Pay The Players

USA TODAY Sports

This week has been one for the ages, or rather it would be one for the ages, if what has come to light was actually new. On Tuesday Sports Illustrated lowered the investigative journalism boom on Oklahoma State. Today Yahoo's crack investigative journalism squad* took aim at four former, and one current, SEC players. I am supposed to care. I am told that it is vital for me to care about these matters. I don't.
*No seriously, it’s the only thing they do well as a company.

By now the cycle is as tired and predictable as a live performance by Dane Cook. First several hints are dropped that a tidal wave of righteous indignation is about to be directed at one school. Then we all get told by the wise old men why this is a big deal. They usually let us know how big a deal this is by yelling at us even more loudly than usual, that’s how we know that their anger is real, and to be respected.

Next we are treated to the initial round of self flagellation by the administrators at the institution in question. That's how we know that the (mostly) old white guys in charge are taking this seriously. How else would we know that this is a threat at an institutional level? We have to be told that it is, and that they "do things the right way" at school X.

Next the NCAA will piggyback on the work of the media and will invariably launch an investigation into the matter. Because the NCAA has no subpoena power they can not compel anyone to talk to them. But they will dispatch someone to walk around and look important. If they get cooperation they can expand the investigation into other realms. More often all they do is copy the work of whatever investigative journalist came before them and call it a case. They will make a show of concluding their investigation and head back to Indianapolis to deliberate.

Next a university administrator will commit career Seppuku before a live studio audience.* The importance of the university official committing the act sheds much light on the severity of the sanctions to come. A low level tutor or compliance officer, no big deal. Deputy athletic director in charge of the sport that committed the violation, semi big deal. The athletic director himself, massive deal. University President, Spanish Inquisition.

*Press conference

Then the university under threat will come up with their own sanctions, and beat themselves over the head with them. How do they come up with the sanctions? Glad you asked, my best guess is that the top brass of the athletic department in question gets together to play darts. But instead of a dart board they have a sanctions board. Everyone in the room gets a toss, the wedges with the most darts are the sanctions.

The NCAA will then review those sanctions and make the decision whether or not to accept them, in which case the school usually walks away with a de facto time served citation. Or they could levy more substantial punishments upon the institution.

Either way the fourth estate will gaze upon all they had wrought and declare it all to be great. They will then commence with a round of celebratory circle jerks for a job well done. That is the pattern, it hasn't changed in my lifetime, and will almost certainly never change.

****

I have been reading a book lately that deals with the infamous "cheating" scandal with Bear Bryant and Wally Butts from the early 60's. The book is about Joe Namath, Bear Bryant and their time together, but the Butts episode is covered extensively. It is jarring just how familiar a trajectory that story covered. It’s the same path traversed by any controversy or scandal today. The Internet has changed many things, but those same beats are hit ad naseum any time something vaguely against NCAA rules happens.

For the most part the games of college athletes are still covered the same way. They are contests of equal parts skill and will performed before adoring fans who will sit in the same classes as their heroes come Monday. Students and athletes, sharing the same path in life, however fleetingly. That’s a friendly little notion to have. It makes the cognitive dissonance that is part and parcel of college fandom slightly easier to digest. But its a story, and the only value it has is the value it is given.

Even back in the 60's scholars and journalists who fancied themselves as scholars were decrying the ever increasing commercialism of college sports. Back in the day one there was one game on TV a week. One. Today that kind of outrage seems quaint. The masses arguing against college players being paid today will seem quaint in 30 or 40 years. The economics of college sports only ratchet one way, and it is against the will of the moralizing columnists who are sure to have no problem filling their inches at any point in the next couple of weeks because of these two stories.

****

To me this really is a very simple matter. CBS/Turner inked a contract with the NCAA for 11 billion dollars. The Big 12's contract generates 20 million per school for a decade. The SEC, Big 10 and PAC 12 are in the same range. The ACC is not far behind at around 18 million or so per school. All the rights of those five conferences are valued at 11 billion, probably more. The college football playoffs contract is worth over 5 billion dollars.

The amount of money that football and basketball generate on a yearly basis is ridiculous, and yet the players who generate the product at the heart of all that profit are cut out of the system. Unless you are the most ruthless capitalist in the world you can't look at the literal mountain of money generated by the players and the games they play and tell me that they don't deserve a cut of that money.

In any other area of life a person is free to go out and try to relentlessly profit from their own inherent ability. No one says shit about the doctor who leaves one hospital for a bigger pay check at another. That is perfectly legal, and encouraged. Competition we call it.

But if an athlete decides that he is worth more than the scholarship affords him. Well that is something that is just not done, and that kid will be hung drawn and quartered in the court of public opinion for having the nerve to try to profit from his own existence. He, and by extension, his program will be branded as cheating. But how is that cheating? How does a player taking money on the side off the field somehow invalidate everything he does on it? So taking money gives you a competitive advantage on the field as well as in the bar! who knew?

Point to the rule book all you want, but the rules that make up the bulk of the 500 or so page monster that is the NCAA rule book are made for a world that doesn't exist. It worked just fine when athletes were students and gas was 10 cents a gallon. But that book looks ridiculous placed at the feet of what college sports have become, which is profit centers for multinational multimedia conglomerates.

If you can't tell by now I don't really care about players getting money, or interacting with agents, or having sex or getting high. 18 to 24 year olds have been trying to get money, have sex or get high since the invention of 18-24 year old men, and the concepts of money, women and drugs. Which is to say all of recorded history. The long arc of history might bend towards justice, but before that it definitely bends towards 18-24 year old boys being stupid and greedy.

I have long since made peace with college sports being the most corrupt and corrupting sporting organization this side of FIFA and the IOC. The IOC and FIFA are blatantly corrupt, and they get a begrudging sort of respect for their shamelessness. The NCAA still clings on, sometimes desperately, to the notion that the young men and women who play their games are still amateurs who play for the love of university and sport. That is not in the least bit true. There is nothing amateur about big time college sports. But the NCAA, and their media lap dogs, continue to wage a full scale fight against players being able to profit from being players. It’s a fight that they are losing badly. A fight that they can never win. A fight being staged under a mountain of cash that could be buried at any minute under a mountain of excess liquidity. In actuality the fight is over, we all know where this is heading. But until we get there, I won't stop arguing that it’s time to pay the players.

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