The myth of parity
When Johnny Manziel appeared recently on the cover of Time magazine -- striking his Heisman pose with six simple words, "It's Time To Pay College Athletes" sharing his space -- the most universally agreed, yet universally debated, issue in all of non-professional sports returned to the front of the national discussion.
Yet the beauty of the debate is once again lost because the foundation of the argument sits on a fault line. There is no system of payment that can be put in place that is fair across the board to all students, all sports and all schools that participate in college athletics.
At this point, the debate over whether college athletes should be paid really doesn't change anything. It's not about finding the right answer because there is no right answer. Seemingly everyone, regardless of the stance they take, makes valid points. Yes, for the most part, colleges and universities are making money off of the backs, performances and success of major football and men's basketball programs and the scholarship athletes who play them. But ask yourself: Isn't that what most businesses do?
Yes, business. Not college athletics. Business, man.
The problem seems to be that we don't look at college athletics as a business. Instead, we subconsciously and constantly (and emotionally) look at college sports as something different. We allow the "school" part to blind us into thinking that the educational piece changes the dynamics of what is really going on and exempts athletics from being about something other than money.
It's not. But that's our fault, not the NCAA's.
Take away the university/college "label" associated with college football and what do we have? The NFL. Do the same for all of the other college sports, and the professional equivalent to that sport comes up as the answer. This is where we are. This has been our reality for decades. Yet, we still take issue with the setup of college athletics because we can't collectively remove ourselves from the romanticism that somewhere in this billion-dollar paradigm, students are being taken advantage of by institutions of higher learning.
Is the business of college athletics unfair to the people who play the games? Sometimes, yes. Unless there's proof that colleges and universities are improperly using athletic revenues, where is the real problem?
Every student who signs a letter of intent or agrees to accept a scholarship to play a sport knows going in that the school's job is to make the most money off of his or her efforts. They agree to that. It's no different than a professional athlete signing a contract.
The success of the program while that student is there is not guaranteed. But if Texas A&M stands to make an estimated $72 million alone off of branded merchandise in one year (as reported in Time magazine) connected to the success of Manziel and the football program, why is that a problem? Manziel and his family knew and agreed to the rules of the game when they chose the Aggies as the program they wanted to use to put the child-prodigy in position to get paid once his college career is over?
We need to stop looking at college as it relates to athletics as an educational aperture and look at it for what it has become: a business platform. One where going in, the laborer knows that he or she will be under-compensated and one that greatly benefits ownership, but one that has the mandatory training program that all must go through in order to financially capitalize on their own talents.
The bottom line is that athlete's should not be paid a salary. They should get something more than what they are currently getting for making their school loads of money. But if you compensate student-athletes monetarily, how do you decide who gets paid? Is it by performance or position? How do you fix one disparity without creating another?
We need to stop looking for fairness in this because there is none and there never will be. There are very few businesses that are fair across the board to the people who work for them. The business of college sports isn't one of them.
I spoke with a retired financial manager who has had some dealings with the NCAA, and he shot down my theory of the answer to the "pay for play" dilemma in college athletics. I suggested: Just treat all students on scholarships the same, give them all the same liberties and freedoms, and the problem will be solved. He reminded me how all or most universities inside of the NCAA operate as not-for-profit institutions and the nature of how those business models work.
The nature of a school at the university level is to make money through education. Like any other business, colleges go into default and close when they are not making money or advancing financially. All businesses justify what they pay their employees, and unless there are labor laws being broken, then that business should be absolved of being told how to go about making money.
Why should college athletics be any different?
No one is making kids go to school to make money for the colleges and universities. They and their families choose to do this. It is an agreement that is not set up to pay them in ways that is fair in relation to the money the schools make from their participation. It's rather like taking an unpaid internship to prepare for a better job later in life. It is a trade-off. An unfair one, but it is consensual.
Which is why every college athlete needs to ask: If the school isn't trying to make money, why did they recruit me in the first place?
To help them win. And what comes with winning in the business of sports? Packed stadiums and arenas. Television contracts. Shoe company sponsorships. Global fan bases. Merchandise sales in the millions. Corporate brand recognition. Checks. No balance. Cha-ching! But you, college athlete, decided for this part of your career not to get paid for it. You agreed for tuition, room and board, books and to follow the rules of the NCAA as compensation. So don't get mad when the system begins to screw you. It's impossible to be the victim when you are the enabler.
It is a very "comes with the territory" reality that we all need to face. Not just college athletes. It is why we, the general public, need to simply stop looking at universities and colleges as places of education and instead focus on them as places of business where education just happens to be a service they provide.
Changing our mindset doesn't solve the problem or lessen the intensity of the debate. And accepting things "as is" isn't working either. But a small reality check in thought at least would give us a new starting point to change the discussion of the wrongs of how college athletics is set up.