Two years ago, I walked into NRG Stadium the Friday before Final Four Saturday. The magnitude of … well, everything … proved almost overwhelming. From the vastness of the venue, to the buzz of fans, coaches and media descending upon Houston, and the omnipresent reminders plastered about the city, one could not escape the event’s reach.
And emanating from it all was the undeniable undercurrent of commerce.
The unspoken cornerstone of virtually everything around big-time college athletics is money. The NCAA Tournament and its culmination, the Final Four, are the most in-your-face about it, to a degree that all subtext is lost. An event reminding its audience every timeout to come down to Buffalo Wild Wings, and pay using the card Charles Barkley, Samuel L. Jackson and Spike Lee are promoting, isn’t exactly subtle about its ulterior motives.
Your average college football Saturday, either tailgating outside the stadium or flipping between multiple games from the comfort of your couch, may be less aggressive about the economic realities of sport. Those realities are no less evident, however. Perhaps you’ll see reminders of the College Football Playoff around the stadium, which — if you didn’t know! — is brought to you by Dr. Pepper.
Larry Culpepper may be gone, but don’t expect a downturn in the aggressiveness with which Dr. Pepper reminds you its stock in the golden cylinder.
Advertisements are much more ubiquitous watching from home. Even if you have a quick remote finger and move dexterously from game-to-game, some reminder of the company paying top dollar to advertise on a widely viewed event will make its way into the broadcast. That you even have the option to switch from one contest to another from noon ET until some time into Sunday morning speaks to the vast pipeline of money being pumped into the game.
Sports have become so vital to advertisers and thus broadcasters, college football in particular, that demand’s grown exponentially in recent years. And while athletic departments are awash in new revenues, student-athletes are ultimately still rewarded with the same form of compensation they received for decades: a scholarship. Tuition costs have no doubt risen — U.S. News and World Report tracked a 100 percent growth for out-of-state costs from 1997-’98 to 2017-’18 — but broadcasting rights revenue over that same period outpaces 100 percent in most conferences.
Reshaping college athletics in response to the flood of money while maintaining the identity that make college sports popular enough to garner revenue is perhaps the greatest challenge the landscape faces today.
While college sports faced heavy and consistent scrutiny predating Teddy Roosevelt’s call on university presidents to fix football — a move that ostensibly led to the NCAA — the volume and divisiveness of both criticism and defense of the college athletic model have never felt quite as contentious. Hell, as John Oliver proved, you don’t even have to know anything about college sports in the United States to offer a strong opinion.
Bereft from way-too-many of these arguments on either side of the aisle is the input of those most impacted: the athletes.
I asked various Pac-12 football players at last month’s media day their thoughts on amateurism, if they believe they are compensated fairly, and what changes they would like to see instituted. Responses hit a few common themes — the first being that they wanted more background on the inner workings of the business of college athletics before sounding off.
Cal running back Patrick Laird: I’m not super well-researched on the whole thing, so I can’t confidently spell out my whole opinion.”
Arizona State quarterback Manny Wilkins: “I don’t know enough about that topic to comment.”
Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate — one of the most marketable players of the 2018 college football season and the subject of an Bleacher Report feature that posited his social media reaction to the university’s coaching search could mark a pivotal milestone in the course of amateurism — turned the question back around to me.
“What do you think?”
Well, since the question was posed — and for full transparency so as not to seem like I present a hidden agenda — here goes: The NCAA has enacted a number of important changes in the past couple years that were long overdue. Progress has been made, though it’s taken widespread scrutiny drawing attention to something particularly asinine to make it happen.
At the 2014 Final Four, against the same kind of extravagant backdrop that dropped my jaw in Houston two years later, UConn point guard Shabazz Napier revealed that he sometimes went to bed hungry. A few months later, the NCAA introduced unlimited meal programs for all athletes. In 2013, it allowed a veteran to play linebacker for MTSU after a public outcry called attention to the ridiculousness of a rule sidelining him.
That it so often seems to require a face-palming episode to enact a necessary change is frustrating, but does encapsulate some of the issues that might be still unsolved are moving along behind the scenes at a glacial pace.
Charles Barkley sells credit cards today, but 25 years ago he was pushing Nike basketball shoes while telling the audience he was no role model. That was an utter crock to make the star power forward seem much edgier to the kids Nike knew damn well wanted to emulate him.
Children similarly admire their favorite college athletes. The difference between Barkley, being paid millions to tell kids not to view him as a role model, and the college athletes to whom I spoke about the topic of amateurism, is that the college athletes embrace the responsibility.
Said Washington defensive back JoJo McIntosh, an aspiring social justice lawyer: “I’ve been put into a position where I can speak for a lot of people right now.”
Said Manny Wilkins, a true success story of pulling oneself up and using his experiences to positively influence young generations: “I understand the platform this game gives. I want nothing more than to be a role model for these young dudes and girls … to show them that no matter what goes on in their life, whether it’s good, whether it’s bad – if you continue to work hard and push yourself, it can happen.”
Patrick Laird used his prominence as a football player to launch a summer reading program for elementary school-aged children. He anticipated perhaps a few hundred participants; in a few weeks, more than 3,000 kids were registered.
