AUBURN AL - NOVEMBER 13: Quarterback Cameron Newton #2 of the Auburn Tigers walks off the field after a pregame walkthrough before facing the Georgia Bulldogs at Jordan-Hare Stadium on November 13 2010 in Auburn Alabama. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
On Monday, we explained why the Cam Newton investigation is everything that's wrong with the NCAA. But since we highlighted the problem, today, it's time to offer some solutions. How can we fix the NCAA? It won't be easy, but it takes five steps.
Amidst all the latest discussion of Cam Newton and the investigation into his eligibility, it seems like the speculation has centered on three questions. First, did Cam Newton take money? Second, did his father, Cecil Newton, ask for money? And finally, regardless of the answers to the first two questions, shouldn't the NCAA or SEC have investigated this sooner?
That's the biggest reason I wrote Monday's article, explaining why the Cam Newton investigation is "everything that's wrong the NCAA". Cam Newton's case highlights a problem with the NCAA that's two-fold. First, there's the media's role in consciously missing the point. Essentially, it's a witch hunt, but they're going after the wrong witches.
Throughout all the furor surrounding Cam Newton and Auburn and the Mississippi State boosters and Kenny Rogers and all the characters in between, almost nobody has stepped back from this victimless crime and asked whether Cam Newton should be getting paid.
As for the NCAA side of things... These shady, backroom deals with skeezy characters are all but inevitable when you consider the economic realities of a guy like Cam Newton and the role he plays in powering the billion dollar machine that is SEC football. And when you take an honest look at the characters percolating beneath the NCAA's surface, any rational outsider would step back wonder the obvious: "Wait, why doesn't the NCAA cut out these middle men and just pay players themselves?"
If the problem has been ubiquitous for decades, maybe it's time we start looking for a different solution. But when certain folks read Monday's article, they got upset. As one commenter wrote, "Can we figure out ways to move the conversation forward? There are no solutions presented, except perhaps the idea that it should be a free-for-all with athletes choosing the school with the highest bidder."
So let's talk about solutions. But for the record, if anyone's wondering why I wrote Monday's article, it's because this rationale (from another comment on yesterday's piece) still holds way too much currency in the world of college sports:
...the NCAA can function a little like the state patrol—the cops aren’t going to catch everyone who speeds, but if they ticket just enough people, it acts as a deterrent for the majority.
Why should there be a deterrent to athletes getting compensated fairly? The speed limit is a state law, in place for the benefit and safety of general society. The NCAA's rules are as arbitrary and self-serving as any other corporation. And if you think it's just commenters that feel this way, here's John Walters, a national college football analyst for AOL Fanhouse, talking about the NCAA in response to the sentiments I raised:
His dad doesn't get to decide [that he deserves to get paid] at a Hilton in Starkville. Selfish. [It's like saying] I "deserve" to drive 80 mph, but signs posted.
I fail to understand how someone can say "athletes make money for university", but how the nerdy kid who paid 200K for 4 years did not make money for the university. By my math, he/she made them $200K. ... This is like complaining that you can't buy a Beatles song on iTunes. Apple created iTunes, they make rules. If u want better, invent iTunes yourself. Otherwise, quit whining.
Well, what if you looked at the applications to colleges, and the correlation between a great season in football or basketball? I paid $200,000 to go to Boston College, a school that was changed forever after Doug Flutie's Hail Mary. A provincial hub in New England became a top 30 university drawing from all over the country with donations soaring, tuition rising, and applications shooting through the roof.
Or, in my back yard growing up, there was Georgetown University, a school that transformed itself in the 1980s thanks in large part to the massive success of John Thompson's basketball teams. In the 1970s, Georgetown was a small Catholic school known for academics and a strong Jesuit tradition. In the 1990s, Georgetown became one of the 15 best schools in the country. So what was the catalyst? What changed in the 1980s that made the rest of the country take an interest in Georgetown? Hmm...
It's not just that athletes "make money" for the university (and the NCAA... and their conference... and sponsors), but in a lot of cases, they make the university.
Oh, and as for inventing iTunes... As I'm sure John noticed, a few hours after his Monday analogy, the Wall Street Journal reported that Apple will finally sell Beatles albums on iTunes. ... Coincidence, or an omen?
Let's talk about how to fix the NCAA. Or, how to pay college athletes what they deserve.
