans Casino, coaches, nobody’s exempt from this.  Once the pot is full, the money gets distributed to athletes in amounts relative to the amount of money their sport helped the above contributors earn (football and basketball the most, then probably hockey or something, then maybe women’s basketball, etc.) as long as those athletes meet both of two criteria:

1) They graduate.  I’m not enough of a radical to say that every athlete should get paid whether they go to class or not.  The point of college is, after all, to get educated.  So, John Wall?  The semester of classes you took at Kentucky last year before dropping out but still being allowed to play in the spring under NCAA rules wouldn’t be enough to get you any money.  (I’m sure you’re crushed.)  Matt Bouldin and Jeremy Pargo, though?  You guys would get yours, and given that you played a highly profitable revenue sport, your paycheck would be substantial.  Congrats on living up to that platitudinous “student-athlete” term the NCAA and its supporters throw around so freely.

2) They pass a test of basic knowledge one would expect to gain during the course of a college education.  If you can write a paper, if you know what a valance electron is, if you know the difference between there, their, and they’re, you should get rewarded for it.  And as someone with two liberal arts degrees, I can say with certainty that the real world isn’t exactly falling all over itself to reward me and my general knowledge.  But it should, just like a stack of money should reward athletes for not only graduating from college but doing so with a big brain.

That’s it.  Pretty simple, huh?  Everyone who makes money off college athletics now would still stand to make plenty under my system, but they’d do so without completely exploiting the athletes.  And, even better, we get to stop pretending that all college athletes are student-athletes and that everyone isn’t making a whole boat load of money off their work.  Call me a communist if you want, but lots of things are communist, including the revenue sharing that lets Pepperdine make money because Gonzaga made the Tournament.  Is it really any more communist to have Pepperdine’s players make money because it was actually Gonzaga’s players who made the Tournament?

Go Zags.

19 Responses to “Cash Rules Everything Around Me”

  1. I disagree with your proposal mainly because it’s unfair to the student athletes.

    There’s lots of sports that lose money for the NCAA. I am guessing that these would include some relatively major sports (volleyball, tennis, soccer). So should the athletes in those sports pay to make up for the loss? Every athlete in every collegiate sport works his/her butt off to play.

    Let’s take an example from our beloved Gonzaga University. I would posit that the volleyball team (which isn’t very good) works just as hard and puts in just as much time as the men’s basketball team. They make even more sacrifices to play the sport they love (when was the last time the volleyball team got a charter flight to an away game?). So why should the men’s basketball team players get paid and the volleyball players shouldn’t? They put in equal amounts of effort and time, but get different rewards?

    I think that your proposal should be modified to make it “more Communist” and that the money collected from all sports should be equally distributed among all the college athletes, contingent that they graduate and pass a test like you mention in your article.

    I’m personally on the fence about paying college athletes. How much is a full-ride athletic scholarship at Gonzaga worth? $30,000? That’s a year’s salary for a lot of people. On the other hand, lots of people are making lots of money off of some of the student athletes.

  2. Professor Professorson Says:

    I usually agree with you, but in this case I have to strenuously disagree. You’re coming at it from the players’ perspective, and I’m thinking of it from the perspective of the university and “normal” students. If we agree with Hutchins (and I do) that athleticism distracts from a university’s primary functions–research and teaching–then I don’t see how doubling down on athleticism solves anything. There are already two classes of students on most campuses: those who go for free and in many cases benefit from lower admissions standards and untold other perks, and those who have to pay for their education and enjoy no special treatment. I was paired with basketball players for group work once or twice at GU, and I resented the hell out of it. They contributed nothing, and seemed to think that their only purpose in life was to play ball for GU. I hated to think that free tuition was being wasted on kids who couldn’t care less. I worked my ass off and got good grades, and paid tens of thousands of dollars to GU for the privilege. Start paying athletes who attend for free and who (with some exceptions) are mostly uninterested in learning, and I think you might have a revolt on your hands among “real” students.

