This editorial is part of our GREAT DEBATE feature ‘Should College Athletes Get Paid?’
Business Insider recently got the chance to chat with New York Times columnist Joe Nocera over email on what he thought about the issue of paying college athletes.
Nocera wrote a New York Times article in December outlining a plan explaining why and how college athletes should be paid.
Business Insider: From reading your piece in the New York Times from December, it seems you’re on the side of paying college athletes. Can you briefly tell us why you think we need to pay college athletes?
Joe Nocera: The answer is really simple. College athletes are an unpaid labour force whose work product is enabling a $6 billion business—that is a reasonable estimate of the combined revenue of college football and men’s basketball, the so-called revenue sports.
They put in 40 to 50 hours a week at their “job.” They have to squeeze their schooling in between practice hours. There are tremendous—and tremendously unfair—restrictions imposed by the NCAA on what they can and cannot do because of their “amateur” status. Most football and men’s basketball players at the big-time sports schools never graduate in any case.
“All the money they are generating trickles up to everyone else in the system.”
And meanwhile, all the money they are generating trickles up to everyone else in the system, from NCAA President Mark Emmert to Ohio State’s new football coach Urban Meyer, who just landed a $4 million a year contract, to the corporate representative who signs a deal to link his company’s product to college sports. And the players are supposed to be content with a “scholarship” that doesn’t even cover the full cost of attending college? It’s offensive.
BI: So what you’re saying is athletes are the people who make it possible for schools to rake in tons of money, so they deserve a piece. But how much should college athletes be paid? And would they also receive a scholarship or would they pay for their education?
JN: I know people who advocate a complete free market for football and men’s basketball players, and others who say that they should simply get stipends to cover the cost of attending college. My plan is a little more baroque than either of those, but I think is one that could be realistically carried out by the big-time sports schools. I propose a salary cap and a minimum salary. For football (where I would reduce the number of scholarships from 85 to a more reasonable 50), my cap per team is $3 million; for basketball, $650,000.
With a minimum salary for each sport of $25,000, that allows coaches to half the cap to pay more for star players. In fact, recruiting would suddenly be about money instead of sweet-talking—how refreshing! Will $25,000 a year make players rich? No. But it would allow them to put money in their pockets and participate in student life in a more normal way. I also think it would eliminate most of the absurd “scandals” that occur in these sports, most of which occur because players—many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds need—gosh!—money, just like every other kid on campus.
“Players — many of whom come from impoverished backgrounds — need money, just like every other kid on campus”
To answer your second question, yes, I think they should still get a scholarship. People want to believe that the athletes on the court or the field are students; that is part of the allure of college sports. But my answer is that the scholarship should be for six years instead of four. That would allow players to take fewer classes while they are playing sports and then really focus on academics once their playing days are over.
BI: That seems like a lot of money, salaries and a scholarship for six years. Is the revenue from football and basketball going to cover all of those costs? If not where would the money come from?
JN: I have a hard time understanding why paying 60 members of a college football team $3 million is considered “a lot of money,” when the University of Texas pays its football coach, Mack Brown, twice that amount. You could cover the Texas salary and still pay Brown $3 million. One of the reasons so much money goes to coaches, to conference presidents, to athletic directors—heck, there are even some assistant coaches in college making $1 million or more—is because the labour is free. The money has to go somewhere. If you paid the players, there would be less for everybody else, but so what? Universities would find the money if they had to.
Having said that, I completely agree that not every Division I school could afford to pay its football and basketball players. Alabama could afford it, but Wayne State wouldn’t be able to. What would happen is that the Wayne States of the world would have to deemphasize football and men’s basketball and go into a different, lower division where students played football and basketball as a true extracurricular activity, which is the way it is in Division III right now.
Forcing schools to make that choice would be a good thing, not a bad thing. In the end, I think you would wind up with about 72 football schools and maybe 150 basketball schools that were willing to stay in the big time. That would simply be a more honest acknowledgment of the way things are now. The realignment of the conference is, in effect, already creating a super tier of football and basketball powers.
MORE: ‘Should College Athletes Get Paid?’ at The Great Debate →
BI: True, coaches do make a lot of money in big time programs. But so far we’ve only mentioned basketball and football, which are the big money-makers at most schools. But what about other sports like lacrosse, and baseball? Is it fair to pay the football players and not the baseball players who spend just as much of their time at practice and meetings and travelling?
JN: Football and men’s basketball are fundamentally different from any other sport on campus. They are huge revenue generators. Players have no choice but to go to college to pursue their profession. (Baseball and hockey players can go pro directly from high school.) A baseball player who chooses college over the minor leagues is a true amateur. A football player in college is fundamentally a professional athlete in every way except pay. And if you are going to give me the college party line about how football revenues pay for the lacrosse team, I will ask you why disadvantaged athletes playing football should be asked to subsidise the upper middle class lacrosse players? If the university truly values lacrosse they shouldn’t ask the football team to pay for it.
BI: I see what you mean. Going back to another one of your responses quickly, how do you think this would eliminate most of the scandal in sports? Do you think making $25,000 a year is going to make a kid turn down more money, or strippers, or parties from boosters? I don’t really think it would.
JN: I guess you make a good point: they could afford to tip the strippers themselves. But seriously, do you really think boosters are giving players tens of thousands of dollars? With rare exceptions, they are not. They have given them chump change. And most of these scandals involve transactions that are only scandalous because the NCAA has brainwashed people (like you?) into thinking that any time an athlete touches a dollar bill, he has soiled his uniform.
One of the big scandals recently was the one where some players from Ohio State traded some of their Ohio State paraphernalia—in other words, their own property!—for tattoos. Yes, I do believe that if they had enough cash to pay for their tattoos there would not have been a scandal. Call me crazy, but I do think that if athletes had money to buy things, they wouldn’t be so quick to take money from boosters.
By the way, I should also note that many of the scandals revolve around agents sneaking money to athletes in the hope that they will sign with them when the turn pro. There is an easy way to eliminate those scandals: legalise agents!
BI: With all of that said, how can we make this change? How does the NCAA tell Mack Brown he’s going to make half of his normal salary, and how do those teams who can’t afford to pay their players jump from Division I to Division III? I’m sure those players at a school who maybe can’t afford salaries and scholarships won’t be happy to learn that next year, they’ll be Division III instead. (side note: there are no athletic scholarships in DIII, so then those players who are on those teams that have to drop out are also missing out on a free education, what do we do about that?)
JN: You can’t tell Mack Brown you are cutting his salary—that would be an antitrust violation. What you would have to do is announce a plan, and then allow a few years to pass before it gets implemented so everyone would have time to prepare. I was not suggesting, by the way, that Ball State drops to Division III; I was suggesting that there be a kind of lower-level Division I (the old I-A), that had athletic scholarships but didn’t pay money and didn’t compete in March Madness of the big bowls.
But of course the NCAA is never going to give an inch on paying players. It likes to call what it is doing “defending amateurism,’ but it is really the behaviour of a cartel ruthlessly suppressing wages. And I do believe that is what ultimately makes it vulnerable to legal attack. Someday, a judge is going to rule that this suppression of wages amounts to a violation of the antitrust rules, and when that happens, all bets will be off. A no-holds-barred free market will ensue. And my modest salary cap will no longer seem heretical, but a modest and sensible approach to fixing a broken system. Which, I might add, it is.
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