Tuesday Talk*: Moneyball (But No Lambos?)

Let’s acknowledge the obvious: Certain collegiate sports are big money. Huge money. Coaches get millions. NCAA commissioners get millions. Colleges get millions. The only people not getting millions were the players, who might get their head pounded into the turf for our amusement. Maybe they would turn pro someday and get a huge pay day at the end, but most likely not. Maybe they would get hurt and, despite their talent, leave their future on the court. Maybe some, but not all, would get free education. Maybe some would even learn something.

Division 1 FBS teams can give out a maximum of 85 full-ride scholarships to athletes. Division 1 FCS programs can provide a maximum of 63 total scholarships. The 85 FBS scholarships are headcount scholarships, which means every athlete who receives a scholarship at the DI FBS level gets a full-ride scholarship. The 63 FCS scholarships are equivalency scholarships. This means a coach can divide these scholarships up, giving more athletes partial scholarships.

The NCAA saw itself as special, unique, as the non-governmental regulatory body of collegiate sports. Its mission was to be the guardian of amateur sports under the belief that student-athletes were students first. This was no small feat in a system awash with money, where college competition for recruitment of the best athletes, for national championships, for TV contracts, for alumni donation, brought in big bucks. So when the NCAA saw its ironclad control slipping away, it took its case to the Supreme Court. And lost.

The Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Monday that the N.C.A.A. could not bar relatively modest payments to student-athletes, a decision that underscored the growing challenges to a college sports system that generates huge sums for schools but provides little or no compensation to the players.

Sure, they got tuition, room and board, if they were one of the lucky ones, but the NCAA drew a hard line when it came to anything more.

Some will think the district court did not go far enough. By permitting colleges and universities to offer enhanced education-related benefits, its decision may encourage scholastic achievement and allow student-athletes a measure of compensation more consistent with the value they bring to their schools. Still, some will see this as a poor substitute for fuller relief. At the same time, others will think the district court went too far by undervaluing the social benefits associated with amateur athletics. For our part, though, we can only agree with the Ninth Circuit: “‘The national debate about amateurism in college sports is important. But our task as appellate judges is not to resolve it. Nor could we.”

What is meant by “enhanced education-related benefits”?

“Uncapping certain education-related benefits would preserve consumer demand for college athletics just as well as the challenged rules do,” Chief Judge Sidney R. Thomas wrote for a unanimous three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, in San Francisco.

“Such benefits are easily distinguishable from professional salaries,” he wrote, as they are linked to education and could be provided in kind rather than in cash.

Easily? Because big money doesn’t invite gaming the rules?**

The N.C.A.A. had argued that paid internships posed particular hazards because they could involve unlimited sums. But Justice Gorsuch said the association retained “considerable flexibility” that left “room to police phony internships.”

Similarly, he rejected fears that permitting in-kind benefits would allow schools to give students luxury cars to get to class. “Under the current decree,” Justice Gorsuch wrote, “the N.C.A.A. is free to forbid in-kind benefits unrelated to a student’s actual education; nothing stops it from enforcing a ‘no Lamborghini’ rule.”

Does that mean a top athlete can drive to class in his Mercedes gull-wing, but not a Countach? Squishy language opens the door to a wealth of opportunity for abuse, or is it abuse at all? Come up with a modest connection to education (hey, an athlete needs hydrotherapy, so why not a pool, with a five-acre property to place it on) and you have a plausible connection to education. Or is it time for big money college sports to go the way of the Olympics and cut the pretense that it’s about amateurism and scholars, and let players earn whatever they can?

The Supreme Court tried to open the door just a crack, even if Kavanaugh in concurrence wants to fling the door wide open.

The NCAA couches its arguments for not paying student athletes in innocuous labels. But the labels cannot disguise the reality: The NCAA’s business model would be flatly illegal in almost any other industry in America.

Are college sports like “any other industry in America”? Now that the Supreme Court broke through the wall, even with its purported “modest” change, where does it go? Where should it go? What does this mean for the players, for education and for Lambo sales?

*Tuesday Talk rules apply.

**At the same time, some states have crafted laws permitting college players to market their image and endorsements, an issue before the NCAA but as yet undecided.

21 thoughts on “Tuesday Talk*: Moneyball (But No Lambos?)

  1. CLS

    At least now when the players get paid under the table cash the money won’t be in McDonald’s bags at the Student Union.

    1. SHG Post author

      Better the cash should be handed over in Hermes Birkins under the white tablecloth at Le Taillevent?

