My take on the whole thing can be summed up thusly: The status quo needs tweaking here and there but the model is otherwise just fine, and if a tiny percentage of Johnny Manziels are earning less than they're worth, it's not really a big deal because they're gonna get paid eventually and giving more money to them means taking money away from either fans or non-revenue athletes, probably both. Forgive me if I don't feel sorry for a guy who can't sell his autograph but will make millions anyway and prefer to direct my concerns toward people who work just as hard for an opportunity that in all likelihood will be taken away or severely limited if the Johnny Manziels get their way. You know this latter group better as swimmers, tennis players, wrestlers, and the like.
This places me basically on the side of the NCAA, which is run by some of the stupidest baboons that ever ran anything, ever. Arguments on both sides of the coin have gotten uncontrollably moronic, in fact. Shabazz Napier claiming he "goes to bed starving" is supposed to be taken as evidence that college athletes are the functional equivalent of Oliver Twist, and some people are thrilled to fall for it. College athletes living off-campus receive a cost-of-living stipend which I've read is about $1,200 a month, which is why you so often see them living together; two of them pooling that money can rent a house that sleeps six or eight. Napier is walking around with about two thousand dollars' worth of tattoos on his arms, most of which he's gotten while at UConn (compare these two pictures here and here) so if he can't afford food, it's because he and common sense money management have never been formally introduced. Not because he's been exploited.
As obnoxious as Napier's claim is, it pales in comparison to Northwestern's appeal of the NLRB's CAPA ruling. The money quote is:
Contrary to the Regional Director’s findings, Northwestern scholarship football student-athletes are not “initially sought out, recruited and ultimately granted scholarships because of their athletic prowess on the football field.”
This is a lie so brazen it defies all attempts at mockery, but I can try. The people in charge of the system today are trying to convince us that football recruiting has nothing to do with football skill. This is where we've come in this debate. That's the strategy. If they had been in charge of the German defenses at Omaha Beach they would've sent their entire army swimming into the ocean, figuring to try and clog the propellers of the landing ships. And these are the people at the smart university.
On the heels of all this comes the well-known bagman article from SB Nation, which failed to surprise anyone because the fact that most SEC players are on the take is something people have taken for granted for a while now. Not to impugn the SEC only, of course, it's just that they're the ones basically flaunting it. Cheating? Who cares? Rowl dayum Tahd. But I would guess there's at least one player on the take at 90% of BCS-level schools, and at least a few of the non-BCS ones as well. If you removed all the schools with technically ineligible players from consideration for the national title, it might be contested between Washington State and Purdue. Maybe. Don't sit there and pretend UVA is 100% clean; chances are it ain't.
The fact is though, that nothing you can do will shut off that spigot. People who do this, and there's a critical mass of them, have a different code of ethics from provincial little naifs in the Midwest who actually think rules matter. SMU didn't get the death penalty because they paid their players. They got the death penalty because they were told to stop paying their players and didn't - the reasoning being was that they'd made a promise to the current roster and thought it would be wrong to renege on it. That sort of ethic is alive and well today. Start up a sanctioned system of compensation and the bagman money will be totally unaffected. And if the NCAA were to do its worst and death-penalize the SEC for being mud-pit dirty, the SEC would probably just leave and take half the NCAA with it.
So we have a growing clamor for athletes to get paid, dammit, or if not athletes necessarily, football and basketball players. (I notice nobody's asked the swimmers and wrestlers what they think of the pay-the-poor-orphans movement, and the conspiracist in me, whom I don't let out very often, says that's because the media has a pay-the-poor-orphans agenda and is afraid to hear the answer.) We have the same athletes operating basically with their hands out, expecting money on the side. Adrian Peterson opined that college athletes should get paid, and Adrian Peterson went to Oklahoma where they definitely have had some problems with that side-action thing; Rhett Bomar got kicked off the team for being on the take, conveniently right while Peterson was playing there. I would be blown away if Peterson was clean. Absolutely flabbergasted, to be honest.
So the temptation is growing in me to give the gimme-gimme football players exactly what they want. Legitimize the bagmen. Open the faucet all the way. And to counterbalance it: ban athletic scholarships entirely. Let's consider how a system like this might work:
-- Players in any sport would be allowed to take any amount of money they can get their hands on, for any reason. No more burn phones, or silly (and kind of narcissistic, in a look-at-me-I'm-a-secret-agent kind of way) code language, or shady cash drops. Just write the check; nobody cares anymore. Your pay is between you and the boosters now. The key is there can't be any limitations, because the first one, no matter how small, will drive the money back underground.
-- They would also be entirely responsible for paying their own tuition, and allowed to receive no financial aid of any kind from the school. Schools would have to submit their rosters to the NCAA along with proof of the financial remittance from each player, and the rolls of their financial aid recipients to prove that no athlete is on it. Scholarship limits would be replaced by simple roster limits. You can have 17 players on your basketball team, 100 on your football team, etc. No more than 35 players may appear on your team that weren't there last year, covering both transfers and recruiting. That kind of thing.
