Tuesday, December 14

A Proposal to Solve the Student-Athlete Problem

This is a particularly long posting. If you don't want to read all the background, just page down to "A fair solution."

A couple years ago, I started reading Rick Telander's 1990 book, The Hundred Yard Lie. I was just beginning with the writing of my (still in progress) book and was looking for inspiration. I had always admired Telander's writing, and figured this would provide an interesting angle on the game. I was right, but also very wrong. This was Telander's "goodnight and good luck" to a sport he had enjoyed his entire life, first as a player and then in his career as a journalist. After this book, he vowed to cover college football no longer. He had seen too much hypocrisy, corruption, and fraud to continue pretending it was all OK. It is one of the most depressing books I have read, and in the end I couldn't encourage myself to finish it. Why would I want to be reminded all the reasons why my favorite sport is inherently wrong in very big ways in addition to its various small problems (BCS, coaches voting, inane overtime format)?

But it's important to understand that the ever-present elephant in the room has been there for decades. Telander's book is 20 years old and none of his complaints has been addressed. None of his suggestions has been taken. He reached his breaking point a long time ago and probably made the right decision to move on. But where does that leave the rest of us?

The Cam Newton saga has unfolded just like most people expected it would. We know that (A) there was some pretty shady stuff going on but (B) it's not surprising that shady stuff goes on because (C) a player like Newton stands to bring a lot more to the university than it does to him yet (D) it would be a shame if Newton himself did something wrong. The NCAA's lack of direct evidence got the 2010 season off the hook. As fans we get the celebration of a deservedly landslide Heisman winner loaded with caveats.
Image courtesy of EDSBS and LSU Freek

Yes, college football's biggest problem isn't going away anytime soon. There are too many people with too much money at stake. Enforcement will never be able to catch up with everything that goes on, and is not much of a deterrent for those breaking the rules. USC is currently slammed with penalties, but what did Reggie Bush himself have to pay? He gave up an important trophy, but little else. Nefarious people with open palms will always lurk around impressionable youth that can help them prosper. At this point, most believe that too much money is being made for none of it to go back to the players actually generating the cash.

But it's not so simple

Much like the annual Playoffs versus BCS debate, an issue that seems relatively simple is far more complex than it appears. If you asked the majority of fans, they would say "pay the players." But let's first get a few things straight.

Thing 1: The players are already paid. Football scholarships include tuition, room and board, tutoring, and often times compensation for books or a small bit of spending money. Across the entire NCAA, there are over $1 billion in scholarship per year across over 126,000 athletes. Some say that this shouldn't count. That they can't take a typical class load because their priority is football. Obviously, playing big-time football is perhaps the most arduous of extracurricular activities. But let's see just what that scholarship is worth. At my alma mater, Michigan, a year's worth of tuition, room and board, and fees are worth over $49,000 per year for an out of state student, not counting summer semesters. A large number of football players would never have the chance to go to college without the sport. Juggling the demands of team and classes is a tremendous challenge. But many are able to handle it across all levels of collegiate athletics. If they choose not to take advantage of the opportunity they've earned for themselves, that is their fault. The same goes for the student body at large. Plenty of students drop out all the time. Few of them can blame anyone but themselves.

Thing 2: College football and basketball earn money to support the other non-revenue sports. That's a worthwhile and important thing. College swim teams cost every one of their universities money. There's another debate to be had here, but when thinking about these budgets, we must take into account that the other sports are drinking from the football team's hose.

Thing 3: In the FBS side alone, there are 120 teams with 85 scholarship players a piece, plus walk-ons. Can we really say that all the players are contributing equally? That is to say, does Auburn backup punter Steven Clark fill the SEC's coffers to the same degree that Newton does? Of course not. In fact, it is the players like Newton who bring in so much money to the university that help pay for Clark's scholarship in the first place. In this regard, he is no different than whoever swims butterfly on the Tigers' medley relay.

It's a big pie and it's made of trillion dollar bills

Make no mistake. We are talking about a hell of a lot of money. In 2009, Ohio State spent $32.3 million on their football program. They brought in over $65 million, hence the aforementioned Thing 2 above is no minor detail. Despite what you may think about his personal character, Terrelle Pryor has a lot to do with all of those dollars.
Where does the money come from? Primarily four places: ticket sales, merchandising, alumni/booster donations, and TV. The more successful a team or conference is, the more they will have of all of these things. But let's try to bring this back in terms of how the players affect this.

Ticket Sales: The top programs are sold out every year no matter what happens. If they start losing all their games, they will see an impact on attendance, but the failure has to go on for a long time. In an under-construction stadium, coming off a 3-9 season with little reason for hope, Michigan still sold out every game in 2009. Fielding Yost has more to do with Michigan's success in selling tickets than does Denard Robinson. A middle-ground program such as Georgia Tech is going to experience more fluctuation. The Yellow Jackets saw their numbers rise by over 4,000 spectators per game between 2008 and 2009, a season that ended with them in the Orange Bowl. The players and coaching staff earned that extra attendance and deserve the credit. Still, all that winning resulted in less than a 10% increase in tickets sold.

Winning games helps earn a bit more more gate revenue, but do we really want to start paying players based on how many games their team wins? I don't think this is what most "pay the players" advocates have in mind. Correct me if I'm mistaken.

