College sports is broken, and New York Times columnist Joe Nocera wants to fix it with a radical five-point plan.Here’s a rough outline of his big NYT Magazine feature on how to reform college sports:
- Football and men’s basketball players will be paid cash.
- School can offer players as much money as they want, but they need to stay under a $3 million salary cap per football team, and a $650,000 salary cap for basketball.
- The minimum salary is $25,000.
- Every football and men’s basketball player gets a six-year scholarship, and health insurance for life.
- Past and present players are basically represented by a players union.
Look, we’re all for trying to reform college sports.
Big-time college athletics is hypocritical and corrupt and needs fixing. Plus athletes in revenue sports create billions of dollars for universities, so they ought to be able to afford clothes and food and the occasional night out.
But this isn’t how to do it.
Here’s why Nocera’s plan would be a disaster:
It’d probably eliminate non-revenue sports. Nocera is pretty straight-forward about this, quoting economist Andy Schwartz, “If having a good lacrosse team is part of what the community values, then the university should pay for it. They shouldn’t ask the football team to subsidise it.”
He also writes, “What it will most likely do is force smaller schools to rethink their commitment to big-time athletics.”
A more accurate version of that statement is that it would force smaller schools to rethink their commitment to athletics. Period.
The reason that it’s so tricky to draw up a system in which big-time college athletes are paid is that big-time athletic revenue goes to good use elsewhere. It subsidizes non-revenue sports, including scholarships for non-revenue athletes and salaries for employees of those teams.
Diverting a significant chunk of the $6 billion in basketball and football revenue back to the players hurts everyone who benefits from that revenue right now — the thousands of volleyball, track, or softball players who can go to college for free, and the thousands of people who rely on the existence of non-revenue sports to make a living.
Is it fair that football has to subsidise other sports?
Probably not. But simply leaving those sports out to dry isn’t the answer either.
It’s not that easy to pluck $3.65 million dollars out of the sky. Nocera argues that the athletes’ salaries could come “from trimming excess elsewhere,” namely in coaching salaries and facilities upgrades
But coaches are exponentially more valuable than players — the idea that Nick Saban should take a 50% pay cut and give it to his players is just silly, and there’s no way colleges are going to skimp on coaches salaries if they have to start paying players. In fact, coaches salaries would probably go up since schools would be more heavily invested in their programs.
Additionally, high-quality facilities aren’t just eye-candy for potential recruits like Nocera argues. They have perfectly reasonable uses, including equipment to diagnose and rehabilitate injuries — which is a huge part of his plan.
So basically, that $3.65 million ain’t going to appear out of nowhere, it’s going to come from the scholarships and salaries currently going to athletes and employees associated with non-revenue sports.
The “vast majority” of scandals wouldn’t just go away. Any plan to fix college sports should deal with the scandals that plague them. But this one doesn’t — instead it argues that paying players will magically eliminate scandals by “realigning incentives.”
But the notion that what allegedly happened at Miami — where a sleazy booster took players to strip clubs, let them use his boat, and bought them prostitutes — was a result of not paying players is ridiculous.
19-year-old kids don’t take bundles of money from hangers-on because of some rational, incentive-based calculus. They take it because it’s there, and they’re 19, and why the hell not?
Sports people are notoriously HORRIBLE at rationally handing out contracts. Nocera’s salary cap is designed to make sure monster schools like Texas can’t just dominate by pouring money into their team.
But having a salary cap necessitates a competent individual to manage that salary cap. And as we know from pro sports, people are TERRIBLE at managing a salary cap.
Recruiting (especially football recruiting) is an inexact science. There are a ton of high-school phenoms who never play a down of college football. Injecting “free market” principles in the recruitment of players would create an absolute mess.
In conclusion, this would create a radically different system. But it’d be a system with it’s own problems and shortfalls that probably aren’t any better than the ones we already have.
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