Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Indentured Servitude

Unlike my positions on many other topics, I often vacillate when it comes to college sports in the U.S.

Perhaps my favorite spectator sport other than soccer is college football. There's nothing quite like a crisp autumn afternoon in a packed stadium cheering for your team with thousands of other fans. The spectacle simply can't be beat.

College basketball is close too, although, because its games are indoors and the crowds are smaller, it's not quite as scintillating. But in its heyday (i.e., back when, in any given year, every school had a shot) the thrill of going to an ACC basketball game in old Winston-Salem Memorial Coliseum or Cameron Indoor or Carmichael Auditorium was second-to-none.

One of the draws of college sports when I started following them decades ago, other than the obvious allegiance to a school that one grew up supporting or attended, is that it was an amateur endeavour. While pro sports were increasingly subject to athletes changing franchises and franchises changing location, college sports remained a bastion of those who were playing the game for the joy of playing.

Thirty years ago that was a simplistic, but somewhat valid, belief. Today, it would completely ignore reality.

Let's face facts. The only thing that's amateur about college football and basketball these days is that the players aren't paid. The coaches, the schools, the conferences, and the NCAA make millions and billions of dollars from the television rights based on the sweat of their athletes. And, under that completely ridiculous guise of amateurism (in the correct sense of the word), all refuse to allow the players to share in the bounty.

The quid pro quo is supposed to be that the athletes receive an education "for free." Others argue that, considering various available grants and stipends (including board) players are actually paid (although this theory broadly asserts that all athletes are eligible for, and receive, these various grants and that most are not equally available to non-athletes).  But it's hard to ignore the fact that while the compensation that the athletes are receiving from the schools is at best in the tens of thousands of dollars, the schools are making millions and millions of dollars off of them.

The distinction between the way players and coaches are treated under the NCAA's current system was driven home by two recent events.

In the first, University of Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan initially blocked his player, Jarrod Uthoff (who had determined that his style of play didn't fit into Ryan's system) from potentially transferring to a number of schools. The universities that Ryan prohibited Uthoff from contacting to determine his ability to transfer there included all of those in the Big Ten (somewhat understandable), Marquette (as a local rival, somewhat defensible, although Uthoff is from Iowa and thus does not appear to have any obvious ties to the state of Wisconsin), Iowa State (apparently vindictive) and every ACC school (completely inexplicable and nothing but petty and vindictive).

Uthoff practicing while a Badger.

While Wisconsin ultimately modified Ryan's restrictions, allowing Uthoff to discuss transferring to any school other than one in the Big Ten, the damage had already been done. While Ryan attempted to defend his decision as one that had been recommended by other coaches whose opinions he sought because he was unfamiliar with a transfer request (despite the fact that he had willingly accepted a transfer from Iowa, and defended the decision, in 2010) and one which the school could decide to modify (which it ultimately did), his position never appeared anything other than a master telling his servant where and when he could pursue his educational and vocational goals.

Meanwhile, in college football, John L. Smith, who was hired by his alma mater, Weber State, to be its head coach beginning with the 2012 season, never coached a game for the school, jumping ship to become the head coach at Arkansas after it fired Bobby Petrino.  Presumably, Weber State had neither the foresight nor the ability to place restrictions on Smith regarding what schools he might potentially abandon his alma mater for, or Arkansas would have likely been on the list since Smith was its special teams coach for the past three seasons.

The cavernous gap between the ability of players to change schools as opposed to that of coaches highlights the disparity between the way the two are treated by the NCAA. The players, who earn the institutions millions of dollars through their play, have restrictive covenants placed upon them by the schools, while the coaches that they play for earn millions of dollars (Ryan, after the Uthoff debacle,  received a contract extension that will presumably pay him more than the $2.11 million per year he was earning before) and apparently can severely limit their players' options for movement according to their inclination toward or displeasure with a particular player.

If schools and the NCAA continue to treat players as employees, they ought to pay them as employees.  Not necessarily in the same manner as professional athletes, but as employees of the schools. While the NCAA recently allowed conferences to vote on allowing payments of $2000 to all scholarship athletes, part of the requirement is that a school pay the same stipend to all scholarship athletes. While presumably this  reflects the NCAA's mantra that the majority of college athletes are going to "go professional" in a pursuit other than sports, it's just a smokescreen to avoid talking about the two sports that rake in all the money for the schools and the NCAA - basketball and football.

My proposal is that the schools make a rough calculation of the number of hours that an athlete will spend in games, practice, training, travel, media appearances, etc., in football or basketball in a given season and pay them, per hour, the same rate that students at the school are paid for work-study programs (I presume at or near the minimum wage). I would end the charade that all college athletes are created equally in terms of their value to produce income to the schools and make this payment available only to football and basketball players (I know, there's likely a Title IX issue here, but let me ignore that for the moment).

The least that the schools that make millions of dollars through the work of these athletes can do is pay them in the same manner as they pay other students who are also employees at their institutions. That may make it a little more tolerable when the next Jarrod Uthoff rolls around and his request to transfer away from the school, which would never be necessary for a "normal" student, is refused.

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