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Can We Finally Admit the NCAA is a Joke?

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This charade has gone on long enough.

Gonzaga v North Carolina
Celebration! Followed by no reward.
Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In my younger, more naive days I dreamed of working at the NCAA. I love college sports, obviously, and I loved the idea of helping student-athletes reach the heights of their sports. I was a runner in high school and was decent enough but not Division I level, my walk-on tryout for the Purdue cross-country team didn’t go well, and I missed the competitive fire and atmosphere that sports brings out. What better organization to work for than the NCAA right?

Wrong.

I look back now at those bygone days of my youth and wonder how I could have been missing so much. How could I let my ideals blind me to reality? Before we get too deep down this rabbit hole let’s go into a little history.

The term “student-athlete” that the NCAA uses is not a real thing. I mean it is in the sense that it’s become a common term but it was made up by the NCAA to prevent worker’s compensation claims. In the 1950’s there was a ruling in Colorado that determined that an injured football player was entitled to worker’s compensation from the school. This was going to cost schools and by extension the NCAA a lot of money. So they sent their lawyers to work to prevent this from taking hold. They came up with the term “student-athlete” as a way of saying that the players weren’t employees but rather students who merely participate in after school activities. Much like you or I participated in intramurals or the Paint Crew.

This is of course complete nonsense. These athletes, particularly big name athletes, bring much more to a school than you or I ever do in our normal day to day lives.

I want to try to avoid falling into one of the two camps that you see out there. The first being that the athletes get a free education which, depending on the college and in-state versus out of state, could cost upwards of $100K over their career and so this justifies them not being paid. The second camp is that this is a new form of indentured servitude or slavery. It’s not. Let’s just jump off that moving train before we all die in a blaze of glory in the comments below. Rather than fall into one of those I want to offer a look at the hypocrisy of last night and then offer a solution.

Last night is one of the crowning events of the NCAA sports year. The Final Four and National Title game are crown jewels for the NCAA that bring in over a billion dollars a year just in TV revenue. The NCAA just inked an 8 year extension of the television rights at $8.8 billion, with a B. That’s right, the NCAA makes $1.1 Billion per year just off the TV rights for the NCAA Tournament.

In addition to the television rights the NCAA also makes more millions by offering corporate sponsorship and other things to the many national corporations you saw all over your television these past weeks. There are no reported concrete numbers on this that I could find but suffice to say these things aren’t cheap.

Now, looking at North Carolina last night is interesting. When you see all the players and coaches celebrating with the official gear and the net you know that’s something they will cherish for the rest of their lives. Maybe that shirt and hat will go into a box and they will bring it out and talk to their kids about it years from now. That will be quite a memory. Roy Williams though was celebrating for a whole different reason. Sure, it’s always nice to win but if you looked closely at Roy’s eyes you could see dollar signs instead of pupils. In total just for the NCAA Tournament Roy Williams received $925,000 in bonuses. It’s hard to pin down Roy’s total compensation as USA Today tried to do. His base is over $2 million with incentives everywhere and outside money from shoe companies, endorsements, and use of his name in radio and tv shows not included. The compensation though is easily over $5 million per year.

For the athletes they get the aforementioned pieces of memorabilia, the free education, and a variable amount of funds from the school for expenses that varies from $2,000-$5,000. The education expense is no small thing as I can attest to. I’m currently in law school at night while my wife goes to get a master’s degree at night. I know that education isn’t cheap. We are doing everything we can to self-finance and I know how much of a burden would be lifted by all these bills being paid. My point is though that the compensation for these young adults doesn’t mesh with what they bring in. We all scoff and look in awe at the salary of professional athletes but the things is that’s what the market says they should be paid. That’s where the money from TV rights, ticket sales, merchandise sales, etc. goes. Shouldn’t the NCAA do something similar? Shouldn’t the players get to profit from their enterprise?

There are easy arguments against this. They include the infamous no work jobs that happened in the 80’s among some non-savory programs like SMU. They include the bagmen who simply gave large sums of money to kids for their stats after each game, also at SMU. They include the inherent unfairness that men’s basketball and football players would see the lion’s share of this money while other athletes, including nearly all female athletes, would be left with little to no recompense. These are all completely valid arguments and they are the reason that this issue is so fraught with landmines, political issues, and accounting problems. There’s not one easy solution here. This is especially true due to Title IX that opens up a whole other bag of issues that changes how schools can allocate their funds.

With that in mind what I’m proposing will absolutely never happen. I’m proposing a common sense solution (see how I framed that so if you’re against it you’re against common sense?) to the problem with the NCAA. Are you ready?

Get rid of it. Entirely. There’s been talk for years about the big conferences simply going outside of the NCAA and starting their own group that self-governs. I think this is a good start. It allows them to rid themselves of the years of bloated bureaucracy of the NCAA and to start fresh and make the rules with the lessons learned from the past. I propose that these conferences agree to a sort of salary cap. It’s a soft salary cap like many pro sports have. Their would be a ceiling and a floor on spending. Anyone going above the ceiling must pay into a common pool for the conference to spread around to the remaining schools. Any school going below the floor will get penalized as well. You could do this either by department or by sport. And also, let’s either stop pretending that the universities themselves don’t benefit from the athletics or let’s stop schools from taking money from athletics. Pick one. Complying with Title IX would be tricky but if given the numbers for a school something could surely be worked out. If nothing else this would end the creative accounting habits that allow schools that bring in millions of dollars in profit to claim they are losing money.

What I want is more transparency and the end to the hypocrisy. You can’t tell me after watching that game in that giant stadium that led to terrible shooting that the NCAA did this all for the “student-athletes”. The NCAA did this, and nearly everything they do, for the money. Rather than hide this fact let’s make the NCAA be honest with all of us. Only then can we perhaps try and come to better solutions together. When you have one side inventing legal terms of art and pretending the issue doesn’t exist it’s very hard to get someone to the table. Don’t believe me? Go on twitter and check out Frank Kaminsky’s twitter feed as he argues with a prominent college basketball analyst about these same issues. It’s worth taking a look at how we improve this billion dollar system in order to help those making the money. Don’t you think?