Sam Ehlinger’s not the first and won’t be the last college athlete to point out the inherent unfairness in his sport’s economic system.
He’ll get more attention than most, though, because he’s the quarterback at Texas, which exemplifies college football’s reality a huge-money sport more than probably any other school. That’s part of why I have written the blog post you’re reading now.
Here’s what Ehlinger just said about the subject, to the extreme anger of a particular subset of sports fan on the internet.
He tweeted this analogy ...
Within this internship, you risk your short-term and long-term health on a daily basis. You endure this internship with less than a 2% chance to advance in your industry and obtain a full-time paid job.— Sam Ehlinger (@sehlinger3) March 7, 2019
... and backed a congressional bill that, if passed and upheld, would require the NCAA to drop rules barring players from getting paid off their own names:
Don’t get me wrong, I am beyond grateful for the opportunity to get an incredible degree and play the sport I love at such a prestigious University. I am extremely blessed.— Sam Ehlinger (@sehlinger3) March 8, 2019
There are fair debates to have about the logistics of paying college athletes.
Some examples of things that seem fair to ask, in my opinion: Who should do the paying? Do players in every sport get paid? Does every player on the team get paid the same amount? What competitive balance restrictions get put into place? How do you make sure player pay policies conform to Title IX and any other relevant laws?
But please do not say that the quarterback at the University of Texas is compensated fairly by a scholarship, room, board, and good coaching.
Here’s how one weirdly aggrieved person responded to Ehlinger’s tweets. I’m using this example because it tracks with the same arguments mad people make any time a player (or someone else) dares to advocate for a fairer system:
Education? Food? Lodging? Opportunity to promote yourself nationally?
The nerve of those bastards!
Scroll around the replies to Ehlinger’s tweets, and you’ll see lots of that theme. You’ll see the same any time someone with a big enough platform says something similar.
Being a college athlete, especially a Power 5 QB at a legacy program like Ehlinger, obviously carries many great things. So do lots of other jobs. But that’s not the point, just like it’s not the point when some regular person likes their job but still feels exploited at it. Maybe you’ve felt like that before. I definitely have.
Anyway, here’s what Ehlinger and his teammates help generate for Texas every year:
- Around $37 million from the Big 12, which gets that money from broadcast partners. Some of that comes from basketball, and a smidgen from other sports, but the bulk of any big conference’s media deal — especially the Big 12’s — is derived from football.
- About another $15 million from ESPN for the right to run the Longhorn Network, a TV channel devoted just to Texas. Again, that’s not all football. Only one or two football games per year actually go on the channel. But the football program has driven Texas’ brand to the heights where it could get a cash cow like LHN in the first place.
- Millions more in ticket sales, direct expenditures to watch athletes play.
- Bowl payouts in the seven figures, coming via the Big 12 (but Texas’ players add to that pot whenever they make a bowl, such as the Sugar after the 2018 season).
- More in merchandise sales, concession sales at games, and miscellany.
In 2016-17, Texas reported more athletic revenue than any school in the country, more than $214 million. It will eternally stay near the top, and football will stay the biggest driver.
There’s a lot nobody can know for sure about Ehlinger’s place in that system.
Starting here: What’s Ehlinger’s real value to Texas?
It’s impossible to be precise. These deals were put in place before his time, and he has lots of teammates. No individual player drives TV deals.
Still, Ehlinger’s a star of a highly expensive show that airs 13 or 14 times a year. Together, the players do drive those deals, and Ehlinger’s front and center.
So, what’s his fair value? Let’s just say: a lot.
I don’t know what the true value of a Texas scholarship, room, and board is.
According to UT’s math, the cost is about $28,000 per year for an in-state student like Ehlinger, not counting summer, when athletes are often on campus anyway.
Of course, it doesn’t really cost a school that much to host a student. Ehlinger’s scholarship doesn’t really cost UT even the $11,000 or so it would cost him to pay for tuition for a year if he weren’t on scholarship. That’s unless the school’s literally out of space to host a paying student in his place, and there’s no evidence that’s the case.
I also don’t know what the true value of being coached by Tom Herman and his staff, given nice accommodations, and provided great trainers is.
It varies by player. There are some who develop a ton in college and then cash out big in the NFL. That’s not most of them, and Ehlinger’s a former four-star recruit who could’ve gotten relatively similar coaching at a lot of places.
And I don’t know how, exactly, that weighs against the medical risk football players face, or the likelihood they’ll never see NFL dollars.
Ehlinger alludes to both. Again, they vary by player. Ehlinger’s not just talking about himself, though he’s a great example of the inequity at work.
But I don’t need to know any of these things to know if I were the one of the most important figures at the center of a multimillion-dollar entertainment business, and I did not get paid actual money for it, I’d be miffed too.
My guess is the people leaving Ehlinger confrontational replies would also be mad. But if anyone out there has ever been a central figure in a business that generates something like $50 million per year just in TV money and also not been paid for it, please email me or comment below. It would be wonderful to hear your story.