Merchandising and Donations: I would argue that these work much the same as ticket sales. People buy Alabama t-shirts because they love the program. Sometimes they pick a certain number on their jersey to represent the star quarterback, but they also know that it's only his number for four years. There is never a name on the back of the jersey. Tons of Michigan fans wear #1. Does that represent Anthony Carter or Braylon Edwards? Or for nobody since the number's not assigned right now? Wins and losses are going to impact fan support more than anything else.

Television: The TV money being given to the conferences these days is astounding. Street & Smith's estimates that the Big Ten Network could bring $2.8 Billion to the conference over the life of the deal. The SEC's 15 year deals with the ESPN and the CBS are worth over $3 Billion combined. This is an awful lot of cash. It greatly helps with Thing 2 above, but it also pays Nick Saban's salary. Its importance as a revenue factor will only continue to increase. ESPN just announced that 2010 was their most-watched season since 1994. (HT: Doc Sat) Think these contracts are going to get smaller in future seasons?

A fair solution

So can we all agree this is a complex problem? Someone with more time and data on their hands could calculate exactly how much money Cam Newton's efforts have earned for Auburn University and the SEC. Needless to say, we're talking about a hell of a lot more than a year's tuition. Someone of Newton's caliber is almost always going to end up in the NFL and make millions. One could argue that he is getting a free audition loaded with highlight reel successes. It's clear that the most successful college players generally profit in the end. But there will always be the Tommie Fraziers who never earn NFL riches. And furthermore, is "future potential" fair compensation? Remember that we're talking about numbers in the billions of dollars just for the TV contracts.There is a solution that makes sense. It may not be perfect, but it is just. Paying players across the board is not really the issue here. All are already paid, and they do not contribute to the money pile equally. The area where star players have the greatest immediate impact is in TV viewership. TV viewership is the reason that the SEC and the Big Ten and even the Mountain West are bringing in millions of dollars via those contracts. Millions of people tune in to see Cam Newton, Denard Robinson, and Patrick Peterson. The networks use these names to promote their broadcasts which in turn drives viewership which in turn brings revenue from advertisers.

My proposal, The Marketing Trust, is simple: pay the players based on how they are used in marketing these games. Yes, it's two steps removed from the actual revenue stream, but it will work. If ABC wants to put Terrelle Pryor in a commercial to advertise The Game, they should have to pay him. Pay would be based on how the player's image is used. Mention their name, that's $1,000 every time the ad runs. Use a still photo, $2,000. Show one of their highlights, $3,000. Details would have to be worked out regarding whether an athlete is actually "in" the ad. What should be done regarding offensive linemen blocking for LaMichael James in a highlight clip? They get paid less, but they still get paid. A DB being burned by Justin Blackmon? He gets paid, too. Even Hollywood pays the extras a little. Whether I have nailed down the right figures is unimportant. The players driving ad revenue deserve a percentage of these colossal TV contracts, and this would make provide value on what is deserved.

But the athletes would not be paid directly. For each player, a trust would be created that could invest the money accumulated. The account would be turned over to the athlete upon graduation or two years after their eligibility ends, whichever comes first. Those playing after completing their undergraduate degrees would have to wait for eligibility to end. They would therefore remain amateurs for the time being. Any unscrupulous income or other rules violation would void their earned money and send it back to general scholarship funds.

This would remain a closed system, administered by the NCAA and the conferences. Once the appropriate dollar figures are assigned, the process would be as simple as tagging a Facebook photo. There would be no special negotiations for the biggest stars, and no outside forces could affect payments. Players appearing in ads get money sent to their trust. Official, on-air copy read by announcers qualifies as well.

What if the networks were to avoid using athletes in their ads? Don't hold your breath. As attractive as a pair of Georgia and Florida helmets crashing together in a fiery explosion may be, ESPN is going to want to lure viewers in with a bit more. The networks have been promoting these games with the faces and actions of student athletes for decades and that's not going to change any time soon.

Would the networks actually want to go for this program? If they end up paying the same amount to the conferences they already are, they would have no problem. Would the conferences want to go for this program? Not if it costs them a lot of money. So both sides would need to meet somewhere in the middle and divide the expense equally. It may seem like a significant amount of money, but for them it's going to be a drop in the bucket, and both sides get a major publicity win. Instituting this program will only increase viewership from NFL fans who may have trouble with the integrity of the sport.

My only reservation with this approach is that it gives further competitive advantage in recruiting for name programs. Would an athlete ever choose Purdue over Ohio State given the fact that they are much less likely to be heavily marketed? Still, we are tying things back to the ones who are earning the revenue. Cam Newton could have ended up staying at Florida or gone to another of the highest profile programs. In the end, there's no way he could have been a bigger marketing tool than he was at Auburn. With nearly all BCS conference games appearing on TV somewhere these days, the chance to start playing right away at a less renowned program can even things out.

I have long been in the camp of saying that the scholarship, room and board, and BMOC status should be enough. Reading Telander's book convinced me that we have a problem, and I did my best to ignore it as long as I could. I'm not saying that this would totally eliminate bad people doing bad things with bad money. But it would certainly help fight temptation, especially for the players with the highest promise. More importantly, it's the right thing to do for those who are risking their health for our enjoyment.

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