It’s time to stop dawdling and fix college sports

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04/05/2014 6:50 PM

05/16/2014 1:03 PM

The only thing they agree on is that the system is broken. Anything beyond that is like a thousand architects looking at a demolished building, each with their own idea of how to rebuild.

Faith in college sports’ leadership has never been lower, and that goes for officials and coaches inside the outdated NCAA machine as much as fans and those in the news media growing frustrated with the hypocrisy involved in a system where everyone gets rich except for the athletes we care about.

That’s especially true this weekend, when the Final Four puts a brighter light on a multibillion-dollar marketing monster fueled by so-called “amateur” talent. Recently, a regional branch of the National Labor Relations Board ruled that football players at Northwestern could vote on forming a union, only increasing the number of people on the inside who say the system is beyond repair.

Administrators, coaches and athletes who spoke for this column have wildly different ideas on what should come next. Their only agreement is that whatever comes next must be fundamentally different from what’s come so far.

“Major change is coming, clearly,” Kansas State athletic director John Currie says.

“This is a time of great unknowns,” KU’s Sheahon Zenger says.

“There’s no question,” MU’s Mike Alden says.

Conversations with them and others, combined with the layered complexities of major-college sports, make it clear that there are no obvious and comprehensive fixes. Only different plans proposed with different priorities. This will take years to shake out.

But you can’t run until you walk, and you can’t rebuild a demolished building until you clean out the debris. First steps are important and can’t be taken back. That’s why it would be a mistake for athletes at Northwestern or anywhere else to unionize, a mistake for both sides to officially enter an employer-employee relationship. The answer, at least at this point, is not a union or salaries for athletes.

The first step in any change should be adopting the so-called Olympic model.


The labor board’s decision in the Northwestern case has put fear and anger in the minds of many within college sports. Nobody will talk about this publicly, but the feeling is that the national office of the NLRB will uphold the regional branch’s decision. After that, there will be costly uncertainty except for lots of billable hours for lawyers and grandstanding from politicians.

Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter and Ramogi Huma, president of the group representing the players, say they will not push for compensation beyond full scholarships and that their top priority is medical coverage.

The view from athletic directors about unionizing is clear and predictable — “I don’t think (unionizing) is appropriate for college sports,” Alden says — but it’s probably not in the best interests of the athletes, either. Officially labeling student-athletes as employees has costs beyond giving athletes a bigger cut of the revenue they help generate.

“For either side, the termination of a 17-year-old kid for lack of performance is not what either side wants,” says T.J. Moe, a former receiver at Missouri. “You’d have strikes and lockouts. And if it’s a lockout, are you locked out from just the athletic facility? Or does that include academics, too?”

This isn’t to say the NLRB’s ruling isn’t important, or that Colter and Huma and everyone else associated with the movement at Northwestern are working in vain. Their public priority of better safety and more comprehensive medical coverage is worthy, and who would make the case against it?

But unions don’t exist to

not

argue for income, and what employer-employee relationship do you know that doesn’t include pay? As one Division I assistant who has talked about the issue with his players put it: “It’s easy to see what the next step would be.”

The unintended consequences go beyond what Moe talks about, though. If players are on salary, that probably means fewer opportunities in both major-college football and nonrevenue sports. Is that what either side wants?

But look at the forest, not the trees, and you see the potential unionization as part of a bigger negotiation. And like any negotiation, each side should be hoarding as much leverage as possible.

Between public sentiment, legal momentum, common sense and the disorder and

incompetence

of their opponent, college athletes should have all the leverage they need to make useful, beneficial, reasoned changes to an outdated system.

There is an obvious place to start.


The idea that a college athlete does not own his or her likeness is by definition ridiculous. The idea that a college can profit off that athlete’s likeness, while the athlete cannot, is offensive and goes against so much of what our society is supposed to be about.

Former Georgia receiver A.J. Green is suspended for selling his own jersey. Former Ohio State quarterback Terrelle Pryor and others are suspended for trading memorabilia for tattoos. Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins spends time after every home game signing autographs with a school compliance official always nearby, everyone plainly aware that Wiggins is the only one not benefiting from the transaction. Rich administrators receive bonuses for the accomplishments of student-athletes who can’t make a penny.

