Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Paying Players Is A Poor Investment

  The newest hot topic on the college sports scene is based on the notion of compensating college players.  In the past two weeks, with the help of Bryant Gumbel and HBO, I've heard a number of arguments about paying college players for the service they provide their institution.  I want to make it clear before I even start that if you're looking for someone to side with college athletes on this, you need to look elsewhere.  The entire idea of paying college players falls on my deaf ears.  It's a patently terrible idea.  My intention is to tell you exactly why.
  First of all, the one thing that most proponents of paying college athletes forget is that the vast majority of teams fail to turn a profit.  While it's true that teams like Ohio State, Texas, and Penn State regularly make millions of dollars because of their football teams, the reality is that most teams, bowl series teams, don't turn a profit worth talking about.  The biggest problem is that even the most profitable college football team is making money to fund the remainder of the teams supported by the athletic program.  While the Longhorns turn in double digit million dollar profits, how much disappears for women's field hockey, men's cross country, and swimming and diving?  The cold truth is that the profitability of the major sports at any institution fund the entire athletic department.
  Does anyone really think that MAC schools enjoy getting their doors blown off by Big Ten schools at the beginning of every football season?  Fact is, the six figure pay days that the smaller schools accept with willingness to be slaughtered are the reason that those athletic departments are able to fund all of the smaller sports.
  It's cute to point out that the poor wide receiver who tore his ACL was never compensated for his contribution to the team's bottom line, and it's compelling to read about the guy who could've been an NBA All-Star, if not for the drug problems.  Fact is, the system is set up in the way that it is because it provides every scholarship level student the opportunity to further their future by taking advantage of the scholarship they've been given.  I don't care if you're a 4.0 student who gets an academic scholarship, a quarterback who can throw sixty yards while sitting down, or a tuba player with the cardio skills to spell your school's name at midfield.  The bottom line is that the compensation every student is afforded at the scholarship level is the same.  The talent you possess, be it academic, athletic, or otherwise, has afforded you the opportunity to attend a university for free.  From there, it's up to you and your advisors to either utilize that opportunity or throw it away.
  The problem with college athletes is that too many are recruited solely on their athletic ability.  Regardless of when, at some point many of those athletes were handed grades, promised unrealistic futures, and poorly prepared for developing their futures.  We've all seen the commercials and we all know the reality.  Less than one percent of college athletes become professional athletes.  To me, the notion that college athletes should be paid sounds like nothing more than a fall back plan.  I'm tired of hearing about it.
  Those who argue that college football and basketball players should be paid ignore the most basic truth of the entire argument.  The profits that these programs make fund the entire athletic department.  Unless you're willing to eliminate every athletic program that doesn't turn a profit, you simply can not argue for paying college athletes.
  I've listened to nationally respected writers like Jason Whitlock argue for payment of college athletes despite arguing to the contrary when it suited their agenda.  The bottom line is that in order to justify any sort of parity and promote any semblance of an actual athletic department, colleges can't pay the players in their profitable sports.  It's absurd to me that anyone would argue to the contrary.  Sure, it sounds great to take the most profitable program and argue about how much each player would make, but it ignores the fundamentals of both amateurism and the development of athletic programs.
  The notion of paying players flies in the face of everything that matters on the collegiate level.  Would anyone be okay with a bowl division that only contained 30 programs?  Probably not.  Would anyone support a system where even the largest schools had football,  basketball, and a couple of women's athletic teams?  Of course not.  The people that argue for paying players don't know where to start or stop.  The primary argument I keep hearing is that some schools earn millions on the football field, and the producers of that entertainment, the players, go uncompensated.  If every athletic program that turns a profit is expected to pay its players, do we start paying high school football players at Texas' powerhouse programs?  Do we give money to basketball players at the high schools that make money?  The answer, of course, is no.
  Listen, I feel bad that some players were told they had NFL paychecks in their futures.  I feel bad that those players felt like they didn't need to pay attention to the college part of college because of such statements.  I wish they planned better.  I wish fewer people told them how great they were.  I don't, however, feel bad that they were part of the 99% of student athletes who didn't get to play professionally.  You see, that 99% is reality.  The high school coach who guarantees a kid that if he goes to Alabama he'll be a first round draft pick, or the college recruiter who assures a kid that going to USC means NFL paychecks, or the "family friend" who tells a kid he just has to play by the rules for a few years and then it's all money and women, are the people who need an attitude adjustment.  We don't need college athletes who get a paycheck.  We need student athletes who understand that the student part is not a mere formality.
