A two-year FBI investigation into exuberant payments made to college basketball recruits. Sounds like an intriguing Friday night at the movies, doesn’t it? I see Tom Hanks as the lead investigator — think “Catch Me If You Can.”
Unfortunately for Auburn, Arizona, Louisville, Miami, Oklahoma State and Southern California, this scenario is no hypothetical. It’s a harsh reality that culminated in the arrests of four assistant basketball coaches and the firing of (in)famous head coach Rick Pitino from the Louisville Cardinals last week. In full, the FBI report alleges that assistant coaches at the aforementioned universities accepted large sums of money from a high-ranking Adidas employee to disburse to recruits. In exchange, the recruits, some of whom were paid up to $100,000, would sign a sponsorship deal with Adidas at the beginning of their NBA careers. Imagine a Yale athlete walking around with that kind of money following the recent Under Armour deal. That’s a lot of Yorkside chicken tenders.
This sure isn’t the first recruiting violation in major college sports, and it probably won’t be the last. Yet many have pointed to this particular instance as different due to the FBI’s involvement. One man who isn’t convinced is ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. As he puts it, “The college basketball scandal won’t get fixed until the NCAA pays athletes.”
Bilas has championed the cause of paying student athletes for some time now, arguing that the NCAA clearly exploits its players by profiting from their success to fill arenas with fans and to sign massive apparel deals and television contracts. In a recent article on ESPN.com, the former collegiate basketball star argued that if athletes were compensated for their work as would be the case in a free-market economy, there would be no incentive for them to accept bribes from agents and other shady actors ever-present in college sports as we know it.
In a way, I agree with Bilas about compensating college athletes. It is egregious that programs such as the University of Texas — which made more than 187 million dollars in revenue from athletics last season — shell out that cash to athletic directors, coaches and others who don’t play any games, but the athletes aren’t allowed to see a cent. Yes, athletic scholarships are a privilege and honor, but it seems difficult to argue that athletes who rake in this type of revenue for NCAA institutions aren’t entitled to additional compensation.
Where I disagree with Bilas, however, is on the idea that there could be a seamless and coherent implementation of collegiate athletic compensation. Just the idea of such a system leaves me with a multitude of questions.
For starters, if college football and basketball bring in the majority of athletic revenue for most big-money universities, should those players be entitled to all of the money? Imagine being an athlete playing a sport that generates no revenue. It would be difficult to see one of your fellow athletes walking around with possibly hundreds of thousands of dollars in their pockets. Additionally, it would be tough to convince athletes with that much money to think about attending class or the importance of education. You’re not catching me in fourth-period French with that kind of disposable income.
More importantly, I can’t see a way for college athletics to remain competitive. Forget Cinderella mid-major schools in the NCAA basketball tournament or blue-chip players staying home to play for their local schools. Everyone would follow the money, and the attraction of a big payday would only exist at a finite number of athletic powerhouses. For those who hate Nick Saban and Alabama now, this sort of reality would be much worse.
Lastly, this type of compensation would in some ways compromise the beauty of college sports. Whether it’s March Madness, the College Football Playoff or the NCAA hockey tournament, it’s a truly beautiful thing to watch a group of players accomplish their ultimate goal for nothing other than the love of the game and the teammates beside them. They aren’t doing it for a paycheck, and there certainly aren’t any lockouts or locker-room conflicts over contract negotiations.
At times, the reality of the NCAA and its member institutions accumulating massive profits when players can’t even sell their autographs for $5 without the threat of suspension is tough to swallow. In a perfect world, this conundrum wouldn’t exist.
But until Bilas and other proponents of paying collegiate athletes present a tangible plan to address the issues outlined above and the myriad other problems that would surely arise, their platitudes about NCAA athlete compensation are just background noise.
Nate Repensky | email@example.com