If we give basic rights to college athletes, and diminish the NCAA into a body that simply organizes competitive schedules and hands out trophies, what would happen?
Let’s look at the consequences of an open market.
One awful supposed consequence of doing away with the NCAA amateur code is that the next time a Johnny Manziel opened his door to a recruiter, he would be able to say what you or me, or Natalie Portman says, which is, “What are you offering?”
The assumption is that bidding wars would ensue, with universities offering cash as well as scholarships. I’m not so sure.
Schools don’t really want to pay players. Emmert and college presidents have violently resisted the notion, under the guise that it’s wrong or immoral. But that’s not the real reason. They resist it because it would open universities to workers’ compensation and regulatory nightmares, and there is no feasible way to institutionally pay revenue-sport players without killing scholarships in non-revenue sports.
The far more likely scenario is the one we already have: Wealthy alumni would create independent funds for supplementing players’ scholarships with some cash income. The market would evolve: Alumni would have to decide how much to pay a quarterback vs. a left guard. Only now, it would be above board, declarable income. Furthermore, recruiters and alumni might do a better job of selling the real and immense value of athletic scholarships, which can amount to a quarter-million dollars worth of non-cash goods and training over four years. We’ve done a poor job of explaining to athletes that they already are getting paid.
The doomsdayers claim that this would create an unhealthy imbalance between rich and poor schools. Really? We already have Division I schools with $5 million budgets trying to compete with budgets of $155 million.
Another awful consequence of an open market is that star players would be entitled to the licensing from their own likenesses, a prospect that may come sooner rather than later if Ed O’Bannon wins his lawsuit against the NCAA. At the moment, all that licensing money goes to the NCAA and athletic departments, to the tune of about $4 billion annually. ESPN’s Jay Bilas, a former Duke basketball player who also has a law degree, has embarrassed the NCAA on this with relentless brilliance.
Why exactly is it that Texas A&M gets to profit from Manziel’s jersey number, but he is a rule breaker for selling his own signature? And exactly how does this affect his education? Answer: “It doesn’t,” Bilas says. “And if you allowed a player to cut legitimate business deals, you might actually have more leverage over him, because if he gets suspended or kicked off the team, he loses his contracts.”
Still another dreaded consequence is that athletes would be entitled to representation. Instead of agents paying players under the table in order to obtain them as clients, guess what? Players would retain agents above the table, enter into legitimate business deals with trained professionals.
So would an open market really corrupt college sports and destroy their educational value? Or would it actually plant them on a much less corrupt ground?
Over the years I’ve suggested a number of reform ideas of my own: give athletes academic credits for the enormous amount of time they spend studying their craft; design academic core curriculums that would allow them to get degrees in sports-performance majors; make college coaches prove the content of their teaching by requiring them to teach courses to the general student body. But none of these will get anywhere without first restoring basic rights and respect to athletes.
In 2011, Emmert convened a “summit” to discuss issues plaguing college athletics and find solutions. Recently he issued a call for another one. He has yet to invite a single athlete.
For more by Sally Jenkins, visit washingtonpost.com/jenkins.