How to Make College Football and Basketball Work: A Series of Options

As anyone who has ever taken a high school French class knows, French high school functions differently from American high school. There’s more emphasis placed on a single test in France than there is in the U.S. (here we tend to spread our attention around to about a dozen), and students get part of their Wednesday off to pursue extracurricular interests. This includes sports; French high schools don’t have sports teams the way that American high schools (and middle schools) do.

Meanwhile, the stereotype of Texas high schools is that they exist as vehicles for the school’s football team (and if you look at the expenditures for some schools, one wonders if that might not actually be true); Reggie Bush had to “vacate” a Heisman Trophy; few are the major college programs without violations for paying off players, fudging their grades, or otherwise playing fast and loose with the NCAA’s rulebook. This says nothing about the fundamental injustice of profiting off of players and saying, “Well, the full scholarship we give them makes up for the millions of dollars we make off of the player or team.” More than whatever tsuris there is over suspending Jim Boeheim or benching Laremy Tunsil, our willingness to tell college athletes their labor is worth some tens of thousands of dollars a year and not a penny more is the great trouble with college athletics. The rules, in the absence of incinerating them totally, ought to be broken.

(If you want to read more about sports from a labor perspective, for this is not my focus, let me recommend recent articles from Jack Moore at Deadspin and Michael Baumann at Grantland. I confess that Andrew Sharp’s piece on paying college athletes is the trigger for what I’m writing here. Carrying on.)

The issue I have with the dialogue about paying college athletes is that it sees no other alternative than paying college athletes. In fact, there should be no reason that a football player at Ohio State, a basketball player at Duke, or a baseball player at South Carolina should go through college at all.

I frequently find myself vexed by two questions.

  1. Why are institutions of higher learning subsidizing massive athletic ventures?
  2. Why are we giving pro leagues the ability to develop players for free through college athletics?

As soon as Rutgers played Princeton in the first college football game, the Rubicon was crossed. Colleges now supported teams which bore the name and colors of the school. Rutgers and Princeton still admit students for the purpose of playing sports – football, basketball, volleyball, field hockey – at the university, and the number of colleges which don’t admit “student-athletes” is dwarfed by the number of colleges which do, and profit off of them.

I suppose what bothers me is that there’s no reason that the University of Texas needs to have a football team attached to it.

(Yes, the university makes money off of its players and the team. Texas is also a very big state with a lot of taxpayers. Texas should offer a free college education – tuition, room, board, books, etc. – to anyone who graduates a Texan high school and subsidize them using their many many taxpayers and businesses. Universities are not businesses, and schools were never made to be profitable. Public schools in particular exist to provide services to their communities, not to be in the black for a government. Just as importantly, schools exist to be good to their students; paying someone an empty $40,000 a year and getting them an “education” – which has nothing to do with a job – is not being good. I’m not an economist, but something tells me that graduates of UT will probably return more than the $200,000 they might have paid in tuition to the state of Texas by paying taxes, setting up housekeeping, patronizing local businesses, and so on. This is a very long aside, but if I’m gonna tell it, then I gotta tell it all.)

Texas doesn’t need a football team. That football team has nothing to do with science experiments or Derrida. Wisconsin’s basketball team does not affect the study of nonlinear equations, and the baseball team at Arizona does not change the life of Gustavus Adolphus. Call me old-fashioned, but a school ought to focus on learning and education rather than money or sports. A highly publicized football team is problematic, but a thriving intramural program or a set of club teams is a gift. Colleges should subsidize the betterment of their many students as well as they can; putting ten thousand undergrads in a stadium in Lubbock and getting them to yell as loud as they can is sexier than putting in more tennis courts or a bigger swimming pool at the gym, but physical exercise and athletic participation on a personal level improves a person more than going to a football game.

Assuming that the University of Texas needs to have a football team is lazy. Because they’ve always had it? Because there’s no other way to earn the money a football team brings in? Because people like football? We need to divorce ourselves from the idea that people would only watch these football players (or basketball players) if they were affiliated with a university. You don’t think for a minute that the boosters of a substantial university – or, better yet, smart businessmen with capital – would invest in the 18-22 year old kids and start naming their teams things like “Crimson Tide” and “Buckeyes” and “Longhorns” and giving them uniforms strikingly similar to the ones they wear now? Perhaps even playing in the same facilities which they bought from the university?

I am “okay” with the idea – and I say “okay” because there are serious moral issues which crop up around football without even mentioning money – of getting kids from ages eighteen to twenty-two to play football at a high level, as long as it’s professional. And once we get past the point of “the kids need to play for a school,” football is the only professional sport that really takes a hit. High schoolers should be able to declare for the NBA/WNBA draft – or, better yet, sign straight out of high school with an NBA/WNBA team, D-League team, or international squad of their choosing. They should be able to make those same kind of choices as free agents for baseball, soccer, hockey, etc. (I would, at this point, even settle for them being drafted into professional leagues with fair wages.) And in the recent past, if not in the present, high schoolers have done just that. If you’re good enough, why should you burn time in school when you could be getting paid for your labor?

These last two paragraphs get to the heart of the problem and why, beyond even the lack of imagination which poisons so many sports fans, we will never adequately solve this problem. Professional leagues who take on the Jahlil Okafors and Andrew Lucks and Chase Utleys of the world have no incentive to change this system, where unpaid labor percolates and develops and grows under world-class conditions that the teams, again, don’t pay for. No owner of a baseball team would want to lose the SEC, the world’s best amateur baseball league. If you think about how upset he would be by that, imagine the owner of an NFL team or an NBA team finding out that other pro leagues were popping up around college football or college basketball, where quality minor-league systems are almost totally absent. And that’s the real problem with the “paying college athletes” debate. Whether or not we think that Cardale Jones should be a free agent able to make a million dollars (gee, Pop, a whole million!) or should content himself with his scholarship worth tens of thousands of dollars which might come with a degree at the end, we are ignoring just how deeply the devaluation goes. Instead of a long and tired talk about paying “college athletes,” we need to learn how to pay people based on what the market will give them and never mind what university’s colors they wear.

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