  2. Bryan Burroughs

    Even the “free education” is suspect at this point. UNC ran a fake degree program for its athletes for almost 20 years and the NCAA shrugged its shoulders. The claim of amateurism is a sham. It’s pure exploitation. Pay the kids and move on.

  3. CLS

    Bryan’s got a point about the exploitation. Everyone these days can make money off collegiate sports thanks to online betting–except the players.

    Most are likely getting paid under the table in some fashion. Shoot, I remember back in the day when the Vols won a National Championship (yes, it actually happened), players took home “gift bags” that had Playstations in them. Pay the damn kids.

    And when Johnny asks Daddy why Jimmy has a Lambo and Johnny has a Prius, Dad can respond “Because football, son. Because football.”

    1. PseudonymousKid

      “Pay the kids” seems like a popular refrain. I have questions. Which kids? How much? Why? Are the field hockey ladies getting the same amount of dough as the men’s basketball team? Are star athletes lumped together with their less able teammates? Let’s not pretend money solves everything here. The NCAA is too complicated a mess to be fixed by something so simple.

      Also, you know there’s a way to reply directly to Bryan, right? It’s rude to not use the buttons our host has laid out for us. Tsk Tsk.

      1. Bryan Burroughs

        Pay every last one whose talents justify compensation that can be borne by their respective sports. The same way every other field generally works in a free market economy. The NCAA’s claim that the public wants to see amateur sports is pure bullshit. We don’t. When’s the last time you packed up the kids to go see a little league game where you didn’t know anyone on the field? When’s the last time you watched a cross country race? How many adult rec leagues have you watched? Ever seen a church softball game televised? Hell, we don’t even go to D2 and D3 football and basketball games, where the players are truly amateurs. To trigger our host, ever watched a fencing match? Of course not! The only reason these kids are “amateurs” is because they are forced to be. At this point, the NCAA’s argument is akin to upholding slavery in the 1830s because the public prefers crops that are harvested by folks with a love of the fields.

        The fallout of this sham amateurism is corrupting every level of education where it exists. We saw what happened at Chapel Hill. My brother faced pressure from coaches at a podunk college in Kentucky to change grades for athletes. My wife is pressured in friggin middle school to keep athletes eligible to play. The NCAA in its current incarnation simply can’t be fixed. It’s beyond help.

        The only solution is to force the NBA and the NFL to create their own minor league systems, the same way that MLB has. They need to spend their own money on this, instead of leaching off of colleges. Let kids go into those leagues straight out of high school, the same way MLB does. Or, if you want to preserve some semblance if college sports, give them the option of going to college on a real scholarship with real classwork in real majors that they actually do themselves without 15 tutors correcting every mistake they make, but they then can’t join the minor leagues for three years. No tutors. No special privileges. No note takers going to class for them. And they have to actually get into the school on their own merits (ROTC military instructors based at universities face this requirement, and I’ve seen instructors get pulled because they couldn’t gain admission). If you’re not going to do all of that, then burn the system to the ground.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          My questions were rhetorical, Bryan, I don’t care enough about other people to ask any other kind. I’m working on that in therapy, since I guess we’re over-sharing.

          1. SHG Post author

            Your intent does not dictate Bryan’s rather impassioned reply. I see the cognitive behavioral therapy isn’t working for you.

  4. JMK

    The current NCAA system is indentured servitude, and at least for football and basketball, functions as a de facto gatekeeper as one cannot easily enter the professional leagues without conforming to the NCAA’s demands.

    About time the dam started to crack, the athletes that are the basis for the billion dollar industry deserve to participate in the rewards generated.

    (Note to CLS: no matter how much we pay anyone to come here, I think our football team is still going to suck for the foreseeable future).

  5. PseudonymousKid

    The NCAA wants to have its cake and eat it too. If its truly all about encouraging amateur athletics it shouldn’t also be holding some of those athletes back from their potential payday. That doesn’t mean it should be the one handing out paychecks. Let the pros and semi-pros out into the big leagues. Enforce academic standards to ensure the student-athletes are actually students. Invest whatever money it makes from what’s left in all sports. Stop being so fucking greedy all of the time. I’m biased of course. I want amateur athletics supported rather than schools dumping all their money into one or two programs.

    The Court’s decision will hasten the NCAA’s demise. The dam is compromised. Filthy luchre is leaking through and it’s only a matter of time before the whole thing goes down. Sure, the current NCAA is an abomination, but I’m not confident whatever would replace it will be any better whatsoever.

