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?