A pro agent's case for paying college football players
The Church of College Football is about to open for services. It is perhaps the most passionate religion we have in this country, a seductive blend of our most popular sport and the romantic notion that the young athletes are playing for their schools, not for money.
Two championship coaches recently launched attacks on sports agents for allegedly defiling this house of worship by giving college players what the National Collegiate Athletic Association calls "impermis sible benefits" -- benefits that make those players pros and not amateurs. "The agents that do this, and I hate to say this, but how are they any better than a pimp?" Alabama's Nick Saban so memorably put it last month. "I have no respect for people who do that to young people. None." And Florida's Urban Meyer said that the problem is "epidemic right now" and that agents and their associates need to be "severely punished."
Yet, I suspect that virtually everyone in our industry -- players, coaches, administrators, boosters, agents and fans -- shed our naivete a long time ago. We know that the sole focus for many star college players is getting ready for pro ball, that coaches are looking for financial security on the backs of teenagers and that boosters enjoy the ego stroke that comes with virtually owning a piece of a team. There isn't anything inherently wrong with these goals, but there isn't anything "amateur" about the process, either.
And we know that while college football players aren't getting a W-2, they are getting paid to play the game. It's a straightforward business transaction: You play for us, we give you a one-year scholarship, renewable at the head coach's discretion. In some cases, rules are broken by schools or other parties so that relatives and other associates of the players can be paid, too.
I've had the privilege of representing professional athletes and coaches for more than 20 years, and I've had a front-row seat to observe the NCAA's brand of amateurism. I've heard many times about events that would constitute NCAA rule violations -- some were egregious, many weren't. Some athletes take money from agents, marketers or others simply because they are hungry (the scholarship is not always enough to buy food). Yes, there are some people out there with malicious agendas, but there are also many people who act in good faith with an allegiance to the integrity of the sport.
The primary culprit isn't the people around the game; it's the NCAA's legislated view of amateurism. It lacks intellectual integrity and is terribly unnecessary -- particularly when better alternatives exist.
Two developments this spring demonstrate why the sham of amateurism should come to an end.
The Pacific-10 Conference's luring of teams from the Mountain West and Big 12 conferences, which caused some scrambling in June, had nothing to do with education or amateur sports. It really didn't have anything to do with football or its traditions, either. It had everything to do with money. Saddled with expiring television contracts, the Pac-10 wanted to get bigger so it could command larger contracts in its next round of negotiating and possibly launch its own TV network. With the addition of the University of Utah and the University of Colorado, the Pac-10's revenues will grow. Its coaches will make more money, and its players will get bigger and shinier facilities, fancier menus, cushier dorms, more stylish travel arrangements and other perks.
The average Pac-10 student will see none of this.
Around the same time as the realignment, the University of Southern California, home of one of the premier college football programs, suffered a major embarrassment when Reggie Bush, who starred at tailback for the Trojans in the mid-2000s, was found to have received lavish gifts from a sports marketer. According to the NCAA, Bush was, in effect, a pro while he was in college, and the university knew it. The NCAA concluded that USC demonstrated a "lack of institutional control" over its football program. The team received a two-year postseason ban, lost 30 scholarships over three seasons and vacated its victories from the period when Bush was deemed to have been ineligible -- including the 2004 national championship season.
Bush is long gone, now an NFL millionaire. His former USC head coach, Pete Carroll, is long gone, also now an NFL millionaire. Many of the assistant coaches who were there at the time are gone as well, and also became millionaires (e.g. University of Washington head coach Steve Sarkisian). Some left and then came back as millionaires (e.g. new head coach Lane Kiffin). Left to suffer the penalties are the current players, many of whom were in middle school or high school when Bush played.
The controversy over USC continues: Are the findings accurate? Should Carroll have done more, earlier? Is the punishment excessive? The answers won't matter, because I have no doubt that Bush-like situations will continue to emerge throughout college football. This sort of thing has been going on for years, and the incentives to keep it up are too strong in the current system.