The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Want to clean up college athletics? Pay the players.

It's unlikely to happen because supporters of paying college athletes are all talk and no action.

The latest college basketball scandal reminds us that something is rotten in major college sports. But it’s unlikely to lead to players being paid. (Michael Clevenger/Courier-Journal via Associated Press)

The University of Louisville basketball program had just put Stripper-gate in the rearview mirror. Assistant Coach Andre McGee was fired; everyone agreed that the illicit sex parties in Billy Minardi Hall occurred without the knowledge of any higher-ups. Bullet dodged.

Then came the FBI’s bribery and fraud investigation. The inquiry, which led to the arrests of 10 people last week connected to the world of college basketball, identified Louisville as having paid $100,000 to Brian Bowen, an incoming recruit. Last Wednesday, Louisville effectively fired legendary coach Rick Pitino and placed Athletic Director Tom Jurich on paid leave. Indications are that these arrests may be the tip of the iceberg.

Given that both scandals emerged from attempts to work around the ban on paying players, and after decades of trying to police such behavior, will the NCAA finally conclude that only one step can truly clean up college athletics’ seedy underbelly? Paying players.

After all, the cause of paying players had been gaining steam even before the Louisville fallout. Articles and opinion pieces trumpeting the cause have been published by the dozens over the past few years.

Yet, that response would make the current scandal markedly different from countless past instances of illegal payments. In the 1980s, Southern Methodist University boosters illicitly paid dozens of football players. A University of Kentucky envelope mailed to the father of recruit Chris Mills in the late 1980s had $1,000 cash fall out in transit, sparking an NCAA investigation. The University of Colorado admitted in 2004 that it used sex and alcohol to lure prospective student athletes into signing with the school. Michigan’s Fab Five took under-the-table payments.

None of these scandals led to a change in the NCAA’s amateur model.

Instead, over the past century, protest against unpaid student athletes has been docile and inefficient, almost always a low-risk, low-commitment cause. Talk about compensation has rarely been accompanied by actual change, because a strange elixir exists in college athletics: a still-pervasive belief in amateurism by many university leaders is coupled with billions of dollars in annual revenue. This money pays the salaries of thousands of athletic coaches and administrators. Paying the college athletes who generate revenue (and most don’t) requires them to take money out of their own pockets — something that’s possible only if the movement for change is a lot less talk and a lot more action.

The idea of paying college athletes is really old. In 1905, Harper’s Magazine published an editorial (subsequently reprinted in newspapers nationwide) addressing the “Pay of College Athletes.” Harper’s saw the issue as one of visible inequity.  The popularity — and profitability — of college athletics made the problem of “how to make athletes work for nothing” — or to put it another way, “how to keep the athletes from drawing salaries” — increasingly difficult for university administrators to manage. Harper’s concluded that unless a more transparent and fair compensation system arose, college athletes would continue to be paid “surreptitious wages.”

In 1915, the University of Chicago Daily Maroon upended the college football community by pushing the matter further. Given that the editor of the college newspaper and the tuba player in the marching band received compensation from the university, the Maroon argued, why not the college athletes? “They work hard for the university organization known as the football team, which is a money making enterprise, the receipts from football being something like $20,000 [roughly $478,000 today] more than expenditures for the sport. Why not give the players a share of the profits accruing from their hard and faithful labors?”

The University of Chicago was only one year removed from a national championship in football; its voice on the subject mattered.

In 1929, Major W.H. McKellar of the University of the South (Sewanee) proposed that his school’s conference — the Southern Conference — embrace open, above-board payments to college athletes. Actually, the Major preferred universities doing away with charging admission to college football games. But recognizing that this was crazy talk, McKellar argued that “his proposal to openly pay college athletes in the Southern conference” was the only reasonable way forward.

Even the nation’s most beloved humorist at the time — Will Rogers — provided flyby support for the pay-for-play model. He was the John Oliver of his day, just pithier. “There is only one fair way to ever arrange amateur athletics in any line in the country,” Rogers declared, “and that’s let the athletes work on commission of what they draw at the gate then make them pay their own schooling expenses.”

Every few years the compensation issue resurfaced, usually in response to some sort of scandal. Then it went away.

Which is not to say that there haven’t been any changes along the way. In 1956, the NCAA voted to allow full athletic scholarships. In 1972, Title IX began pushing some of that athletic scholarship revenue to young women. Beginning in 2015, a new cost of attendance provision added several thousand dollars to athletic awards. But direct compensation has remained out of reach. In each case, after the bluster of a pay the players episode died down, the same thing happened: nothing.

That’s because activism on the issue has always been about words — passionate editorials, enthusiastic speeches and well-constructed research projects — rather than actions. There has never been an ethos of change or else among critics of college athletics.

No one expects commentator Jay Bilas to quit his work for ESPN because of his strong objections to the NCAA structure that he is covering. Similarly, it is not uncommon for faculty members at major football or basketball universities to rage against the inequity of the NCAA (using social justice theory, Marx, the whole nine yards) — and then take full advantage of their discounted athletic tickets.

This activism hasn’t gone further because paying college athletes is a collective action problem, a situation where members of a group might benefit from or support a certain action, but the individual costs make it difficult for the crowd to band together toward that end. In essence, someone says, “I could forfeit going to college football games because student athletes should be paid, but that would just result in me sitting at home on Saturday afternoon while everyone else is at the game.” What good would that do?

And of course there’s the money involved. CBS recently extended its contract to televise the annual NCAA March Madness tournament for $8.8 billion over eight years. Nick Saban makes $11 million annually coaching the University of Alabama football team. The Big Ten conference just awarded Jim Delany more than $20 million in bonuses for his leadership. The status quo is working quite well for many of the parties involved.

Given that financially significant collective action problems are notoriously difficult to solve, what’s next?

Allowing athletes to control and profit from their names, likenesses and athletic abilities seems reasonable. Even for YouTubing, cross-country studs. Allowing college athletes open access to agents would be a start. Perhaps the NCAA, as ESPN’s Jay Williams suggests, is about to crumble.

But I doubt major changes will occur anytime soon. History tells us that we’ll continue to talk about this problem. We’ll debate it. We’ll write about it. We’ll even argue and fight about it.

And then things will die down, and we’ll go back to the way it has always been.