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Should college athletes be paid? Why, they already are

You might think I'm referring to the essay by Taylor Branch that was published last week in The Atlantic under the headline "The Shame Of College Sports." But I'm not. I'm actually referring to an article that appeared in the June 1905 edition of McClure's, a prestigious monthly academic journal. The two-part series, authored by a former Harvard football player named Henry Beach Needham, makes a compelling case that the enterprise of amateur athletics is doomed. In The Atlantic, Branch also writes that "scandal after scandal has rocked college sports," but while that phrase implies this is a recent trend, Needham shows us that it actually extends back more than a century.

I mention this as a counterweight to the prevailing conventional wisdom -- namely, that the publication of Branch's article is a landmark event that has skewered the NCAA's bogus amateurism model for good. The piece has certainly spurred much discussion. A post on The New Yorker's website deemed it a "watershed." Jeff MacGregor of suggested "a kind of cultural critical mass has finally been reached." Frank Deford called it "the most important article ever written about college sports." From NPR to MSNBC to Business Insider to every sport outlet in between, the story has been hailed as a slam-dunk, once-and-for-all indictment of the NCAA.

To be sure, Branch's article represents a brilliant piece of reporting, which is not surprising considering he won a Pulitzer Prize for his three-volume series on the American civil rights movement. Branch lays out in fascinating detail the structural and legal history of the NCAA that has led us to this point. However, when it comes to analysis, fairness and context, Branch's work leaves much to be desired. If there is a reasonable counter-argument to be made, Branch ignores it. If there is a fact that contradicts his conclusions, he omits it.

Indeed, the entire article is based on a faulty premise, which is introduced right away in the sub-headline: "[S]tudent-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves." This is indisputably untrue. Student-athletes earn free tuition, which over the course of four years can exceed $200,000. They are also provided with housing, textbooks, food and academic tutoring. When they travel to road games, they are given per diems for meals. They also get coaching, training, game experience and media exposure they "earn" in their respective crafts. Despite all that, Branch asserts that "[t]he tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not."

If Branch or anyone else wants to argue that college athletes should be paid more, let them have at it. But to claim that college athletes earn "nothing?" Pure fiction.

So then: Should college athletes be paid more? As the subject of Branch's most recent bestseller, Bill Clinton, might say, it depends on what the definition of "paid" is. There is a significant and growing gap between the value of a scholarship and what a student-athlete genuinely needs. This is what is referred to as the "cost of attendance" issue. Many people in college sports, from NCAA president Mark Emmert on down, have argued that the scholarship model needs to be updated so this gap can be closed. Part of the challenge is that the gap exists for every athlete in every sport, so the fix must be applied broadly -- and expensively. Yes, I'll believe it when I see it, but at least the discourse on this front is moving in the right direction.

However, when Branch and so many others talk about college athletes getting "paid," they are not talking about merely the cost of attendance. They're talking about giving athletes what they're "worth." It's a convincing argument when cast alongside the mind-boggling dollars that are pouring in. Branch points out the SEC recently surpassed the $1 billion mark for football receipts. The Big Ten is close behind at $905 million. He reminds us that the football programs at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Penn State earn between $40 million and $80 million each year in profits. The NCAA received $771 million from CBS and Turner to broadcast last year's basketball tournament, a sum that Branch asserts was "built on the backs of amateurs -- unpaid labor. The whole edifice depends on the players' willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work."

So we learn a lot in this article about how much the schools are making. We learn almost nothing, however, about what they're spending. Branch virtually ignores the basic profit-and-loss structure of college sports. For example, did you know that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black? And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable? That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called nonrevenue sports. Those are some basic, salient facts, but you won't find them anywhere in Branch's 15,000-word opus.

We might want to believe that the reason schools lose so much money is because of the runaway spending on coaches salaries, new facilities and frivolous items like private jets. Those are indeed reckless expenditures; Myles Brand, the late NCAA president, frequently railed against them. They don't, however, begin to account for just how expensive it is to operate an athletic program. Branch derides college athletics as "Very Big Business," but the truth is, it's actually a "Very Lousy Business."

People who say that college athletes should be paid as professionals like to invoke the principles of the free market. That's the framework advanced by an entity called the National College Players Association, which recently issued a study that put some dollar figures on this question. The NCPA says those numbers demonstrate what the players would be worth "if allowed access to the fair market like the pros."

Left unsaid is the fact that the players do have access to the fair market. If they want to be compensated for their abilities, they can simply turn professional. Yes, the NFL and NBA have draft age minimums, but those rules were put in place by the leagues, not the NCAA. Does that not fall under the rubric of the "fair market"? Since the NFL won't accept a player who is not yet three years removed from his senior year in high school, the "fair market value" for a freshman or sophomore in college is actually zero. Yet, the NCAA is still "compensating" those players with a free education and other expenses, even if they are among the 98 percent who will never make a dime playing football. If anything, most of these guys are overpaid.