  I'll be the first to admit that college athletics aren't close to perfect.  Far too often we experience the Maurice Clarett's of the world - the ones who are more willing to hire an attorney and challenge the status quo than actually do what they said they would when they signed their letter of intent.  Those who think a paycheck solves that problem are part of the problem.  I've seen plenty of athletes who "endured" the college process go on to professional sports careers only to blow their money.  (Google Antoine Walker for one prominent example).  The solution to the problem is simple to me and does not involve, in any way, collegiate athletes endorsing paychecks.
  If you truly care about the kids and actually want a solution, my advice is easy to follow.  Stop telling 7th graders they're the next Joe Montana.  Stop allowing colleges to offer scholarships to any players who aren't in their senior year of high school.  Stop fixing grades and letting kids out of 8th period classes to speak with college coaches.  Start telling kids, at the earliest level, that playing a sport at college isn't about meeting minimum eligibility requirements, but rather about showing that you're a level headed kid who cares about the student in student athlete.  Start making kids realize that if you don't meet the requirements, you don't play.  Gone should be the days of NCAA eligibility centers.  We need to put an academic advisor on every single recruiting staff.  Replace one scout with one employee who's sole concern is academic ability.  Those players who couldn't be admitted to a university with a janitor's badge, mop, and bucket?  They don't get in.  Those players with criminal backgrounds who wouldn't be admitted to a post office, let alone a dorm?  They choose another path in life.  The solution is much simpler than signing a paycheck.  Hold the kids, their coaches, teachers, and parents, to a higher standard than is currently accepted, and you change the culture of college athletics.  It's very clear that certain programs turn a blind eye toward the biggest problems in college sports.  Until we're willing to accept that the real problem is a lack of appropriate preparation, we're replacing one problem with another one.
  The easiest way to fix the problem is to address the problem.  Beginning in middle school, kids should be told by their coaches, teachers, and parents that they are going to be held to a higher standard.  Athletic ability guarantees a free ride.  It doesn't guarantee an open door.  If the adults involved in the lives of these kids adjust their mentality from "this is what you need to do to deal with it" to "this is where you need to be to be successful," all of these problems go away.  It's time to stop saying that a kid from the wrong side of the tracks needs a paycheck because football is their way out and start saying that a kid from the wrong side of the tracks gets an education because football is their way in.  Without athletic talent, a lot of the kids we continue to talk about, black or white, would only view a college campus while dropping off a pizza.  If perspective is appropriately represented, these kids, given the opportunity of a four year free education, would embrace it, utilize it, and succeed because of it.
  Fact is, college athletes graduate with degrees at nearly the same rate as the general student body.  They've already proven they're equal to their peers.  Why continue the argument that these players, given free educations and equal opportunity, need yet another leg up on the kid who will pay student loans until they're 40?
  Every job has an entry level requirement.  The NFL's entry level requires a player to be three years removed from high school.  Players have a choice.  They can go to college and build their resume, or hope that three years removed from high school and without experience will get them drafted.  How many have you seen skip college?  Let's be real.  Let's be accurate.  Paying players creates more problems than it solves, regardless of what Jason Whitlock accepts as his current reality.  The solution is as simple as realistic expectations and proper preparation.  Can we be realistic for once?
  I'm sorry that Ed O'Bannon didn't cut it in the NBA.  I'm sorry that Tyrone Prothro's injury limited his NFL potential.  Heck, I'm sorry that someone told Maurice Clarett when he was 16 that he was destined to be the next great pro running back.  Most importantly, I'm sorry that the gravy training jerk-offs who told all these kids that millions of professional dollars were going to be easy ever existed in the first place.  If you want to fix the problem, focus on the problem.  If you wan't to put a band aid on reality, pay college athletes and wait for the next problem to surface.  I'd bet a healthy sum that paying college players creates more Antoine Walkers than Michael Jordans.  Of course, Antoine Walker lacked the funds to pony up for that bet.