    But my more serious problem with your argument is that I think it devalues education, and undermines the purpose of attending a university (education). Education is valuable, not just in terms of what it costs but also in terms of what it means for earning potential and general well-being for the rest of one’s life. I think paying athletes unavoidably sends the message that their REAL purpose at school is to get paid, not to receive an education. Is that really the message that we want to send to college athletes? “We know you’re not a REAL student and that school is a joke for you, so here’s your paycheck. But you still have to go to class, and pass a test at the end.” The safeguards you propose to shore up the “student” part of “student-athlete” are, to my mind, not even close to enough to compensate for the message sent by paying athletes. Athletes frequently graduate under the current system, but that doesn’t mean that they’ve been educated (remind me to tell you sometime about the athlete I had in one of my classes, and his “tutor”). And the exam? Athletics programs are already masters at coaching their students through coursework, and I suspect that they would coach their students through the exam as well. Athletes (aside from rare exceptions like SG) tend to behave now as if they are in school only for sports, and as if academics are just a nuisance. Start paying them for the sports, and that problem will only get worse.

    Rather than throw up our hands, admit that athleticism is here to stay, and make concessions to it, I would prefer to reinforce the “student” part of student athletics. By that I mean: no preferential admissions standards for athletes; no special academic treatment; a top-to-bottom emphasis in athletics programs on making sure that academics are the absolute first priority. In short: college athletes should be students above all else, and should be treated like students. Scholarships for specific fields of endeavor at the university (sports, music, debate, etc) are fine, but compensation beyond that is inappropriate for students. If those standards are unacceptable to any given athlete, then we must conclude that education is not his/her primary reason for going to school, and that he/she should probably pursue professional athletics outside of academia. Anything else is, in my opinion, unfair to normal students and entirely contrary to the university’s educational purpose.

    I realize that none of this directly addresses what you perceive as the “exploitation” of athletes. I guess you can tell that I don’t think the deal is as unfair as you do. Again, education has value beyond what it costs, and paying athletes would be tantamount to admitting that they’re not in school to learn. This is unacceptable to me…better to make sure that they actually benefit from the educational opportunities offered to them.

    That said, I see the problem: a lot of parties make a lot of money from college athletics, and that’s not necessarily fair. Perhaps a better solution is to require that a share of the profits is distributed back to universities and athletics programs. Hell, if we did that, sports might actually pay for themselves in American universities or even turn a profit, instead of being a huge drain on the budget that detracts from the resources available for teaching/research. (PS-I know some people still insist that athletics make money for universities, but sadly, that’s not true. There have been some articles in the chronicle about this within the last year or so, I think).

    End of rant.

  3. Nathan, my proposal lets all athletes get paid, even volleyballers. An athlete would get a chunk of cash relative in size to the amount of money his/her sport contributes to the overall pot. Paying all athletes the same defeats my purpose of making things fair (rather than equal). It’s why I want football and basketball players to make the most and so on down the line. (I should also mention that my wife was a D-1 athlete in a non-revenue sport. When I told her she would have made money under my plan, she called me an idiot. Maybe she’s on to something…)
    Professor, you’re arguing that paying athletes sends a message that they’re there for something other than education. The point of my proposal is to give them an incentive to stay in school long enough to actually get that education. As for your re-emphasis on academics, I’d argue that until money is taken out of college sports entirely, there’s no way in hell you’d get the kind of across-the-board change you’d need to make it actually work. Administrators would have to give up the possibility of making money (even though, like you mentioned, most athletic departments lose money), which they’d likely not be willing to do.
    I could, though, get behind your version of the trickle-down proposal. Doesn’t seem right that GU has a chartered jet and a sweet arena because it’s got amazing donors (rather than because it turns a huge profit, even though it does in basketball at least) while Pepperdine plays in a bandbox and flies coach because it doesn’t have sweet donors.

  4. Scott,

    How would an athlete in a non-revenue sport make money in your proposal? If there’s no positive cash flow, there’s nothing left to give to the athletes. Ask your wife how she would feel if the men’s basketball team got paid $30,000 when they graduated, and she got $50.

    Think of a very large company (let’s use Ford for this example). They make their money by selling cars and trucks. Let’s assume that they have some sort of company-wide annual bonus tied to their profit amounts. Every worker at the company gets this bonus. But not every employee directly adds profit to the company. Sure, the guys working the production line directly add to the profitability of the company, but the accountant crunching the numbers is all overhead cost. Are both jobs necessary? Absolutely. Should the accountant not get the bonus because he/she didn’t directly add to the profitability of the company?

    I like Professor’s idea of giving the money back to the university. Make sure that it gets used for academic purposes (scholarships, faculty, facilities, etc.).

    Other issues of revenue sharing:

    What about D-II schools? If the D-1 schools started splitting up the huge pot of money in basketball and football, I bet that a whole ton of D-II schools would be doing their hardest to jump up to D-1. Is that beneficial?

