A few days ago, occasional MGoGuestPoster Jon Chait marked the start of the offseason by posting something at NY Magazine about whether or not players should be paid. In a week or so we'll get the annual flood of playoff proposals, all of which are better than the current system, none of which are better than mine. (There is also a long post answering Joe Posnanski's playoff objections.) It is in these ways that we brace for the long, football-free summer.
So let's argue about paying players. Chait makes a few arguments that I agree with: that the "man in the top hat and monocle" who's cackling evilly as he exploits revenue athletes is the nonrevenue section of the department, that the ever-more lavish facilities and resources devoted to revenue athletes are a form of compensation*, that Jerry Sandusky doesn't have anything to do with anything, that the massive Atlantic article that had the bad form to be released during football season is a litany of complaints without solutions.
But I don't buy the idea that it's impossible to answer this question:
This basic conceptual problem casts light on the practical problem: Which athletes deserve to get paid?
This is what markets are for. Chait acknowledges this but says…
Such reasoning is sensible if you regard the ability to produce market value as the sole arbiter of social value. But it’s a strange credo for a reform movement putatively concerned with protecting young people from exploitation. And it bears little relation to reality: Go ask a female basketball player if she’s exploiting her male counterparts, or ask a quarterback if he is being economically victimized by the volleyball team.
Since I'm not a member of this reform movement I can say this argument is a little silly. I'm guessing that quarterback might say yes; ask him about his millionaire coaches and you'll get more affirmatives. He dismisses arguments about low-income athletes by saying the NCAA "unfairly ignore[d]" non-athletes when they voted that cost of attendance increase and that the problem here is that revenue athletes are not getting college degrees.
And like the Atlantic article, Chait weakens his case when he gets down to solutions, which are pitched at the degree problem. He provides three:
…one obvious reform is to make all freshmen ineligible for athletics, as they were until three decades ago.
While this is feasible it is unlikely to make a huge difference in outcomes.
A second, related reform would be to guarantee five years of free-ride tuition to every scholarship athlete who maintains a clean record – the automatic red-shirt season plus four more years of eligibility.
Thumbs up. This is something I've been advocating forever and would be an improvement. If you want to cut a kid, fine. He remains on scholarship.
The explosion in college coaching pay reflects both market competition and a simple desire by schools to use an astronomical salary to signal their coach’s excellence. So why not phase in a cap on coaches’ pay?
Because the NCAA already tried to do this and lost a lawsuit.
Taken together, those reforms don't really do anything. Oversigning gets less odious. This does not stop tediously enormous Atlantic articles from being published because "not getting degrees" is not the issue. The issue is select administrators getting rich while other, poorer people beat their brains out. In such an environment, trips to Miami and free tattoos and loaner cars are inevitable. Fixing that is the real issue.
*[It's worth pointing out that colleges do not have the option to extort local governments for facilities.]
Fixing Everything Forever
Operative theory: the NCAA's prohibition on taking money from everyone is working as well as Prohibition. The following randomly selected picture has nothing to do with this argument.
Right now the NCAA stance in re: professional athletics is to stick its fingers in its ears and go "LA LA LA LA." Enter a draft voluntarily and your eligibility is gone. Sign something binding you to an agent—even without financial compensation—and your eligibility is gone. Get sponsored by something and your eligibility is gone even if you're an Olympic athlete like Jeremy Bloom and you're playing an entirely different sport at an amateur level.
This does not stop the money flowing into the system, it just pushes it underground where no one can control it and it unbalances the playing fields. Steps to fix this:
1. Allow players to sign with agents, and get paid by them. Several restrictions apply. Agents must be registered with both the NCAA and the professional league in question and have clients from a variety of schools. The league in question must project the player as a draftable prospect. And there should be a cap on how much any individual can get paid. The agent system should be phased in gradually and carefully examined for abuse and unintended consequences.
This does a ton of things simultaneously. It lessens the hypocrisy of the system by allowing people who want to pay the kids to do so. It gives the NCAA leverage over a class of people who are banned outright—and therefore uncontrollable—now. It removes the agents' incentive to get kids out of school so they can enter a formal contractual relationship. It removes a big chunk of NCAA regulations, allowing the organization to focus on a smaller list of problems. It levels the playing field and removes a whole host of bad PR. It does not impact the schools' bottom lines.
2. Allow players who enter a draft to retain their eligibility. Hockey players all get drafted at 18 whether they want to or not. They can then play in the NCAA. This has not imploded college hockey. But if a basketball player puts his name in the draft he has to withdraw it ever-sooner if he wants to retain his eligibility. Actually going through with the process terminates his college career no matter the outcome.
If a player enters a professional draft and the team who drafts him doesn't want him on the roster, it doesn't hurt to let the player in question go back to school and play. Every year there are players who enter drafts and are passed over entirely; if they've retained their academic eligibility they should be allowed back. Not doing so is punitive.
3. Drop the QB #16 fiction and acknowledge that players own their images. This is going to happen via lawsuit in the near future; when the NCAA gets its ass handed to it in court they can go one of two ways. They can either force EA to have random rosters or they can give the players a cut. They should do the latter.
The things that have put the NCAA under fire of late consist almost entirely of people outside the system trying to give revenue athletes money. The NCAA rejects this because they uphold the ideal of amateurism, which has as much relevance in 2011 as temperance unions.
What is the downside of acknowledging that players have market value and allowing them to realize some of that value? There doesn't seem to be any. If the NCAA ever derived positive PR from its stance that's dead and gone. Let the players have a taste of their labors.
BONUS: Braves and Birds responds to the same column.