Why paying college athletes is more complex than California law

by | Oct 6, 2019 | Detroit Free Press, Comment, Sports | 0 comments

One of the great things college teaches us is that it’s not always simple. Answers can be complex and nuanced.

When it comes to sharing the wealth in college sports, it’s not that simple either.

California passed a “fair pay to play” law last week allowing college players to sign endorsement deals and hire agents. The NCAA derided it. Many others cheered it.

“I’m tired of seeing these college athletes being ripped off,” former Michigan State star Draymond Green told the media.

But determining fair pay for student athletes is beyond moaning about rip-offs. It’s beyond sticking it to the greedy, outdated NCAA, for whom nobody should have sympathy.

It’s about fairness to every athlete, not just the stars. And it’s about weighing the devil who’ll come versus the devil you know.

As I said, not that simple.

Let’s take this California law. Governor Gavin Newsom gleefully signed it into existence on LeBron James’ HBO program, “The Shop.” Forget about the weird optics of James getting ratings from a lawmaker’s official act. Or James himself saying if not for having to take care of his mother, he might have gone to college. (His mother reportedly “gave” him a $50,000 Hummer H2 when he was a high school senior, so that rings pretty hollow.) Nevertheless, Newsom declared, “We’re rebalancing that power arrangement.”

Well, yes, he is.

What he didn’t explain was how.

Welcome to the real world

That’s because nobody knows. The law won’t go into effect for four more years. By then it will likely have been modified, and the playing field will have changed radically.

But one thing you should know right now is that if your “enemies” are the NCAA, the overpaid coaches, or the TV deals that make conferences mega-rich — this law won’t touch a penny of that.

The “rebalancing” Newsom predicts is not dipping into the fortunes reaped by those parties.

Instead, California is saying if you, the college athlete, want to earn money endorsing a cell phone company, signing autographs, or making appearances for some corporation, you can do it.

Fair enough. If Jodie Foster, when she attended Yale as an already famous actress, wanted to make a soap commercial, Yale would not have thrown her out. It seems only right that athletes shouldn’t be punished for the same thing (even if current NCAA rules prohibit it).

But now let’s explore what that looks like in practice. Just as there was only one Jodie Foster at Yale, there will only be a handful of players who pique interest for commercialization. Most, in football, will be the star quarterback, running back, receiver or defensive terror. That’s four guys. A college football team can have up to 125 active players. Which means the overwhelming majority will see no benefit from this law — even though they put in the same hours as the star passer.

Basketball? Similar deal. Maybe the Zion Williamson of the squad. Maybe one other guy. A college hoops team can have 13-15 players. So the rest, despite putting in the same hours, get nothing.

As for other sports like lacrosse, softball, rowing, diving, well, unless there’s some superstar or Dennis Rodman-type attention-getter, chances are there’s not much money, if any, going to those athletes — despite the time and effort they put in.

As for women’s sports? One of the California bill’s sponsors, state senator Nancy Skinner, told the media, “The ability of female college athletes to market themselves will likely raise the profile and popularity of women’s sports, thereby increasing pay for female athletes overall.”

Really? In what world? How many athletes you can you name today on women’s college teams? If you can’t name them, or don’t go to see them, or don’t watch them on TV, what makes Skinner think that companies will shell out big money for endorsements?

That’s part of the problem. This law relies on businesses and advertising agencies to fix injustices in college sports. That’s not their gig. They’ll use who they want, when they want. And guess what? If that athlete breaks his or her leg, or gets benched, or says something controversial, he or she will get fired.

You wanted real world? You got real world.

Recruiting in the Wild West

Now let’s talk about recruiting. The biggest headache the NCAA faces is the lengths schools and boosters go to skirt recruiting rules. The problem is so rampant, the FBI got involved. Presidents and athletic directors have been fired or resigned in shame. Same with coaches and assistant coaches. Money and favors are considered evils that ruin an honest recruiting process.

Well, let’s examine what recruiting could look like under the California law. First if all, if every state in the nation doesn’t adopt similar legislation, what star athlete wouldn’t be flying as fast as possible to California?

Secondly, even if other states have the same laws, imagine the jockeying of boosters trying to lure that star center or running back. In order not to lose him to a rival school, boosters who own car dealerships, electronics stores, accounting firms, you name it, will likely band together to sweeten the pot. Depending on the talent level, there could be thousands, tens of thousands or hundreds of thousands promised — publicly or privately — for one kid to commit.

The bidding wars could get outlandish.

“So what?” you say.  “That’s just a kid leveraging his skills.” But is it? Or is it as much about the booster base of one particular school versus another, or those boosters ensuring a rival school does NOT get that kid?

And what kind of pressure does that put on the athlete to perform when he arrives? And how does that position him with other players on his team? You think there’s envy over things like playing time? Imagine if one kid on the team is earning $500,000 in endorsements and the guy blocking for him gets meal money. If you think that’s good for team building, you haven’t been in a locker room.

What does all this mean?

Now, none of this suggests that the current system should stand. The NCAA, coaches, administrators and conference presidents get ridiculously rich while clinging to an outdated notion of “amateurism” that prevents players from even accepting a free hamburger.

But there are many hurdles to fairly distributing the bounty. Title IX insists that all college athletes be treated equally, which has created a blockade against straight-out paying the football and basketball teams, who, admittedly, bring in the overwhelming share of money. When people say, “Just give them all $1,000 a month,” it sounds simple. But if you have to give every athlete, men and women, the same amount, you see how that not only gets incredibly expensive, it’s not really the marketplace equality that many say they yearn for.

And it’s not true that the athletes get nothing (or “ripped off” as Green lamented). The ones (like Green) who get full scholarships are receiving the potential equivalent of $50,000-$60,000 a year. That’s not chump change,

Unfortunately, full rides are largely limited to the high-profile sports. Many other “scholarship” athletes still have to foot a good deal of the bill.

Oh, and as far as the NCAA banning California — or any other state — from participating in its sports, well, good luck with that. That’s a decade’s worth of lawsuits right there.

So in the end, what do we discover about this issue? That it’s complicated. That LeBron James declaring it’s about time for something doesn’t make it logical or just.

What California did was fire a shot over the NCAA’s bow, and the war is most definitely on. But as they teach us in college, wars are rarely summed up by one winner and one loser, but by a lot of battles, casualties, and changes in fortune.

Expect the same here.

Contact Mitch Albom: malbom@freepress.com. Check out the latest updates with his charities, books and events at MitchAlbom.com. Download “The Sports Reporters” podcast each Monday and Thursday on-demand through Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Spotify and more. Follow him on Twitter @mitchalbom.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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