It simply isn’t accurate, this sweeping outrage that college athletes in revenue-rich sports are sweatshop slaves working for nothing. They do receive full-ride scholarships worth at least six figures, or $300,000 at a private school such as Stanford. They’re accorded ample media coverage akin to nationally televised resumes for potential employers, not something the science or psych major gets.
They meet powerful people. They’re welcomed into social networks that form lifetime connections. Judging by the grandiose facilities at programs — Oregon’s $70-million Football Performance Center has $30,000 lockers with stink-free ventilation, Ann Sacks mosaic tiles in the bathrooms, a farm-to-table dining room with walnut decor, a barber shop with chairs from Milan, walls draped in football leather, Brazilian Ipe hardwood in the weightlifting area, 250 flat screens and floors from a Chinese rock quarry — well, some of these kids are living better than 99 percent of Obama’s America.
That said, their talents still are being used to fill multi-billion-dollar pots of gold for: (1) institutions of (cough) higher learning; (2) TV networks; (3) megaconferences with their own TV networks and growing affiliate fees; and (4) the bumbling, bloated NCAA. From those pots, athletes only recently started receiving incidental payments for cost of attendance in the Power Five conferences. While the total sum of $160 million sounds impressive, it really isn’t when divided by thousands of major-college athletes. And while Cal ($800,000) and San Jose State ($1 million) are among Division I schools raising the value of athletic scholarships for travel and personal expenses, the allocations amount to a few hundred bucks if an athlete is lucky.
Is it enough? After years of fighting the idea, I do think that, yes, college athletes also should be paid for the commercial use of their likenesses. And that, yes, they should be allowed to sign autographs on memorabilia for money. In both cases, an athlete must attain a certain popularity based on his or her skill and, thus, should be rewarded for that ability if the NCAA and a video-game firm are cashing in. But that’s all, kids — full ride, residual perks, memorabilia, likenesses. I don’t want to hear another peep about college athletes wanting full-blown salaries, a concept that should fade after the National Labor Relations Board shuttered a bid by Northwestern football players to create their own union.
The embattled NCAA hardly is out of danger, with all eyes on the Oakland courtroom of U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken. If the name is familiar, she ruled against the NCAA last year in the case led by former UCLA basketball star Ed O’Bannon, allowing athletes as much as $20,000 in compensation at the end of their school tenures if their images are used commercially. Next month, Wilken is expected to weigh whether class-action status should be granted to similar lawsuits.
If so, the NCAA’s business model still could shatter.
But if the status quo remains, the NCAA breathes easier. The O’Bannon ruling was a hiccup disguised as a landmark decision, a few crumbs thrown at athletes from the multi-billion-dollar greed pie. Even if the best football and basketball players in major programs receive merely a $5,000 annual maximum, the schools and TV networks still make out like thieves. And yet, it’s $20,000 more — $5,000 times four — than athletes have received to date.
Is it fair? Maybe Cardale Jones doesn’t think so at Ohio State, where he quarterbacks a powerhouse that will dominate the season and generate riches for his school and the networks. But here’s the flip argument: If the mechanism doesn’t exist for Jones to display his talents each week for NFL scouts, who knows about him? Beyond that, he receives a wonderful perk known as a college education and doesn’t have a cent of debt when he leaves campus, making him a rarity among young people today.
Of course, this moment in time still screams trouble for the integrity of college sports as the shroud of amateurism is lifted. How should we react when the Big 12 conference commissioner, Bob Bowlsby, says matter of factly that “cheating pays” in college sports and that minor programs might be eliminated because his industry can’t figure out how to collectively make do on $7.3 billion — ESPN’s payout for the College Football Playoff over 12 years? I could react by laughing. Or screaming.
Instead, I’ll remind you that few cesspools are slimier than the college sports version. Thanks to the money pump of the conscience-bankrupt enablers at ESPN, the college football business has been showered with about $600 million a year for the next dozen years. The amount reflects the staggering popularity of a five-month sport, which by all metrics has soared to No. 2 behind the NFL while surging ahead of the NBA and Major League Baseball. When ESPN decided to invest such sums to own and operate the four-team CFP tournament and its accompanying subset of bowls, it was assumed the days of crying poor might subside in college sports.
Silly me. I didn’t account for the greed quotient.
The money grab is on, fueled by an unprecedented period of peril for the once-almighty NCAA. Between Wilken’s call and a slew of public-relations losses, the NCAA has been crippled like never before. And who has inherited the power? Why, the SEC, Pac-12, Big 12, ACC and Big Ten.
They have the autonomy to run their conferences as they please, without NCAA interference, and that includes enforcement (or lack thereof). To hear Bowlsby, the NCAA no longer is serious about investigating even the most flagrant red flags involving cheating and wrongdoing in programs. It’s hard to disagree, seeing wrist slaps for what were obvious infractions involving the University of Miami and Johnny Manziel back at Texas A&M.
“Enforcement is broken,” Bowlsby said at one point. “If you seek to conspire to certainly bend the rules, you can do it successfully and probably not get caught in most occasions. The [NCAA] is in a battle with a BB gun in their hand. They’re fighting howitzers.”
I’d suggest ESPN’s crack investigative unit do some probing. But, really now, do you think president John Skipper and his bosses at Disney Co. want to publicize the crimes of their own business bedfellows in college football? This will allow the Power Five to do no investigating at all while taking $7.3 billion from a media monster that will do no investigating at all.
So brace for new depths of lying, cheating and big-media complicity. A wee stipend won’t stop boosters from sticking checks in envelopes, nor will it stop 17-year-olds and their parents from opening them.
Bob BowlsbyCardale Jonescollege footballEd O’BannonJohnny ManzielNorthwesternOhio State