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The NCPA found that, at the highest end, the fair market value for a football player at the University of Texas is $513,922. Setting aside that this number does not account for the money the university is spending on the athlete (for starters, out-of-state tuition at the school runs north of $45,000 per year), I can't help but wonder what's "fair" about the market the NCPA describes. Clearly the starting quarterback generates much more revenue for Texas than does the third-string safety. Would the NCPA argue those two players should be paid the same? There's nothing fair about that.

If we're going to say that players be paid according to their value, then we should pay them less if their team doesn't make a bowl game. That's only fair. Or maybe the school should enter into individual contracts mandating that in return for access to its training program, practice facilities, game experiences and television exposure, the players should pay the school a percentage of their future earnings. If the players don't like the deal, they can sign somewhere else. Hey, it's just business, right?

These are just the first small steps down a long and slippery slope. That's why Ben Cohen's assertion last week in The Wall Street Journal that the case for paying salaries to college athletes was "gaining momentum" is so wrong. The only place this idea is gaining momentum is in the media. There is no movement -- none -- within the actual governing structure of the NCAA to professionalize college athletes. It's not just that it would ruin the amateurism ideal. It's that from a business standpoint, it makes no sense.

The other arguments in favor of paying athletes also do not hold up. Some people claim it would serve as a deterrent against the temptation to accept largesse from agents. This insults our intelligence. Does anyone really think that if the schools give athletes another three thousand bucks a year that those kids are going to turn away a fist full of Benjamins proffered by an agent? On what planet?

Then there's the idea, promulgated by Jay Bilas among others, that athletes should have limitless opportunity to pursue ancillary marketing deals. This works much better in theory than it would in practice. Do we really want a bidding war between Under Armour and Nike to determine whether a recruit attends Maryland or Oregon? Do we want Nick Saban going into a kid's living room and saying, "I know Bob Stoops has a car dealership who will pay you $50,000, but I can line you up with a furniture store that will give you $75,000?"

To be sure, there are a lot of legitimate questions about whether many of the NCAA's policies are in line with laws governing trade and copyrights. This terrain is in Taylor Branch's wheelhouse, and his article is at its best when he dissects the various cases that are currently making their way through the courts. The most interesting one is the class action suit being spearheaded by former UCLA basketball player Ed O'Bannon, who claims the NCAA is violating licensing law by continuing to make money off his likeness without compensating him. I'm not a lawyer, but it seems to me O'Bannon has a reasonable argument, and I certainly have no problem with anyone suing the NCAA to address such grievances. But when someone like Branch characterizes these issues as part of a larger civil rights struggle, he loses me. And I suspect he loses a lot of other open-minded people who agree with him that the system that needs fixing.

We need look no further than the current conference expansion madness to understand that many of the presidents who are running college sports are feckless, greedy hypocrites. It's also apparent that the NCAA's enforcement process has gone off the rails. Still, in the final analysis it's not the NCAA's responsibility to stop schools and athletes from cheating. It's the responsibility of those schools and athletes not to cheat. Any system is only as good as the people who are in it. You can make all the reforms you want, but at the end of the day, where there's money, there's corruption. It's a problem as old as time.

We spend way too much energy worrying about how the system affects a very small number of elite athletes, young men who are going to be multimillionaires as soon as they leave campus. Thus, it was disappointing to see Branch fall back on the argument that these select young men are being exploited. As the father of three children under the age of eight, I can only pray that someone "exploits" my sons someday by giving them tuition, room and board at one of America's finest universities. Branch also relies on some surprisingly lazy reporting. He reveals without a dollop of skepticism that a basketball team (he doesn't say which one) decided it would not play in the NCAA championship game (he doesn't say which year) out of protest. Thankfully, Armageddon was averted when said team lost in the semifinal (Branch doesn't say to whom, or explain why the players couldn't have boycotted the semifinal). Given that this fantastic scenario has been peddled for decades without ever materializing, it is remarkable that a reporter of Branch's stature would accept the account at whole cloth.

In the end, the greatest flaw of Branch's article is his failure to address the question of why schools operate athletics programs despite having to incur such financial losses. Could it be that maybe -- just maybe -- they really do believe there is educational value in competing? That they think sports is a worthy investment because it gives tens of thousands of young people the opportunity to learn discipline, teamwork and time management alongside calculus and English lit? Could it be that the schools really do want to enrich the lives of their "student-athletes" regardless of whether they are turning a profit?

As I read through Branch's essay, I kept waiting for him to acknowledge that the student-athlete gets something of value from all of this. I finally found it in the last paragraph, when Branch quotes a member of the Knight Commission as referring to the "free education" a student-athlete receives. For Branch, this is the final straw. It is, he writes, "worse than self-serving. It echoes masters who once claimed that heavenly salvation would outweigh earthly injustice to slaves."

Giving someone a free college education is akin to enslavement? If that's the great watershed idea of our time, then we are living in a very dry world indeed.