My great good friend Michael Rosenberg has a wonderful knack of writing things that strike powerful disagreement inside me. It is one of his many gifts. This is not to say that I always, or even often, disagree with Michael. I don’t. I think Michael’s one of the best sportswriters in the country and we see things the same way the vast majority of the time. Maybe that’s why when I DO disagree with him — like I did with a Tiger Woods column he wrote a couple of years ago or the let’s pay the stars of college sports piece he wrote this week — it’s a pretty strong emotion, the sort of emotion that pushes me to mumble to myself and to start a new file on my computer.
There is something I have wanted to say for a while about big-time college athletics, but it is one of those weird thoughts that is both blindingly obvious and strangely difficult to put into words. That’s why I had never written it before. It was reading Michael’s piece, and this sentence in particular — “If we wanted to be completely fair, then football and basketball players would not be forced to subsidize non-revenue athletes” — that opened the door. It has been a long time since I read a sentence I more strongly disagreed with.
And that led to the words that form the heart of this piece … words that, I have to say, surprised me: “College athletics are NOT about the players.”
You are more than welcome to stop reading now.
What is the question here? Let’s talk about this for a second here before moving to the big point. Most people frame the question like so: Should the best college athletes in the most successful sports be paid for all the hard work they put in and for all the revenue they help generate at colleges across America?
When the question is framed like that, it’s hard to see how there are two sides to the argument: OF COURSE they should get paid. This is America.
But, really, that’s not the question, is it? I hate to bring up this old bit, but to get where we are going I must: Big time athletes do get paid. They get free college tuition. We all used to believe that was worth something (parents of college aged kids know that it’s worth something). They get room and board. At the kinds of schools we are talking about, they get incredible facilities to train, the best coaching available (how much does it cost just to send your child to one of these coach’s CAMPS?), public relations machines to help them build their brand, national exposure, free travel, the best doctors, direct access to the professional ranks, youthful fame that can open doors for the rest of their lives, priceless experiences and so on. How much do you think parents would pay to send their son to play four years of basketball at Duke for Mike Krzyzewski? Is there a price tag you could put on that?
I’m not saying this to make any point except that the question has to be asked the right way. The question is: Should big-time college athletes (in the revenue producing sports, of course) get paid MORE than they do now?
I have long thought: Yes. They should. I’ve never believed in amateurism for amateurism’s sake. I’ve never bought into the notion that by keeping money away from players you are doing them favors. The arcane rules of the NCAA drive me mad, just like they drive Andy Staples and everyone else made. The occasional story that comes out about schools getting in trouble for paying the plane fare to send a player home to him grandmother’s funeral, or anything like that, makes me so angry I wish the whole system was burned to the ground. I have long wished they could at least give players a stipend or something.
But here is my problem: Every time I read another story about WHY star players should get paid more — and remember, we are almost always talking only about the stars, almost always talking about a few dozen players scattered across America — I come away feeling more and more like they should not. The biggest argument for paying the athletes comes down to this: College players (those stars especially) are the reason why these schools are generating so much money and so they deserve a much bigger piece of the pie. These sports are ABOUT them.
And you know what? I totally, completely, utterly and thoroughly disagree with that.
Ask yourself this: What would happen if tomorrow every single player on the Auburn football team quit and re-formed as a professional team called the Birmingham Bandits. Who would go to their games? Anyone? How much would those talented young men get paid?
Ask yourself this: What would happen if all the ACC basketball schools dropped their players and replaced them with Division II talent? Would North Carolina-Duke suddenly play in empty arenas?
Ask yourself this: Say the first, second and third All-America Teams in college football tomorrow went into the NFL. They just left. How many fewer fans would the college games draw? How many fewer people would watch Texas and Tennessee and Iowa?
Ask yourself this: Why do we care about college football? We know that the skill level in college football is vastly inferior to the skill level of NFL teams. Heck many Heisman Trophy winners are not even NFL prospects. Yet, by the millions, we watch. We cheer. We buy. We rejoice. We gripe. We wear. We eat. We live it. Many of us even argue that we PREFER the quality and style of college to pro, we LIKE watching those games more. But is it the quality and style we prefer or is it passion, youth, exuberance and that we feel closer to the game?