    And if universities started making more money off of sports, they’d start milking that cash cow for everything it was worth (which they already do, to some extent already, I suppose–think of the Big-10 sports network).

  5. There is a positive cash flow, that’s the thing. Of course the universities themselves don’t make money, but scores of other entities do (as I mentioned in the column, there’s CBS, Nike, ESPN, etc.). These are the ones who’d contribute money to the pot since they’re the ones raking it all in now.
    The D-II rub you mentioned is legit, and something I never really considered. I wonder if paying athletes instead of spreading the money amongst the universities would alleviate the issue of schools trying to jump up to D-I, though.
    And as I mentioned, my wife’s not a fan of my proposal in general, no matter how much money she would have made. She thinks it’s a slippery slope, which it probably is.

  6. Professor Professorson Says:

    Right. But my point is that if student athletes need more of an incentive than a free education to stay in school, then I think they should be allowed to just leave. Universities exist to educate the willing, not to babysit the unwilling. I get that your point is to create a mechanism that will induce more student athletes to finish their degrees, but the subtext is unavoidable: education isn’t a good enough reason to stay in school. Good luck finding universities that are willing to be complicit in sending that message. So although my plan to reemphasize academics is certainly pie in the sky, your plan probably is too. If there were ever a serious proposal to pay student athletes, I’m pretty sure faculty members–and probably universities themselves–would revolt. I would certainly fight hard against this if it were proposed at my institution. I just don’t see much support in academia for deepening the divide between the haves and have-nots in the college community.

    I’ll tell you why I feel strongly about this: I taught for a while at a school you’ve certainly heard of. We’ll call it Respectable National University (RNU). At RNU, I had a big-time athlete in one of my classes. The kid was a disaster. He had no business graduating from high school, let alone having a free ride from a prestigious brand-name university. And yet, here he was in my class, learning nothing, not caring, and giving me all kinds of headaches. In the same semester, I had another student who was very bright, hard working, polite, conscientious…in short, a model student. This student transferred out of RNU at the same time I left, because he couldn’t afford the tuition. He went back to his home state to attend a public university that was far worse than what he deserved. I know it’s not as simple as the slacker athlete’s scholarship taking away money that could’ve allowed my good student to stay, but it still frustrated me: RNU was happy to pay for an athlete who was a joke of a student, while a great student I knew had to leave because he couldn’t get enough financial support. THAT is what I object to: special treatment of athletes who may not be deserving of it at an institution that is supposed to value education above all else. Adding a paycheck to the mix makes this kind of unfairness even worse.

  7. Sad story. I’d argue, though, that if the kid were as marketable for RNU as the athlete, he’d have a full scholarship there. Of course, he’d be able to trade his signature for free tattoos, get paid in cash by boosters for doing nothing, accept free cars and a house for his parents, and sell t-shirts with his likeness and keep the profits. Under NCAA rules, the athlete can’t do any of those things. It’s apples to oranges.

  8. Professor Professorson Says:

    exactly my point. There shouldn’t be this sort of apples vs. oranges/students vs. athletes scenario in higher ed. It makes a mockery of higher ed, and is unfair to actual students.

  9. No, but you missed my point. If it was worth it to RNU to give your guy a full scholarship, he could still make money off his own name. He could start a tutoring service, for example, and charge people for his tutoring services. He could also get gifts from rich alums for being so awesome or sell shirts that say “I love Awesome Random RNU Student” and keep all the money he made. Any random fully-scholarshiped athlete gets that same full scholarship but he can’t accept gifts from rich alums for being so awesome (but his head coach can), he can’t sell t-shirts with his number on them (but both the university and Nike can), and no matter how smart he is or how much ass he kicks in school, he can’t even start his own tutoring service and advertise himself as the great tutor. That’s the real mockery.

  10. Professor Professorson Says:

    I understand your point. I just don’t agree with you. And I think, once again, that your focus on money is making the situation seem less fair to you than it really is. I was griping earlier about the devaluation of education that is implicit in your plan, as if being educated for free wasn’t already a fantastic reward (both financially and otherwise) for a few years of playing ball. And now I’ll add that you’re assuming that an athlete gains nothing from appearing on TV, having his/her name on the back of jerseys that are sold to fans, etc. Even if the athlete never sees any of that money, the exposure itself is worth something, particularly if he/she aspires to play professionally or otherwise work in sports. Student athletes get a lot out of the deal even if they aren’t paid. And if you start from the premise that these are students first and foremost, and then compare their situation to that of students who aren’t athletes, the idea that they should be paid on top of everything else becomes downright unseemly. Just my opinion.

