A pro agent's case for paying college football players

By Donald H. Yee
Sunday, August 22, 2010; B01

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.

What needs to change is the entire attitude toward college football. This is the perfect time to implement an honest approach to the combination of big-time football and higher education, an approach that eliminates the NCAA's notion of amateurism. College football generates huge revenues, and there is plenty of money to create a win-win business model for players, coaches and universities. A big business deserves market-driven reform, free of hypocrisy. Here are 10 steps to accomplish that.

1.All of the major football-playing universities should lease the rights to operate a commercial football program on behalf of the university to an independent, outside company.

For example, the University of Southern California would contract with USC Football Inc. Such leases would be open to bidding -- schools such as Notre Dame, USC and Texas could generate massive revenue. USC football could look exactly as it does now, except USC Football Inc. would have paid for the right to operate it. The university and the company would share net profits from all revenue streams at a negotiated level. Can you imagine how much more revenue schools could garner if, for instance, they were allowed to sell more ad space on uniforms?

This would not be a new business structure for major universities; many already use similar arrangements for other ventures. For example, many major athletic departments now sell their marketing rights to outside companies, and the majority of schools (and the NCAA) contract with the Collegiate Licensing Company to market and license their trademarks.

Some universities would find that the marketplace doesn't have any interest in their programs. This means that business people think football is a money-loser for those schools. So those schools should drop football and allocate the money to their core objective: educating students.

2. Each university's football corporation could create leagues, whether long- or short-term, with other corporations.

There wouldn't have to be any allegiance to geography, fan loyalties or tradition. For example, some of these leagues could be premised on budget size. To a large degree, this is already being done; it's called the BCS. A group of conferences formed the BCS, or Bowl Championship Series, and decided to exclude other conferences.

Or the football corporations could decide to avoid joining a league, simply scheduling games as a free agent. Again, this is hardly novel -- Notre Dame has done it for years, and Brigham Young University is contemplating it now -- so this arrangement would simply formalize and spread the practice.

3. All of the players would be paid a salary, whatever the market would bear.

Players would no longer receive scholarships. Just as in the pros, they would be paid based on their perceived value to their program. If an outstanding high school player is coveted, he should be allowed to experience the fruits of American capitalism. Prominent high school players entering college are no different than prominent college players entering the NFL -- they can bring excitement and new revenue to a program. No one, for instance, can deny the excitement, revenue and attention that Bush brought to USC. The players would pay income taxes; the football corporations would pay Social Security taxes; 401(k) plans could be established.

USC Football Inc. would be free to recruit a player any way it wants, with anything it wants, say, an iPhone and plane tickets for his parents. If a player feels misled in the recruiting process, he could sue for fraud. Each program would be reliant on the business acumen of its operators and subject to whatever profit-margin goal it chooses.

4. The corporations could offer a range of educational opportunities.

Academically gifted players could take regular university courses, if they could have gained admission on their own merit. Others may be more interested in vocational training or other specialty classes. Either way, average students would no longer lose a chance at admission because the university made an exception for an academically less qualified athlete. And athletes would have a broader array of course offerings. Some may even choose not to attend classes and simply focus on honing their football skills.

5. The NCAA can be eliminated, at least as it relates to football.

Many of its rules are archaic and frankly gibberish. The NCAA itself states that it does not have subpoena power, which is one way of admitting that enforcement of its rules is difficult.

6. Universities could scrap much of their athletic administrations, just as Vanderbilt University has done.

The chief executive of, say, USC Football Inc. would make decisions, and her mandate would be to ensure that the operation was self-sufficient -- no student fees (or taxpayer dollars, in the case of a public university) would be used to subsidize the football program or facilities. Any profits flowing back to the university could go directly to support the general student body and faculty. As it stands now, large public universities across the country employ sizable staffs in their athletic departments; these public employees (including the coaches) are entitled to public benefits and pensions, which are a drain on public resources.

7. Congress and state legislatures wouldn't have to waste time investigating or discussing the regulation of college football.

So long as these new corporations mind the same business laws that apply to Apple or General Electric, our representatives could devote their energies elsewhere.

8. Coaches could focus strictly on coaching.

They would be employees of the corporation, not the university. Lane Kiffin wouldn't have to worry about monitoring every player's vehicle of choice or whether a booster is buying meals for his quarterback. And Nick Saban wouldn't have to waste his time discussing "pimps." In this system, players could take money from agents or marketers because their amateurism wouldn't be at stake.

9. Universities could focus on their core mission of educating students.

University presidents wouldn't have to waste their time monitoring a football program, and they wouldn't have to attend any more NCAA functions.

10. Finally, this system would end the tiresome sports media discussions of whether this player or that player was paid.

We could say without any hint of sarcasm, speculation or cynicism that yes, he was.

Donald H. Yee is a lawyer and partner with Yee & Dubin Sports, a Los Angeles sports-management firm that represents professional athletes and coaches, including New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady and New Orleans Saints head coach Sean Payton.

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