No, college athletics is not ABOUT the players. College athletics is FOR the players, but that’s a different thing, and that’s a distinction we don’t often make. College football only works on this grand scale, I believe, because it’s about the colleges. The alumni connect to it. The people in the town connect to it. The people in the state connect to it. People are proud of their connection to the University of South Carolina and Clemson, they are inspired by Alabama and Auburn, Penn State and Notre Dame and Stanford, they identify themselves through Missouri and Wisconsin and Florida and Texas A&M. The players matter because they chose those schools, they play for those schools, they win for those schools and they lose for those schools too. Everyone, of course, wants them to be the best players available, and some are willing to cheat the current system to get those players. But soon the players move on, and the love affair continues, just as strong, just as vital. The CONNECTION is what drives college football.
Otherwise, without that connection, it’s just football that isn’t nearly as well-played as the NFL.
Big-time college football … big-time college basketball … these are about the schools that play them. They are about the institutions, the campuses, the landmarks, being young — the front of the jersey and not the back, as coaches love to say. This connection — fan to college — is at its strongest with sports. People might get irritated when the alumni fundraisers find them at their new address (how do they always find me?). They might not want to send in money to build a better library. But they’ll buy sweatshirts, and they’ll buy tickets, and they’ll travel to bowl games, and they’ll pay for pay-per-view, and they’ll take a chartered bus to a subregional in Tulsa. This direct line to sports is how they support — and how they love — their school.
So it seems obvious to me that the money from football — revenue-driving basketball too — should go to offer more and better opportunities at those colleges. That should be its singular purpose. The money from football — as much of it as possible — should pay for talented young tennis players to go to that school. It should pay to give opportunities to gifted swimmers, dedicated runners, hard-working volleyball players and so on. The point is not how many people watch those athletes play, or how many people care about the sports they play. The point is about opportunity and education and developing people and creating a richer environment at the school. My friend Mechelle Voepel was just telling me about Caton Hill — have you heard of her? She played basketball at Oklahoma. She’s now a flight surgeon in the Army, and she says basketball helped her get there. How many stories are there like that from softball and track and lacrosse and all the rest. If football is pulling in all this cash and is not offering those kinds of chances, if it is not making the colleges better places, then who needs it?
Michael in his piece does not say that the schools should pay the players — at least for now. No, he makes the argument that basically they should allow boosters to pay the players, and allow the players to take whatever money and benefits and endorsements they can get. I can only imagine a college sport where high school kids hire agents and send them from school to school to cut the best deal they can make with various car dealers, CEOs and tattoo-parlor owners. I can only imagine how many people will take the money they normally give to the school and instead spend it to get a running back they can call their very own. Maybe they can have the players wear a little patch on their shoulders with the name of the booster who gave the player the money to come to the school. That touchdown was scored by Tommy Tutone and brought to you by Bob’s Trucking.
But, even that doesn’t bother me much. I’m all for the NCAA loosening up on the rules. No, it’s the larger point. Schools are drowning NOW. I have good friends, both of them have good jobs, both of them have saved responsibly, and they have no idea how they can afford to send all three of their kids to college. No idea. And their kids are smart, they’re getting some scholarship money, but the price is still overwhelming. Look around: Schools are slashing sports. They are raising tuition prices. They are cutting scholarships. Meanwhile college football and basketball — especially football — has become an arms race, with insane salaries being paid to coaches, and cathedrals built for weight training, and video equipment that the Pentagon would envy.
I’m not sure how you stop that. Maybe you can’t stop it. Maybe you don’t even want to stop it … that’s a whole other topic. But paying the stars seems to be sending college football careening away from anything close to the point. College football is not popular because of the stars. College football is popular because of that first word. Take away the college part, add in money, and you are left with professional minor league football and a developmental basketball league. See how many people go watch that.