The current college basketball scandal may have been caused by the fact that we’re asking the wrong question. Instead of asking “whether” athletes should be compensated, it should be, “how best to.”
On Friday, Yahoo! Sports reported that the FBI is investigating more than 20 programs for rules infractions by sports agent ASM Sports. These range from five-figure gifts for players to, in many cases, just a meal. Caught up in the scandal are some of the country’s top programs, including (shocker!) the University of Kentucky.
Then over the weekend, the news broke that the FBI had wiretapped University of Arizona coach Sean Miller’s phone conversations where he allegedly discussed paying a top freshman $100,000 to sign with the school.
The stories are casting a pall over college basketball at a time when the talk is usually about who will make the NCAA Tournament and partake in March Madness.
The NCAA traditionally has taken a hard line on these issues – even removing national championships years after the fact.
It has done this to maintain the status quo, which is understandable. After all, it legally can collude with the universities so it can make huge profits off well-known and highly skilled craftsmen, and not pay them according to their value. Well, technically, the NCAA is a billion-dollar “nonprofit.” The status quo also protects the NCAA and the universities from having to answer thorny questions regarding equal treatment of male and female athletes under the federal Title IX law. Just don’t pay anyone, and you’re safe.
Instead, the players get scholarships, which of course can be tremendously valuable. But until 2015, that was all they (legally) could get – enough to cover tuition, books, and room and board. In other words, there was no money for dates, snacks or trips home. In 2015, schools finally were allowed to add small stipends to help cover those extra costs.
Still, the model’s fundamental imbalance hasn’t been corrected. At the end of nationally televised football and basketball games, television viewers watch millionaire broadcasters interview millionaire coaches and the game’s most valuable player – who can’t profit off his skill or notoriety. He may be doing OK. Or his mama may have just gotten a shutoff notice in the mail.
The problem is that the entire system is based on a fiction: that major college football and basketball programs are “student athletics.” The reality is, they are big businesses somewhat connected to the universities – in Kentucky’s case, very loosely. That basketball program thrives on attracting the nation’s best recruits, the so-called “one-and-dones” who will play only one year before moving to the NBA. Here, the University of Arkansas’ new head football coach, Chad Morris, earns $3.5 million a year. He’s by far Arkansas’ highest paid state employee, but it all comes from private funds, not the university.
The status quo is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain with so much money floating around and so many incentives to field winning teams with the best players.
If the question changes from “whether” athletes should be paid to “how best to,” there are several ways to do that. Stipends could be increased to reduce the temptation for players to cheat – either across the board to comply with Title IX, or perhaps by using private sources to supplement funding for the big sports. Could Northwest Arkansas money compete with Kentucky money? On the other hand, the issue could be moved entirely into the private sector: Let private people pay players with their own money, or let the players profit from their own names by endorsing products. This is, after all, America. Meanwhile, the rules could be relaxed so that minor gifts don’t become major rules violations.
One last thing the universities could do: Accept the reality that some athletes are just passing through, and work with it. Create a two-year degree plan for likely professionals offering classes in financial management, dealing with sports agents, etc. That way, they might retire rich instead of broke.
Colleges are supposed to prepare students for their future endeavors, right? And besides, it might encourage some one-and-dones to become two-and-dones.
Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.