The NCAA is nuts. Johnny Manziel should be able to sell his own autograph.

August 22, 2013

They call him Johnny Football, but Texas A&M Quarterback Johnny Manziel is in big trouble if it turns out he sold his autograph for cash. Here's why that makes no sense. (Dave Einsel/Associated Press)

I confess. I did it. I was in college, and I took money for doing journalism: A little freelance gig there, a paid summer internship there. And then I went back to writing for my college newspaper like it never happened. Good thing the National Collegiate Journalism Association never caught wind of it, or I surely would have lost my eligibility to continue on competing as a student-journalist, and the college paper could have faced big-time sanctions.

Of course, there is no NCJA, and if there were it wouldn’t care whether reporters for college papers took money for doing what they were trained to do. It is not, in other words, at all like the NCAA, the body that oversees college sports with an iron fist and the sensibility of an unusually constipated accountant.

Which brings us to the case of Jonathan Benjamin. He is a University of Richmond student with an entrepreneurial streak. He launched a clothing line, called Official Visit, that he hoped would become the next Under Armour or Nike. He marketed his clothing line using Facebook and Twitter, as one does in the modern age, and, quite reasonably posted photographs of himself wearing the clothes.

And it was enough to potentially cost him his eligibility to play college basketball. As Patrick Hruby reported at Sports on Earth, Benjamin had run afoul of an NCAA rule that student athletes can start a business, so long as the “student-athlete's name, photograph, appearance or athletics reputation are not used to promote the business.”

It’s just the latest in a series of stories, with varying degrees of absurdity, of how the body that oversees college athletics metes out its bizarre version of justice. Just this week, the NCAA backtracked after first ruling that a Marine veteran could not play football for Middle Tennessee State University because he had played in loosely organized games on-base while in the military. And the NCAA is investigating whether star Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel sold his own autograph, which if proven would count as a grave offense.

This all has its roots in the central fraud that is big-time college sports. Universities function as the nation’s true minor league sports franchises, driving billions in revenue in the process, mainly from football and mens’ basketball. The players, er, student athletes, are not only unpaid by their universities; the NCAA rules actively prevent them from earning money in any way from the thing that they spend most of their waking hours doing. They will not be allowed on the field or court if they so much as they take $20 in exchange for signing an autograph for a fan.

Because there are vast revenues to be won for fielding a top-tier team in one of the televised sports, universities will spend untold millions to try to improve. But because their star performers are student athletes who they are not allowed to pay, that competition occurs not by bidding up salaries but in other ways. By spending big to get the best coach (hence Alabama coach Nick Saban’s $5.3 million annual pay package); investing in the best facilities; and developing a reputation as a place that prepares its athletes well to make a go at the NFL or NBA after a few good years at the college level.

The result: Some kid who grew up poor in Tuscaloosa puts his health on the line by playing left tackle for the University of Alabama and isn’t allowed to take a dime for it, working under a coach gets paid hedge fund money.

Defenders of the current system would argue that amateurism is the essence of college sports, what makes the NCAA men’s basketball tournament or a great football rivalry game so exciting. That makes no sense to me; the precise pay arrangements of the people on the field don’t really matter if you’re the one in the stands watching what you hope will be an entertaining game.

A better argument can be made that the system is one of elaborate cross-subsidies, in which big-time college sports support more truly amateur pursuits that in turn enrich college life. Having a wildly profitable football program is, for the University of Texas, a way of funding a less high-profile tennis or swimming or track team, and ultimately the educational mission of the institution. Perhaps if there were bidding wars among universities for top high school recruits in football and basketball, that would eat up the profits that now subsidize lower profile athletics, and universities would be worse for it.

But here’s how the rules for college athletics could be changed to make more sense, and offer more basic fairness to the athletes involved, while preserving their role as a prestige sports as a revenue driver for universities.

Keep their unpaid status. But eliminate restrictions on other ways they can earn income. An endorsement deal with a local car dealer? Mazel tov. Getting paid for autographs? Why not?  It could even enliven some currently low-profile college sports if, for example, budding professional tennis players found it useful to enroll in a university and compete at that level while tuning up for Wimbledon.

Years ago, the Olympics realized that requiring competitors to be “ameteur” created all kinds of problems. First, it meant that some of the world’s top athletes were not allowed to play, making the competition less compelling; do you remember any Olympic basketball games from before 1992, when NBA players were finally allowed to participate?

And second, it meant that there was all kinds of difficult rule enforcement around who counted as an amateur and who didn’t; a nation could employ an athlete as a “soldier” when their real job was to train for the Olympics, but one shoe endorsement deal was enough to end an Olympic career.

The Olympics eventually realized that in the interest of quality competition and basic sanity, they needed to relax on the whole principle of amateurism. It’s time for college sports to do the same.

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