Pay College Athletes? Yes, But Divest from the University

Joe Nocera wrote a very good piece on why we should pay college athletes in major football programs and major basketball programs. More importantly, as he notes, unlike other articles on this issue, Nocera takes the adventurous step of outlining proposals to effectively implement the program. His five basic planks are as follows:

  1. Offer players standard negotiable contracts rather than wooing them during recruiting.
  2. Create a salary cap with a minimum annual player salary.
  3. Offer 2+ years to a scholarship if a player completes all 4 years of school. This could be used to finish a
  4. Bachelors degree or pursue a Masters degree.
  5. Lifetime health insurance for players.
  6. A collective bargaining entity to represent players and counterweight the NCAA.

Nocera’s proposal is bold and aggressive, going well beyond the recently implemented $2,000 stipend by the NCAA. Yet despite his aggressive proposal, at the heart of it Nocera is trying to put a square block in a circle by attempting to combine the business of major athletics with the non-profit educational institution of the university. Simply, each has different goals, structures, gadgets and more. The inability to reconcile the two has led us to this convoluted state where the NCAA must regulate hamburger and best wine coolers purchases by coaches for athletes.

Nocera himself brings up the sports of baseball and hockey as not a problem because they already have a functional minor league system, but then he quickly moves on. However, that is the solution, create a functional sub-pro league that works as a business but remains identifiable still as college athletics. Ideally, both the NFL and NBA would have their own formal minor league system that caters to those individuals that did not feel the desire to attend school. Ideally, the NCAA would not continue to subsidize the NFL and NBA on the backs of their student-athlete’s unpaid labor. It’s ludicrous to think that Bubba Starling can pursue a career as an MLB player as an 18 year old high school graduate, command a salary, and demand a multi-million dollar signing bonus. Yet to become an NFL QB he would have most likely had to spend four years as an unpaid intern at the University of Nebraska with no signing bonus to act as a guarantee. Starling, obviously, made the rational decision and pursued baseball.

The solution to the insanity of today’s modern major college athletics is for the football programs and basketball programs to divest themselves from the universities and the state, if they’re public. Hell, let the NCAA go with them and rule them. Businesses often spin off other businesses and in this case a university is in no real position to be running what are essentially professional franchises. This proposal has multiple advantages:

  1. The university is no longer put in a precarious position of deciding how to allocate resources between education and athletics. Universities can fully resume their mission as an educational institution and provider of amateur athletics without the conflict or stain that major athletics bring.
  2. Title IX issues that shadow every conversation of paying players are no longer at issue. Of course, the university would still have to adhere to the rules for its remaining amateur athletics, but the major sports would be free from the university and NCAA rules as free standing franchises.
  3. Finally, most important of all, athletes would be able to become employees rather than just students. Since they are no longer employees of the university but rather of the new divested sports team (or perhaps of the conference), they should be able to be compensated fairly.
  4. Currently all athletic dollars brought in are usually recycled back into the major programs or dispersed among the non revenue programs, so the financial harm to the university is minimal. This has always been more about prestige to the universities and alums.

It’s important to note though that divesting from the school does not mean cutting all ties. In fact for this proposal to work and to be swallowed by the people who love college athletics, it’s absolutely crucial that ties are maintained to the university. For that reason, there must be some rules that maintain the basic ties that we have to college athletics. For example:

  1. All players should still be required to attend college at the university of their team. Just because the Florida GatorFootball team has split into a separate entity than the University of Florida does not mean that they cannot mandate that their employees (players) attend the University of Florida. Even more importantly, the franchise can dangle the salary as leverage to ensure academic standards are being met. If you’re not performing in school and class then your pay will be cut or you will be cut. Academic standards could be set by the conference or some higher governing authority.
  2. College eligibility requirements should remain similar to current ones. This isn’t a change that would allow a washed up 39 year old ex-NFL running back or Allen Iverson to join.
  3. Names and locations should remain the same for at least a mandated length of time. Nothing would destroy fans hearts and the integrity of the league than to see the newly divested Iowa Hawkeyes move to the franchise to LA.
  4. Along those lines, for the time being, the newly divested franchises should pay the universities fees to use current facilities. This would help make up for the shortfall among non revenue athletics.

Essentially, maintaining the identity and integrity of the status quo is important, but the structure and the function of the structure must change. We must recognize these major programs as commercial businesses and stop allowing them to hide behind the facade of being a part of a non-profit educational system. Ultimately, the universities will better function as educational institutions, athletes will get their just due, and fans’ experience will be enhanced rather than deprived as the programs will be free of the inanity of the current system. Of course, their will be pain for a certain class of people that have exploited the status quo for all it’s worth but the time has come for reform and hopefully proposals will start to take seed.