Monday, November 12, 2007

Serf 'n Turf

College football is big money. In 2005 the big boys generated 1.8 billion in revenues with several schools (Notre Dame, Texas, & Ohio State) racking up over 50 million each.

Other sports (non-revenue) are subsidized. Coaches make big money, school endowments swell. But the guys getting their heads bashed in all fall make nothing. Squadoosh!

I don't like it (even though my school is a football factory) and Michael Lewis (Moneyball author), doesn't like it either, as you can read here in his NY Times piece. Here's an excerpt:

College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?

This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value. At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen.

But between buyer and seller sits the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to ensure that the universities it polices keep all the money for themselves — to make sure that the rich white folk do not slip so much as a free chicken sandwich under the table to the poor black kids. The poor black kids put up with it because they find it all but impossible to pursue N.F.L. careers unless they play at least three years in college. Less than one percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money. But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable.

Put that way the arrangement sounds like simple theft; but up close, inside the university, it apparently feels like high principle. That principle, as stated by the N.C.A.A., is that college sports should never be commercialized. But it’s too late for that. College football already is commercialized, for everyone except the people who play it. Were they businesses, several dozen of America’s best-known universities would be snapped up by private equity tycoons, who would spin off just about everything but the football team. (The fraternities they might keep.)

The bottom line is this: Big time college athletes need to be paid. It's way, way, way, past time for that to happen


Shawn said...

Why's it gotta be a chicken sandwich?

Angus said...

Michael Lewis: brought to you by the good people of Chick-fil-a!

Dirty Davey said...

Importantly, if you look at both sides of the ledger, you'd find that a lot of big-conference colleges actually lose money on football. While Lewis was throwing around some big numbers, it is generally true that college football expenses expand to consume available revenue (and then some, in many cases).

It's hard to say what a more rational system would end up looking like. If you simply made a competitive market for the services of "college" football players, you'd likely end up with a split, with maybe 25-30 schools willing to put their names and logos on a minor-league professional team, and the remainder choosing to have programs more like the current Division I-AA, II, or III.

An intriguing reform I've seen suggested would come not from the universities nor the NCAA but from Congress and the IRS: if the business of professionalized "college" athletics lies outside the core purpose of the university, then there may be no reason for a "donation" to the athletic program to be tax deductable. It's not clear why the tax code should treat a check to contribute to team payroll differently because it is written to the Oklahoma Sooners, Duke Blue Devils, or North Carolina Tar Heels rather than the Philadelphia Eagles, Baltimore Orioles, or Saint Louis Cardinals.

Paul said...

*Aren't* they paid?? What is the value of the training (if not education) they receive? Surely it's as much if not *way* more than the value of the education that *I* received.