1. Control The Conversation.
In order to get this done effectively, it's going to take the rhetoric of powerful politicians, the cooperation of hundreds of school administrators across the country, and quite possibly the federal government. So let's not put the cart before the horse here.
First and foremost, we need to explain the problem in a way that's simple and concise. Bureaucracies don't do well with nuance, and the NCAA and the Federal Government are two of the most obtuse bureaucracies on the face of the earth. So let's think about this.
If we said that major NCAA student-athletes deserve to get paid as part of a much bigger business that earns billions in profits every year, the majority of lawmakers will respond with, "You're right. This is unfair. And to rectify things, we will tax those NCAA profits that these young men so richly deserve." Then the government will get paid, and we'll be back to square one.
If we say that major NCAA student-athletes are not the same as real students, the NCAA will balk and point to the ubiquitous "400,000 student athletes" number and gleefully remind us that most of those athletes go pro in something other than sports. Of course they do.
So instead of appealing to the economic sensibilities of Congress or undercutting the NCAA's grand ideal of education, we'll have to be more pragmatic. And what's the most politically expedient strategy in contemporary America? ... That's right, we need a villain.
If we want a change, this needs to be about cleaning up college athletics.
And here's where the argument begins. The problem with the current landscape in the NCAA isn't that college athletes are robbed of their rightful share in billions of dollars of profits, and it isn't the sham of an education that athletes have been receiving for years. The REAL problem, we'll tell everyone, is that the current model for big time college athletics attracts a horde of agents and hustlers that make a mockery of the NCAA's rules, directly undercutting the notion of amateurism AND education.
"It's the agents, not the NCAA, that are the real evil" we'll say. And how can the NCAA eliminate the endless supply of these characters from the delicate ecosystem of college sports? By curbing the demand. If the NCAA makes a point of compensating the players that these agents would be interested in, then suddenly, college athletes can ignore the late-night texts of desperate agents and hustlers looking to "take care of" some star athlete. If they're taken care of already, the athletes can focus on education, practice, and enjoying the college experience.
It's nowhere near the best argument for a change, but we're not talking about why today, we're talking about how. And if we stay loosely tethered to the reasoning above while making sure to demonize the shady agent/hustlers leering around every dark corner in college football and basketball, it would distract people enough to make the idea of semi-pro college athletes seem reasonable.
Which it is. That's why we're here.
2. The Bi-Partisan Appeal Of Reason: Get Congress On Our Side.
If Barack Obama can put pressure on NCAA athletic directors to eliminate the BCS and decide the Division 1 National Championship in a rational way, then there's no reason he and other politicians couldn't shift their focus to the more disturbing miscarriage of justice.
And while Obama's empty rhetoric about the BCS did nothing to change anything on that front, politicians could absolutely make a difference in this battle. Look at the Cam Newton Investigation. Yesterday, it was confirmed that federal agents met with Mississippi State booster John Bond to discuss his involvement with Newton. Between meetings like that one and the FBI's vigilance (or lack thereof) prosecuting unscrupulous agents, it's clearly an area that's caught the attention of the Feds.
So politicians should ask themselves (with our help), "Why should we continue wasting valuable government resources when the NCAA has the resources to solve the problem on their own?" There are terror cells popping up all over the world, and we're interviewing boosters in Starkville, Mississippi?
Republican or democrat, it's not hard to sell this to your constituents.
Again, it's not strictly rational logic, but with the government and NCAA and maybe even the American mainstream, we're not dealing with rational thinkers. To get everyone on our side, framing the issue because more important than any merits of the argument. And getting the lawmakers to shift their focus from the BCS to the issue of amateurism is crucial to the cause.
Once we have the support of lawmakers, what do we do? It's simple. Amend Title IX.
3. Amend Title IX And Get Pat Summitt To Help
Listen, nobody cares about women's rights more than me. Err... A lot of people care about women's rights more than me. But just because I think Title IX makes no sense doesn't mean I don't care about women's rights. Growing up, I read two Pat Summitt biographies. Did YOU ever read Raise The Roof and Reach For The Summit?
...But where were we?