Complications, of course, would arise:
-- What about players that can't pay their way but can't attract enough financial support from the boosters? A lot of these guys ain't exactly from 90210. Student loans, man. Student loans. Like the rest of us. Harsh, maybe, but more on this in a bit.
-- Isn't it really bad to just turn the competition into a game of who has the richest boosters? Kinda; there would be some mitigating factors, though. One, if everyone's paying, the field gets a lot more level. Two, roster limits will help. Three, I've always thought of this as the Pickens Problem. T. Boone Pickens donated $165 million to Oklahoma State to turn their athletic facilities into exotic pleasure palaces. That kind of money would pay a full 85-man football roster a six-figure salary for almost 20 years. However, if tuition is like $40,000 a year, which it tends to be these days, it puts a major dent in the pay.
-- Won't they just pocket the money and take out the student loan too? Yes. Some of them are kind of dumb like that. So?
-- There is no way swimmers and wrestlers will get any of this free cash; they will all be on student loans. First of all, I'm not so sure of that; the best of them will still attract some money, and the better programs, who like being that way, such as Stanford, will have donors who earmark money for the swim teams and the tennis teams and such. I figure that once this system is in place, any school that doesn't have a VAF-like organization will quickly have one, which will be in charge of negotiating pay, and quite a lot of the athletes' money will funnel through that. So donors will specify a sport just as they do now. Second, a lot of them pay their way now anyway. Scholarships are really tight in these sports and it's rare to find full rides in the non-revs.
-- If scholarships go away, athletes in sports like soccer and hockey, tennis and golf, will be induced to go pro sooner without the lure of a free education. I think this effect will be negligible and balanced out by the ability to sweeten the pot to compete with the pros. These guys go pro when it suits them to anyway; they aren't in college for the education necessarily, just to develop until someone is ready to pay them or they're good enough to fend for themselves on a pro tour.
Now, then: most of the money that goes into the NCAA and the schools these days goes toward scholarships. TV revenue and ticket revenue isn't going away. So what to do with this sudden windfall that isn't paying for scholarships any more? This is the fun part. I don't know if all these ideas could be funded at once, but maybe.
-- First, some of it can go to a fund that essentially becomes a scholarship fund. Athletes who took out a student loan, and earned a degree, could apply to the NCAA (yes, it would be centrally located and not with the schools) with their loan documentation, and get a check that covers the cost of it, or some significant portion thereof, or at the least a subsidized, interest-free loan. Rules would be set up whereby athletes on pro rosters, or signing a pro contract, or drafted in a professional league, or some combination the details of which could easily be hashed out, would be ineligible. This would essentially prevent the best and richest college athletes from also getting the free ride as well. They got theirs.
-- Finally hire and pay some real referees. Not this private-contractor business. The freed-up money could be used to train them, pay them, and basically employ them full-time.
-- Facility improvements; schools that find themselves with freed-up money always have projects they want to do.
-- Sport expansion. The primary expense of fielding a sport is its scholarships. Freed from having to care about that, there would be money for a lot more offerings.
-- Media expansion. Wouldn't it be nice if Cavaliers Live were a really slick operation instead of the budget-limited, facility-limited thing we have today?
-- Cut ticket prices and get more people in the stadiums. I know, I know - just a crazy, lunatic idea on my part. I shouldn't even bother with something so unrealistic even in this most unrealistic of proposals.
This is just spitballing ideas. I'm sure some ADs can think of some way to spend a few million a year they didn't have before. Much of the money we're talking about is just re-juggled instead of freed up. The NCAA would keep a lot of the money it now sends to schools. The VAF would merely redirect a lot of the money it now gives the department. Scholarship funding is heavily crowdsourced anyway. So this isn't going to give the schools a massive windfall.
I'm not sure this would be better, in the big picture, for athletes. Big-money athletes would get theirs and have no room to complain anymore. Most of the rest have a pretty good deal, though, and such a new system would disrupt that. It's not better for competition; there would be mitigating effects, as I mentioned, but you'd certainly also have Phil Knight purchasing the best team money can buy. It would improve the budget situation for athletic departments, but not by a huge amount. On one level this is less a serious proposal and more kind of a thought exercise to provoke a consideration of the true effects of throwing the system open to the free market. (With a dash of spite, in two flavors. One: you want this golden goose, you got it, but you can't have this one anymore. And two, you bagmen think you're such hot shit with the team you've bought, so if you've got so much money you can go pay for the whole thing.) This unionization stuff is supported by a "free market" interpretation of what football players are worth, but a bastardized free market system is all we'd get and it isn't necessarily the best for college athletics. In a way it's what exists now, but with much of the money underground. Nobody but the bagmen thinks this is a good idea.