Viewed from the cynical place sports occupy in the world of commercialism, college athletes gladly taking on positions as role models translates to a marketability. University athletic programs already capitalize on it; why shouldn’t the athletes be able to?
In that lies the nature of my answer to Khalil Tate. I responded that there should be an NCAA Football 19 available to gamers with Tate (or any other athlete) on the cover, implying that the most logical solution is to allow athletes to individually profit from their own likeness.
The “Olympic model,” as it’s often labeled, removes the burden from the universities to pay athlete salaries. This approach of simply classifying athletes as employees of the university presents a variety of issues. Title IX is an especially contentious element, with the two sides unable to come to an agreement on the role it might play. This isn’t an issue of one side simply screaming FAKE NEWS! against the presentation of fact, however.
Enough ambiguity exists in the language pertaining to sports that interpretations can vary:
“No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”
Now, if “the benefits” of the educational program including a university-funded salary for football players and no one else, perhaps that can be interpreted as discriminatory, at which point the entire system falls on the decisions of a few judges.
Beyond the judicial challenges, Laird offered insight into how employee designation could be a negative for the athletes.
“Once you become a professional at a young age, you’re an employee of the school – I think a lot of people don’t consider that,” he said. “They just want to get paid, which sounds nice, but there’s a lot of problems that come along with it.
“One thing people overlook is the taxes. Imagine being 19, fresh out of high school, and you’re going to have to worry about school, football, then paying taxes,” he added.
Also inherent with being an employee is the the attitude toward labor in America. Viewers of HBO’s acclaimed NFL training camp docuseries Hard Knocks bare witness to some harsh realities of being an employee, particularly in the game of football.
College sports already face a battle over four-year scholarships; adding employee designation raises those stakes.
What’s more, an NCAA that detractors and even some defenders alike can agree is ill-equipped to address some of its own problems must then navigate such treacherous government waters as how athletic departments in right-to-work states differ from those without at-will employment legislation.
Allowing athletes to market themselves through endorsements and other third-party payment plans — like officially licensed video games and apparel — addresses these challenges. If the athletes are more explicitly selling the products for which their oftentimes already marketing without monetary compensation, the NCAA eliminates the need to police violations like Michigan athletes selling department-issued gear.
The NCAA now opening the door for basketball players to sign agents is an incremental step that could make this a reality and bring necessary change with an endorsement model. And make no mistake, some change to the status quo is necessary, lest college sports reach a legitimate existential crisis.
For one thing, enough athletes are contributing to multi-million-dollar machines while themselves facing struggle in their daily life.
“We’ve talked about this, me and my teammates,” McIntosh said.” A lot of people say, ‘You go to school for free.’ But they don’t see all the work we’ve been doing is very hard. There are nights it’s like, ‘Man, I’ve got nothing in my fridge,’ or ‘I can’t afford to put gas in my car.'”
Perhaps you are the type to read this and respond, Plenty of college kids are broke. But the majority of the student body has the option to work a part-time job, a luxury athletes — and especially athletes in revenue sports — simply don’t have. For example, I made a healthy $35/article covering the team of unpaid players at my university for the student newspaper.
Amateurism’s ultimate defense circles back to scholarships. And, among athletes, the value isn’t lost.
“I’ve got a college scholarship and they’re setting me up with tools I’ll be able to use for the rest of my life that I learned from the football [side], as well as the academic [side],” said Oregon State offensive lineman Blake Brandel.
“Stanford gives you both options [to pursue elite-level athletics and academics], and I thought that was really the way to maximize the opportunities I had,” said Stanford wide receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside. “It’s started paying off: I’m interning with [former Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice, playing high-level football. I couldn’t imagine being in a better position.”
“When you’re in college, I like the idea of being an amateur. It’s fun for me; I go to class, and I’m a student,” said Laird.
Indeed, the mounting student loan debt crippling a generation in the United States highlights the value of free schooling; but only if the potential of that schooling is maximized.
Pressure to win means recruiting top-flight prospects and ensuring they meet NCAA academic benchmarks. College sports’ greatest failings in recent years are the academic scandals unearthed at places like North Carolina do far more to damage credibility than anything else.
A fundamental reform necessary to give athletic scholarships value is to truly champion the academic side. Patrick Laird presented an excellent potential solution.
“I like the idea of more institutional support – maybe building more career programs after [graduation], building in more academic support programs,” he said. “Cal does a wonderful job, so this is more on a macro level, but making that an institutional thing supported by the NCAA.”
His concept tied compensation for athletics directly into academics.
“If guys want to get paid, maybe they can get a certain amount for every year of education they get, and maybe a bonus for graduating,” he said.
It’s funny; in just a few minutes chatting with a microscopic sample-size of college football players, many of whom downplayed their input saying they’re not well-researched enough to give strong opinions, I heard more detailed explanations of the benefits to amateurism; needs for reform; and ideas to enact changes than at any other time in the past year.
My own main takeaway? No matter where you fall on the discussion of amateurism, giving the athletes more voice and greater influence is vital. After all, it’s their lives ultimately impacted.