The point is, Title IX treats all college sports as equals, and that's ridiculous. It's not that every football or men's basketball program turns a profit, but they are the only ones with the chance to generate meaningful revenue. Like, ever. The law is couched in broad terminology that seems benign, but ultimately, the most significant implication is explained here: "financial assistance must be awarded based on the number of male and female athletes. The test is financial proportionality. The total amounts of athletics aid must be substantially proportionate to the ratio of male and female athletes."
And again, the idea that football and men's basketball have to be financially proportional to any women's sport is ridiculous. Because, you know, when you consider the economics of college sports, they're not at all financially proportional.
Why does this matter to us? Because in order to compensate athletes in revenue sports, athletic departments will (obviously) have to allocate more resources to those programs. That's where we'll need the support of the politicians we mentioned earlier. And if we're really serious about getting this done, convincing someone like Pat Summitt is just as important.
Whether it's a famous female coach like Summitt, an ex-superstar like Sue Bird, or a female president like Donna Shalala at University of Miami, it'll be crucial to have a strong female advocate in the fight to amend Title IX. And because it's genuinely a matter of common sense, convincing one or more famous female advocates shouldn't be impossible. Remember: It's not a matter of gender equality, it's a matter of cleaning up college sports.
And rhetorical framing aside, any woman with a fundamental appreciation for fairness should be in favor of reforming the current NCAA model. Male or female, a rational outsider watching the Cam Newton witch hunt would ask the same questions we all have. Why is the FBI wasting time with this? Shouldn't the NCAA care that its best players can't help but break the rules? How do we fix this?
Amending Title IX is the first tangible step.
Once Title IX gets amended, we can move on to the meat of the plan.
4. Give Premium Scholarships For Major Conferences
We can't call this what it is—a salary cap—because that'd be rejected in thirty seconds. But what if every major conference school had a set limit of "premium" scholarships every year? Before we answer, let's define the specifics in that question.
- When we say major conferences we're talking about the SEC, Big 12, Big Ten, ACC, Big East, and Pac-10. These are the leagues that can point to television contracts, donation pools, and lucrative sponsorships as examples of steady revenue streams. There could also be an application process where schools in smaller leagues—or independents like Notre Dame—make a case for their inclusion in the Premium Scholarship Program. Don't worry, Boise State and TCU could play this game, too.
- When we say a set limit, the exact number would vary by league and by team. The number of scholarships would be derived from a percentage of overall earnings, alumni donations, TV money, and bowl earnings. Each year, a school would submit a report to the NCAA, and the NCAA would then allocate them a percentage of the revenue reported that can go to up to ten recruits for the following year.
- When we say premium scholarships we mean scholarships that include a free education as well as a salary for services rendered. No different than a benefits package in the mainstream economy, the education would be included as a piece of their salary.
And since we're eschewing the NCAA's current communist model, the money that goes with each premium scholarship would vary depending on the demand. Certain recruits could command up to $100,000-a-year, others as little as $10,000. Or, in the case of someone like Cam Newton, $200,000 would be realistic. But whatever the price, it all counts against the limit established by the NCAA every year.
And yeah, these seem like big numbers, but when you consider the budgets of the biggest football programs in the country, $200,000 isn't really earth-shattering. Among annual budgets that regularly eclipse $50,000,000 at big time programs, if schools set aside $1,000,000 each year for these "premium" recruits, after four years, with 40 premium players on the roster, it averages out to $100,000.
Not every player would earn that much, and some could earn much more. But for the first time in the NCAA's history, it would be fair, transparent, and rational. And that's just football.
As far as college basketball's concerned, the numbers would obviously be pared down on a proportional basis. Instead of 10 premium scholarships, schools would have three, and the salary cap set forth by the NCAA would be smaller. But the model remains the same, where the biggest revenue-generating programs would have an advantage.
But before you balk, Kentucky, UCLA, UNC, Duke... These schools all have a competitive advantage, anyway. And the motivation for second-tier programs would be the same as always—win more, get more donations, more TV money, and a higher pool for premium scholarships. Instead of the intangible prestige ratings made my famous by the NCAA's officially licensed EA Sports video game, there would be a very tangible hierarchy in college football and basketball. And it would things so much more fun.
We all root for upsets, anyway. Imagine if we could have seen West Virginia's upset over Kentucky last March and said, "Look at that! A team with a $200,000 Premium Pool beat a team with $2,000,000 to spend!" You're saying that wouldn't add to the Cinderella story? Besides, that's basically what we're cheering for in the first place. Alabama football and Kentucky basketball have every advantage in the world, but they don't win every year. That's why we love college sports, right?
