Big-time college sports headed for a paycheck touchdown
Written by Michael Lewis on August 13, 2014
Last week Florida International University unveiled a three-year naming rights deal with Ocean Bank to get income from its football stadium. Two days later a federal judge ruled that top-tier schools can pay football and basketball players for use of their names and photos.
Easy come, easy go.
Now FIU’s so-called student athletes – along with their brothers at about 120 top-tier sports schools – can each get a check that the National Collegiate Athletic Association cannot by judicial order limit to less than $5,000 a year, to be paid when they’re no longer in school or eligible for sports.
Most of these athletes are in school five years, meaning $25,000 apiece. That will add perhaps $500,000 a year cost to FIU’s football and basketball programs. The naming rights deal came just in time.
The same order also hits the University of Miami (which has no football stadium to name), University of Florida, Florida State, Florida Atlantic University and the University of South Florida. They’re going to needed to add revenue too to cover added costs.
It’s significant that while the figure being cited is $5,000 per player per year maximum to be tucked away in trust for use of names and images, US District Judge Claudia Wilken’s 99-page decision Friday didn’t set that as a ceiling.
Rather, the judge said that the NCAA couldn’t set a ceiling any lower than $5,000 per player per year. She left the door wide open for the NCAA to raise what schools can pay just as high as it wants to in a competitive marketplace – competition that she made clear is missing now as she found trade unreasonably restrained.
She also allowed any school to pay as low as it likes – but only if schools don’t collude to cut payments.
But, as she laid out convincingly, schools that pay less couldn’t lure top athletes. Testimony she cited shows that top players go where they get the most from a school – and nowhere does she say that the most they seek considers the best education or campus atmosphere or prospect for a non-sports job after graduation.
In fact, she based her decision on antitrust laws. College sports, it seems, are businesses that have conspired through the NCAA to prevent non-employee student athletics from enjoying benefits of their labor in pay for their own names and images.
This isn’t the last court decision in the pipeline about big-time sports. Others will deal with whether college athletes can form a union to protect themselves, and then will permit salaries in some form for playing for the dear old alma mater.
But the judge further tears apart the myth of the student athlete, the man who went to a college or university for education and took up big-time sports out of school spirit or for physical fitness or pure love of the game.
Sure, such athletes exist, but the fiction universities create that these are the people who by-and-large man their teams is shattered by statements by the judge that top-tier athletes, as gauged by scouts, almost never go to a school that doesn’t offer big-time sports with all the player benefits.
Nobody would dream of going to Harvard or Yale or the University of Chicago if they could play for dear old Podunk Tech, which might not have an academic reputation but sure has a big TV audience.
What top-level players leaving high school seek, the judge says, are a package that includes all tuition, fees, room and board, books, school supplies, academic support services, high-quality coaching, medical treatment, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, and a chance to play at the highest level in front of large crowds and TV audiences.
They also want any other costs of going to college not covered by their scholarships, including transportation and more.
Those are what the judge says these athletes sign for. Top professors and breadth of knowledge weren’t listed. They go to college, but an education is very far from top priority.
The judge makes clear that these athletes are vital for universities, which clear profits on major men’s football and basketball programs.
Now the athletes are queuing up to get payouts from their work, which seems fair given that they’re recruited as workers, not as students. Sure, a college degree and the education that might go with it will be a plus in the days after the NFL and the NBA, but the degree is a sidelight – it’s nice in the benefits package, but now players are going to be looking for the paycheck.
The genie is out of the bottle, on the 50-yard line and headed for a touchdown, which is a paycheck.
Judge Wilken cites testimony that fans won’t reject big-time football and basketball if players are paid for image and name use, and probably not if they get a straight paycheck.
We might like amateurs, but professionals have been playing big-time college sports for years – they’ve just been underpaid.
If you like pure amateurs, watch the Pee Wee League or the University of Chicago. If universities want to be in the top ranks and get big checks from old grads like the ones who’ll attend games at Ocean Bank Field at FIU Stadium, they’re going to have to start paying the players who make it possible.