The Professional Amateurs of College Sports

By Jake on March 9, 2011 at 1:00 pm
A man with a Mullet-Mustache combo like that KNOWS class!All fanbases agree: The other team is full of cheating douchebags!

The sun did in fact rise this morning, and Tressel is still our head coach. No doubt the spectre of NCAA investigations shall haunt us throughout the offseason and on into the season. I hate it. I'm annoyed at just about everybody involved, from Yahoo! to Tressel to the guy who put sour cream on my burrito EVEN THOUGH I SAID NOT TO. So, I've decided to let other people worry about it, and I've emotionally divorced myself from the swirling eddies of idiocy that will undoubtedly bubble up in burps of stupid over the next few weeks. I won't weigh in on whether Tressel deserves this or that punishment, or whether this or that school did worse. However, the original controversy, the exchange of memorabilia for money and favors, did pique my interest in one oft considered idea: paying college players.

As athletic budgets, coaches' salaries, and media contracts have ballooned so has the criticism that student-athletes are less the scholar and more the exploited apprentice. When Pryor&Co were suspended, the key reason was that they were profiting off of their amateur status as student-athletes. The NCAA considers even the sale of one's own sport-related property a conflict of interest. The Tat-5's status at the university and the source of the memorabilia as athletic rewards both meant such sales violated NCAA regulations. While not a criminal matter, the players voluntary submitted to NCAA regulatory guidelines by accepting a scholarship at a member institution. However, the universities themselves recieve tens of millions of dollars in revenue every year. The dilemma is thus: the players do not profit from their participation while the universities ostensibly profit heavily from the athletes' participation; to what extent is such a disparity unfairly exploiting players themselves?

First, let's look at what a scholarship athlete actually receivers for their trouble. According to NCAA regulation, a scholarshipped Div-I athlete must reciever a full scholarship; no partial scholarships are allowed. A full athletic a scholarship covers not just tuition, but also room and board, fees, and books. According to the Ohio State website an incoming freshman will pay roughly $20,000 in those four areas in 2011, and can expect an annual increase in costs of between 5-10%. Ohio State is about average, while some private schools can run above $40,000. So we can say that a college athlete "earns" roughly $20,000 to $40,000 a year, or on the lower side of the median when compared to national incomes. So how does that compare to the unversity's income?

Conveniently, Kristi Dosh, writing for Forbes Magazine, examined the profitability of football programs and athletic departments in the Big Ten earlier this year. Based on the numbers the universities gave the Department of Education, the average Big Ten football program saw a revenue of roughly $40.6 million and a profit of $22.7 million. A 55% profit margin would make any CEO not employed in finance or oil ruin his pants in envy. Looking at the athletic departments as a whole, the average Big Ten school earned a profit of $10.7 million. Looking at just football, this amounts to a profit of roughly $267,000 per scholarship athlete and almost a million dollars per starter. Even setting aside 3/4ths of the profits for reinvestment, the average Big Ten football program could afford to pay its players over $75,000 a year over and above their scholarships. Given those numbers, it looks less an unfair disparity and more an cause for Marxist revolt among the players. 

The broader view, however, puts those numbers in context. The top programs do make money, but according to this article by Professor Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College, the average FBS athletic department makes, at best, $1 million dollars a year. At basketball schools like Wake Forest or UCONN, their football programs often lose money. If they're squeezing the players, they're squeezing water from rocks. Still, that doesn't mean schools like Ohio State, Texas, Michigan, and Florida aren't getting an artificially good deal at the players' expense. Why couldn't those schools that do profit off their athletes compensate them for hard work, while those who don't carry on as usual? 

As I see it, there are several issues with turning the top teams semi-professional. To begin, who deserves how much of the pie? In the non-collegiate world, wages are paid contractually and are negotiated between employer and employee or their representitives based on past performance and future projections. In college football, you can't fire kids who underperform (unless you're in the Big 12 or SEC East West). Furthermore, revenue is largely independent of performance. The money being made by Ohio State this year is largely the result of contracts signed several years ago and sellout crowds who would show up no matter who wore the scarlet and gray. If anything, the university should be giving former players pensions.

In addition to issues with setting wages, we run into issues of fairness toward the other varsity sports. Ohio State field 31 varsity sports comprised of over 1,000 athletes. On any given year, most teams run a deficit and dip into the football programs well for funds. Any move to distribute football profits among the football players would necessarily elevate them to a higher level then their peers in the department. Is this fair? If two kids play the hell out of a game to represent their university, is it really ethical to tell one kid he's $50,000 better at representing his school? A university is not a profit-oriented corporation, despite how it sometimes appears, and officially elevating some student-athletes above others could certainly detract from the core purpose of collegiate athletics. If the money is the thing, why not divorce the player from the university entirely and run things like semi-pro soccer across the pond? What about providing an equal pay out to all student athletes based on profits? Let's look at the Ohio State athletic department as a whole. Last year, it made a total profit of $18.5 million. Given that there are over 1,000 student athletes, that's $18,500 per student. This at one of the most profitable athletic departments in the country, not accounting for the funds necessary for debt repayment and re-investment. 

Maybe you're unconcerned about bifurcating the athletic student body into haves and have nots. After all, there already exists a social hierarchy anyway. Few people write extended opinion pieces on the top shotputters and fencers don't get mobbed by fans after they beat their rivals. However, there would exist another cleavage among haves and have nots. Already, without salaried players, the differences in personnel between top programs and the rest of the FBS is staggering. The biggest teams have the best facilities, the best coaches, and the best NFL pipelines. Can you imagine what would happen to the Boise States and TCUs if Cecil Newton were actually allowed to shop his son around? Even if schools were required to split football profits among all their players equally, what kid wouldn't prefer a $20,000-a-year party budget for going to SEC U? Even more, the T. Boone Pickens and Phil Knights of the world would be even more prone to buy their schools into the BCS championship. To the extent that money already rules college athletics, adding paid players would accelerate that trend exponentially. 

The truth is that this issue exists because the universities themselves decided to monetize college sports and blur the line between professional and amateur athletics. Anytime you do blur the lines between two relatively distinct categories it inevitably becomes increasingly difficult to properly define the roles, rights, responsibilities of those involved. The answer, as I see it, is that there is no answer. The university has a responsibility to its students and trustees to make education its top priority. With that in mind, it has a social responsibility to ensure that it's pursuing college athletics with the best interests of the those student-athletes in mind rather than using athletics merely as a means of raising revenue. To the extent that college football has become the spectator sport that it is today, it has become questionable whether athletic departments are in it for the kids.

Which brings me back to Jim Tressel and the memorabilia scandal. What we see, with the Tat-5,  or Cameron Newton, Reggie Bush, and other scandals, is not a disease but a sympton. As long as the student athlete hovers in between amateur and pro, there will be people exploiting that gray area for their benefit. The NCAA gets flak for inconsistency, obsfucation, and hypocricy. What should we expect when we simultaneously view the players as playing for fun and playing for profit? The NCAA only reflects our own inconsistencies as fans. We have two choices: either support a dramatic reform of the system, toward or away from professionalization, or get used to ridiculous and arbitrary rulings from the NCAA. Which is best? All I know is that I don't know.

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