Nothing 'idiotic' about pay-for-play

Published October 03, 2013

| FoxSports

This week, in a time when the very definition of amateurism in American collegiate sports is in doubt - when NCAA president Mark Emmert speaks about a "whole different governance model" for Division I sports, when Mike Krzyzewski, the winningest coach in college basketball history, speaks of the NCAA model as antiquated and compares the organization to General Motors, and when Big Ten president Jim Delany, one of the most powerful voices in college sports, floats the idea of elite football and basketball players being allowed to bypass college and go directly to the pros - Syracuse basketball coach Jim Boeheim said something idiotic.

Boeheim was a guest at an annual meeting of New York newspaper editors this week. He waded into the biggest hot-button issue in today's college sports: whether college athletes should get paid.

"That's really the most idiotic suggestion of all time," Boeheim said. "I don't believe players should be paid. I believe they are getting a tremendous opportunity."

To understand why someone as smart and as experienced as Boeheim could say something so dumb, you have to understand the mentality of an old-school coach holding onto the status quo as the college sports landscape is shifting under his feet. It's as if a GM executive from the roaring 1960s in Detroit were asked what he thought of the American automotive industry today. It worked then; why shouldn't it work now?

I'm not surprised Jim Boeheim thinks this way. He's entering his 38th season as Syracuse's head coach. The old-school approach to amateurism has gained him fame and fortune. He's part of the system, and the system has been hugely rewarding to him. I appreciate his comments in the way I always find myself appreciating Boeheim. He's honest to a fault, he's unfiltered, and he gives off-the-cuff remarks that reveal more about the gears of the old American amateurism machine than the comments of a coach who is afraid to stir the pot.

He's also, in this case, dead wrong.

Just because the system worked then doesn't mean it works now. Boeheim's way of thinking doesn't acknowledge that this industry has become a huge cash cow, with Syracuse's new conference, the ACC, recently signing a $3.6 billion television deal. It's unfair to athletes whose labor makes millions for their supposedly amateur universities.

Frankly, it's also un-American.

Bear with me. Let's say this were China. A youngster is recognized as having the potential to become an elite athlete someday. The athlete is enrolled in a state-run sporting academy. The athlete is nurtured by state-hired trainers, and the athlete aims to someday bring glory to his or her country. But the athlete does not receive compensation that jives with a fair marketplace. Because, you know, it's China. ( This New York Times Magazine profile of Chinese tennis star Li Na is an instructive example of how a Chinese athlete is molded.)

But this is America, a capitalistic country where people are supposed to be able to chase their fair market value. So a teenage basketball player is recognized as having the potential to become an elite athlete someday, and he starts playing in a summer-league circuit that's run by shoe companies looking to build brand loyalty in young players and strike up relationships with future stars. He's wooed by coaches making millions to see if he can come to their school for a year or two to play basketball and "get an education" (which means something to thousands of college athletes around the country, but not much to a kid who will have a couple semesters before heading to the NBA). He's not allowed to sign autographs for money, or accept payments from boosters, or work jobs (though he wouldn't have time to work a job anyway). He's given a scholarship - which doesn't even cover the full cost of his college education, mind you. That chance at an education plus a chance at big-time sports exposure is what Boeheim and other amateurism apologists call a "tremendous opportunity."

Meanwhile, the schools are making millions off this player's back, using ticket sales and jersey sales and television money and the player's likeness to build a corporate brand. Everyone gets paid: The coaches, the assistants, the athletic directors, the construction companies helping to "gold-plate" college sports facilities, the concession companies selling food at stadiums, the memorabilia vendors hawking t-shirts and jerseys. Everyone but those who actually generate the revenue.

A recent study by Business Insider underscored what a drastic difference there is between a player's value and a player's compensation, this "tremendous opportunity" that Boeheim speaks of. The business news site studied the "Fair Market Value" for college football players and determined a player at the University of Texas, the school that topped the list, has a fair market value of $578,000. A scholarship, however, would only be worth $37,600.

Another study looked at how much the top revenue-generating college basketball schools would make if they paid basketball players $500,000 a year, which is way more than anyone is considering. After taking $500,000 a year off the top for 13 players, the four top schools would still earn more than $13 million a year - which is still more than the annual profit for the average NBA franchise.

This is why there's a constant drumbeat today focusing not just on gradual NCAA reform but a complete rethinking of the amateur sports system in America. It's why NFL star Arian Foster recently called the NCAA a bully and admitted he accepted improper benefits as a college athlete. It's why a smattering of college football players recently took the field on a Saturday adorned with the letters "APU" - "All Players United."

It's why recent details of what a decade ago would have been considered possibly major scandals - Johnny Manziel signing autographs for a memorabilia dealer, or Sports Illustrated reporting rampant corruption in the Oklahoma State football program, or Yahoo! reporting players at five SEC schools recently received improper benefits - were met with a collective shrug, and with the feeling that it's the policing organization that's the corrupt one, not the perpetrators. It's why any number of college coaches and assistants have told me the NCAA is currently a toothless organization, and if there's ever a time to cheat and not get caught, the time is now.

So Jim Boeheim dismisses out of hand the possibility of paying players. Of course he does. When you're part of a system that's been as good to you as college sports has been to Boeheim, you don't see the structural flaws in that system's foundation. And I'm not just talking about one basketball coach who is blind to this; I'm talking about any number of people who make lucrative livings by sucking the teet of unpaid college athletes, including sportswriters like myself.

The ground, however, has already shifted under our feet. Not even considering a major rethinking of the entire system is the sort of mentality that causes Ramogi Huma, the head of the National College Players Association, a type of union for college athletes, to refer to the NCAA as a "cartel," as America's most prominent anti-capitalist organization.

"It's kind of like General Motors and the car industry," Coach K told the Charlotte Observer this week. "You gave a lot at one time when it looked good, no one changed anything, and all of a sudden it's not so good."

Of course, General Motors, the company that once symbolized American industry, filed for bankruptcy in 2009. It has since gone about reinventing itself, shedding its old ways in this global marketplace.

Let's hope that today's existential crisis for major college sports is some sort of bankruptcy proceeding as well. Because rethinking everything about how major college sports operates is far from an idiotic suggestion. It's good old American ingenuity, and molding our old systems to fit the changing times.

Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @reidforgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.

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