Now, for the old, white elephant in the room...
5. Let The Free Market Police The Cheaters.
Anyone that disagrees with the ideology underpinning my proposal here will simply step back and say, "Paying big-time players won't put an end to the cheating. Boosters will just pay them even more."
To that point, I'd say, "Maybe." If boosters and agents are going to keep cheating, then we'll have the same problem the NCAA's had for fifty years. But at least the blatant institutional hypocrisy will have subsided, and someone like John Wooden wouldn't be made to look like a crook for ignoring the NCAA's bylaws. So that's a step in the right direction.
And if everything's transparent, it would be MUCH harder to cheat. Because say a program gets caught paying a recruit more than his premium scholarship allowed, or a player gets caught taking money from an agent. The NCAA doesn't even have to worry about putting schools on probation. Overnight, the Premium Scholarship pool gets reduced to zero for the following year. Or two years. Or four. It would depend on the severity of the violation.
But if the Premium Pool is down to zero, suddenly, a big-time school can't sign any big time recruit without raising serious suspicion from rival schools, the NCAA, and everyone in between. What 18 year-old superstar would commit to a school knowing that he'll be subject to intense scrutiny from the media and NCAA just for signing a letter of intent? Especially when he can legally sign a letter of intent and get $100,000 from a different school.
Policing these things wouldn't be easy, but if we turn college sports into a free market, in many ways, the market would police itself. It's a leap of faith, sure, but it's better than bowing to the Gods of the NCAA for another 50 years and allowing snakes like Kenny Rogers or John Bond to dictate the exchanges that govern college sports.
So, let's review the steps to fixing the NCAA:
- Control the Message: We're cleaning up college sports, not paying student-athletes.
- Get Congress on Our Side: Fight the NCAA's bureaucratic fire with fire.
- Amend Title IX and Get Pat Summitt on Our Side: Self-explanatory, and long-overdue.
- Give Premium Scholarships to Big-Time Athletes: Not a salary, just better scholarships.
- Let the Free Market Police The Cheaters: Transparent competition breeds conformity.
Now, let me answer a few reactions that are inevitable. In no particular order...
Why don't we just create a semi-pro league for all these greedy teenagers that think they deserved to be paid?
Um, because college sports are awesome? There's no reason to discard the system entirely when simple reforms could make it better than ever.
Who pays for all this at schools where these sports don't generate revenue?
To quote Title IX: "The test is financial proportionality." The schools that don't make as much money won't have as much money to spend. That creates rational economics for the NCAA and its members, but it also gives schools added motivation to win and generate revenue. And given the Georgetown and Boston College examples of what a winning team can do for the profile of a university, how is this added motivation possibly a bad thing?
Well, because it would turn college sports into a collection of "haves" and "have-nots".
Isn't it that way now? The recruiting budget for Alabama or Florida football dwarfs that of Ole Miss or Vanderbilt, and the same hierarchy exists in every conference in America. This changes nothing, except that it makes these discrepancies more transparent, and allows fans to play the underdog card with more legitimacy than ever before.
Back to specifics: How would college basketball teams claim post-season earnings if they don't go to Bowl Games every January?
Simple. With each game you win in March, you claim a larger percentage of the overall revenue generated by the tournament. Even if that revenue doesn't translate directly to profits for athletic departments, the NCAA could count it when calculating the "Premium Pool" allocated for the following year's recruiting.
Okay, fine. But what about athlete's educations?
It's a relative concept at this point. Among big-time athletes in college, school comes second. That's just a fact. First and foremost, because the responsibilities of an athlete dwarf those of an average college student. It's hard to ask a 20 year-old to focus on class when he's waking up at 5:00 a.m. for "optional" offseason workouts.
But just as important, the incentive to keep athletes eligible under NCAA guidelines is such that athletes are guided into classes that demand very little intellectual rigor, and as such, offer a limited payoff at the end. We could look at this problem and say, "The entire system needs to be overhauled," or we could simply be realistic. A college athlete has plenty of opportunities after graduation that aren't available to ordinary students. Be it pro sports (a small percentage), coaching, physical therapy, positions in the athletic department, or jobs arranged with the help of alumni, it's a simple fact that a 22 year-old athlete who graduates with a degree in Alabama football will find that far more useful than anything he learned as a communications major. And that's okay.