    Basically, I feel like you’re arguing that the problems Hutchins identified can be remedied by reinforcing the aspects of college athletics that caused them in the first place. I’m really kind of baffled that this is the conclusion that you drew from Hutchins. But if your goal here was to be provocative, mission accomplished! I think we’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one.

  11. This is indeed a fundamental disagreement. You forget that I’m a teacher, too, and that I’ve spent most of my career teaching in a city where the schools are inherently effed up and work in a city now where they might be even more so. You want to talk about the devaluing of education, we can start there rather than with whether or not paying college athletes will cause the educational world to explode.

    In conclusion, Libya is a land of contrast.

  12. After thinking about this a bit, I still don’t agree with paying players, but I have an idea on how that money collected might still be fairly distributed.

    Instead of going to the players, have the money distributed to the athletic departments. First priority goes to paying the scholarships, then coach’s salaries, travel, facilities, etc. The NCAA gives each school a certain amount of money, some of it to use for specific reasons, and the rest may be used at the school’s discretion. The players still benefit (better facilities, better travel). Add bonuses for making it to the tournament (like what’s already in place).

    I can think of two benefits to this: First, I believe that it would create competitive balance between the schools. I think the “big guns” (Duke, Kansas, etc.) will still be the top teams, but I think that mid- and low-majors will have a better chance of competing for recruits and coaches to make them better. Second, I hope it will funnel more money to the academics of a school. Since the athletic departments won’t need as much money, the boosters can write their checks to the college/university in general instead of the athletic department.

    There’s probably some holes in my argument, but I think if you’re proposing revenue sharing, we might as well make it more like a professional sports league (I’m thinking kinda like Major League Baseball where there’s revenue sharing, but the Yankees still have far more income). In this scenario, I’m sure most of the mid- and low-major teams will get significantly more money for their athletic departments, but the majors will still have their other sources of income (apparel, TV, etc.) that will make them ahead of everybody else, but at least this way it brings the little guy a little closer.

  13. I think that would just make the problem as I see it (too much money-chasing in college sports) worse. Schools would use their teams as ways to get funding (which they try to do now but at which only a few actually succeed) rather than for recreation or whatever else.

    And most every major conference team actually makes money off basketball (thanks to revenue sharing) already, while most small schools either lose money or break even.

    I know you acknowledged there might be holes in your plan, so I’m not trying to point them out. Fundamentally, though, I have problems with giving money to anyone besides the players.

  14. Caveman Lawyer Says:

    I am actually mostly agree with the Professor. I think if you pay atheletes you will cause a very large wedge between student atheletes and regular students. I also believe you are missing another result of your propsoal; the reduction in student atheletes participating in the non-revenue producing sports. By offering to pay athelete1 “X” for playing High Revenue Sports and paying athelete2 Y Non Revenue Sports. Which one do you think peopel are going to want to play? I am going to say in most cases they are going to play what is going to pay them the most amount of money. Remember this is just the opinion of a Caveman Lawyer.

  15. Do you mean participation as college students or as kids first learning the sport? Either way, I don’t see a problem. Are loads of kids participating in rifle or crew when they’re five years old? Or, will some kid who’s been a rifler his whole life be able to switch to football like that and play at a D-1 level?

    And about this wedge, I think it’s overstated. Maybe using the GU student body is a bad example, but do you really see a full-scale revolt at Gonzaga if Steven Gray got a check after graduating and passing a general knowledge exam?

  16. Professor Professorson Says:

    Keep in mind that it’s not just the students who may (or may not) have a problem with the idea of paying athletes. We lowly faculty members are notorious ball busters who–this may shock you–are perfectly happy to drone on and on about real or perceived injustices, and to spend untold time and energy fighting policies with which we disagree. Many faculty members I know already resent the special treatment that big-time athletes receive, seemingly at the expense of paying students. I would bet your favorite kidney that faculty reaction to a proposal like this would be swift and damning, even if students were okay with it.

    One more thing about faculty members: they never know when to just shut up already.

  17. Whatever. All the professors I know suck anyways.

  18. A$$ & T!##!*$ Says:

    I think about your solution to student atheletes getting paid is like telling an addict they have to stay clean for four years and then you are going to reward them with 10 kilos of heroin! Sounds like fun at first…

  19. Well, right now, the the user has a job from which a whole crap load of heroin is funneled into the dealer who can then sell it off.

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