The current rules are based on a time when every dollar had to be watched, before TV revenues funded expansive facilities and salaries. Privately, even college sports officials use terms like “flat-footed,” “tone deaf” and “exceptionally poor” in describing their ability to keep up with modern times. The rules should have evolved by now, but the least they can do is lift restrictions on college athletes to make money from outside sources.

“That much is inevitable,” says Allen Sack, a former Notre Dame football player, current sports management professor at New Haven and both a consultant to and critic of the NCAA. “No matter how the change goes, you’re going to see at least where they’re not paid by the university, but allowed to do things with companies or even boosters. They’ll still be students.”

One key here will be the acceptance, once and for all, that amateurism is not an ideal to be admired but a mechanism for exploitation that should be killed and mocked. This isn’t anything new. Amateurism as a concept was popularized in 19th century England by the upper class to keep the working class out.

In college sports, the definition of amateurism has been altered for convenience. In the early part of the 20th century, athletic scholarships were a violation of amateurism. Eventually, those rules were so thoroughly ignored that they needed to be changed.

Even the Olympics evolved with the times. There are actually a lot of parallels here between what the Olympics went through and what college sports now face. And when the IOC

finally

allowed professionals to compete, they watched their business and the popularity of their games skyrocket.

The key here is that the Olympics don’t pay athletes (beyond prize money) to compete, but they allow the athletes to be paid. If Subway wants to pay Michael Phelps to sell sandwiches, why should the Olympics stop it? The exposure is good for all parties, and here’s the thing: College athletes are already used in advertisements; they’re just not paid for it.

If Nike wants to pay Missouri receivcr Dorial Green-Beckham to wear its gear or appear in its ads, why should MU or the NCAA stop it? The same goes for a booster paying basketball recruit Cliff Alexander to go to Kansas or a car dealership paying Kansas State receiver Tyler Lockett to sign autographs in the showroom.

Doing it this way takes care of all potential Title IX issues, and doesn’t require any extra money from athletic departments, most of which operate in the red. It also lets the players in on a piece of the action they’re generating.

There are potential unintended consequences here, of course. The first, brought up by some, is that the creation of an upper and lower class of athlete will mean a divide among teams. This is silly, in part because baseball and other teams that operate with partial scholarships have been dealing with this for years.

Another argument is that brand-name schools like Texas and Alabama have richer boosters and more marketing opportunities, creating an uneven playing field. But, of course, colleges have never had an even playing field.

One spot where we might see a negative over time is with the idea of limited resources. Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron would’ve been in high demand last year, for instance. If Visa spends $50,000 on an ad campaign with McCarron, that’s likely $50,000 less the company spends on the rest of the Southeastern Conference — which would presumably mean diminished opportunities for others.

There are only so many dollars out there, in other words, and even if allowing college athletes to market themselves generates more corporate spending, at some point, there are diminishing returns.

As one college sports official (who favors the Olympic model) put it, teams that now travel charter may begin to travel commercial. Teams used to flying everywhere may have more bus trips. Athletic departments used to state-of-the-art everything may have to wait longer between renovations.

That means some adjustments, of course, but we’ve long passed the point of gratuitous spending. Does Kansas need

$17 million for apartments for the basketball team? Does Missouri need $200 million of facilities upgrades

? Some of the money now being thrown around to attract the talent can now go directly to the talent.

“A bench press is a bench press,” Moe says. “You don’t need $40 million every five years renovating that stuff. That’s for the recruits, getting kids to come. Once you’re there, you really don’t care.”


The ideas in this column are presented with the help of athletic directors, staffers, coaches and athletes. None of the people consulted agreed completely with one another. None will agree with everything in this column, and for too long, that sort of obsession with every detail has stunted progress. The leaders in college sports have let perfection be the enemy of good.

Some of this has been done with less-than-noble intentions, because this is a system where the men — and they are almost all men — in charge make the rules and are the ones who benefit from the rules. There are also many within the machine who genuinely want the best for college sports and especially the athletes.

Public sentiment has swung far enough against the status quo that major change is coming, and quickly. The so-called Olympic model is not a new idea for college sports and will not fix everything that’s wrong.

But it is the most logical place to begin, the best way to address the hypocrisy and archaic structure of college sports. The athletes who millions turn their televisions on to watch deserve at least much.

We can figure out the rest as we go along. But the rehabilitation of college sports has to start somewhere.

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