I graduated with a double major in English and Communications, and I wound up writing about sports for a living. My boss started in sports journalism, couldn't handle the language requirement, and wound up with a degree in sports management. Matt Damon wrote Good Will Hunting at a Harvard eating club and decided he could leave school.
And we all turned out okay. The educational ideal is highly relative and incredibly fleeting. We all have different talents and take different paths to a vocation. Pretending otherwise does a disservice to everyone.
Well how do we justify treating certain athletes like semi-pro players, and others in the athletic department like amateurs? Won't this ruin college sports as we know them?
On this point, I'll defer to Marc Isenberg, writing for U.S. News this past March:
The NCAA defines an "amateur" student athlete as someone who "engages in a particular sport for the educational, physical, mental, and social benefits derived therefrom and to whom participation in that sport is an avocation." "Avocations" don't produce multimillion-dollar salaries for coaches and multibillion-dollar TV contracts. The economic incentives to attract superstars and keep them eligible are so strong that no minor reforms and no amount of policing will prevent athletic directors, coaches, and athletes from gaming the system. It's time to give up the pretense.
The NCAA clings to "amateurism" despite the impossibility of combining amateurism with the generation of billions of dollars of revenue. Amateurism was once the Olympic ideal as well. Yet we just saw a match for the gold medal in hockey with both teams composed entirely of NHL players. The Olympic rings did not catch fire and dissolve into ashes.
And I'd only add that where college basketball and football players face intense scrutiny about whether they accept a free meal during their recruitment, the NCAA routinely grants eligibility to athletes that play semi-pro hockey, baseball, soccer, or tennis. If you want to make a racial inference there, you're more than welcome to it. In any case, the double standard is enough to render any cries of forfeited integrity pretty much moot.
Different athletes in different sports have always played by different rules. This is no different.
When I began writing this yesterday, I noticed another tweet from our friend at AOL Fanhouse:
I enjoy how everyone has ideas to "fix" college football. While you're at it, why not "fix" marriage and democracy? Some great institutions will always be flawed.
It's not single out any one writer, because the attitude there is pervasive throughout college sports. "It's not perfect, but we love it anyways" we say. But there's a distinction that gets lost, and Cam Newton is just the latest perfect example of why we need a change.
Within the framework of the NCAA and the SEC, the Cam Newton investigation makes perfect sense. He may have taken money, or at least asked for it, and it's everyone's responsibility to find out whether he's guilty on that front. But from an outsider's perspective, without the benefit of the NCAA's blinders, Cam Newton is just a 21 year-old kid having his family and personal history dragged through in the most spectacular way possible. He's also a 21 year-old making millions of dollars for a group of faceless, uncaring elders that would have him go uncompensated for his contributions to the billion dollar machine they operate. It's a miscarriage of justice and fairness in the boldest way possible. And that's where the distinction between "flawed" and "failed" comes into play.
Some institutions will always be flawed, yes. The electoral college in America—that's a flaw. But think back to the past. Was slavery just a flaw in an eccentric economy unique to America? Had you polled Americans at the time, plenty of them would have answered yes. But in hindsight, we see slavery for what it was. No society where men are supposedly created equal can exist with slavery in its midst. It directly undermined the integrity of the entire system, making a mockery of our leadership in the process.
(Note: That's NOT to liken college sports to slavery, or its advocates to slave-owners. There's a big difference between being whipped and confined to a life of unpaid labor and the Valhalla enjoyed by athletes at major college football programs. It's not slavery.)
But if we want to liken the NCAA to a permanently imperfect democracy, then we have to mention: Just as slavery undermined democracy, the longer the NCAA's system continues to prosper, the more damning the indictment becomes for all those who live through college football and basketball. One day, we will look back on this strange economy and shake our heads.
And the solutions here are just ideas. Before anyone mentions fixing college sports, we need to admit the system's broken, and most of us haven't even gotten that far. But if we ever do, just know that the system CAN be fixed. This is America, where all men are created equal, free markets reign, and anything is possible. We can do this.
So, remember: it's not paying college kids, it's cleaning up college sports—fixing a broken system. And if iTunes can sell Beatles albums... Maybe one day we can all learn to love Cam Newton.