    This is all far too complicated for a TT. All you’re gonna get is knee-jerk “pay the kids” hot takes and my drool, I bet. No, don’t pay the kids.

  6. gr

    The NCAA has always acted like a monarch, and gets slapped down by SCOTUS from time to time. See National Collegiate Athletic Association v. Board of Regents of the University of Oklahoma, et al., 468 U.S. 85, 104 S. Ct. 2948; 82 L. Ed. 2d 70 (1984).

  7. Is CFB Doomed?

    I am in total support of Name, Image and Likeness rights for college athletes. But, when the school is directly giving them additional compensation, whether through the limited means of this decision or more robust compensation, it runs into a number of issues:

    1. How do any additional benefits fit into Title IX rules? If a booster gives an internship to the star wide receiver at the local dealership, does he need to give another to a female athlete? And if all 85 scholarship football players get a salary, does the school need to find 85 female athletes to get the same salary? Which 85 female athletes will be selected?

    2. The thing that most people don’t realize is outside of the Big 10, SEC, and the blue bloods in the other conferences (i.e. Texas and USC), most FBS school’s Athletic Departments operate at a loss. So are we going to demand that the student body and taxpayers of those states, many of whom could give a whoot about college football, pay for these additional benefits/salaries?

    3. What would likely happen if 1 and 2 are solved is that some schools would offer financial benefits and others would not. This, especially in football, would create a massive recruiting advantage for the schools that decided to pay the athletes, and really distort the competitive balance in the sport. This is already a problem since Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Clemson have taken the majority of spots in the current playoff, and would only get worse if they were allowed to pay the players. Who cares, you might ask? Most college football fans who don’t root for those 4 teams or another SEC team, and would likely shrink the regional interest in the sport to the Midwest and South. It would turn College Football from the second most popular sports product to roughly the popularity of the NHL.

    Finally, I do think this is largely the NCAA’s fault. TV money began to pour in during the 90’s, and really shot up in the 2000’s with the advent of the BCS. The idea that a scholarship, room, and board was enough compensation for the athletes when coaches make 7-8 million a year is no longer tenable. They could have figured something out decades ago, but instead banked on being able to hold the status quo indefinitely.

    1. PseudonymousKid

      I’m a spoiled Ohio State diehard and I care very much about parity in the sport and think its generally a bad thing that only a few teams compete each year for the trophy. As long as that team up north remains in the gutter until the end of days, I’m ok with changing things even if that means my team doesn’t win almost all the time. For now, though, the rich appear free to get richer as the bag men step out from the shadows. The only consolation is that my team will likely benefit even if the sport as a whole suffers.

      1. Is CFB Doomed?

        Agreed, I’m a Pac-12 (and 10, and 8) lifer, and the best team in our conference the last few years has been Oregon. But even considering how well Cristobal has recruited there, I still see a pretty big gap between them and the very top of CFB. We’ll see for sure against your Buckeyes in September, but my bet is that game will still show a pretty big gap between the two programs. USC could get back on that level if they hired the right coach, but as long as Helton is there their ceiling is a conference championship with an embarrassing New Years Six bowl loss.

        But even going outside the Pac-12, I don’t even see how well run programs in well run conferences (i.e. Wisconsin, Penn State) get to into that elite level, even for a year or two.

        1. PseudonymousKid

          Whatever the exact formula is, I don’t think its reproducible for most. Meyer and Day transformed my Bucks into a beast of a program. I’m not so naive to believe it’s all above board and that we simply recruit, coach, and develop players better than everyone else, not that that isn’t part of it all. Is the secret sauce direct cash payments to players? I’m too much a fanatic to say or care.

          The Oregon game should be fun. See? I’m so damn spoiled that I can be arrogant enough not to worry seriously about a major out of conference opponent. There’s no historical animosity or grudge I can think of readily, so it’s a friendly competition that should be a demonstration of the difference between the haves and the have-nots like you said. Of course it could all go wrong, but I’m very confident in the direction we’re heading regardless.

          USC would be a different story. They can stay mediocre. I have historical reasons to hold a grudge, I think I inherited it from my parents and it has something to do with Rose Bowl games. Being a fan is fun. I hope the NCAA doesn’t screw this all up.

          Wisconsin develops its talent extremely well but suffers in recruiting top players. Penn State hasn’t been coached effectively and hasn’t been developing its talent as well as it has in the past. I feel bad for both. Penn State’s white out environment at Happy Valley is amazing and those fans deserve better. They need a rival to focus on, maybe. Hate helps. Thanks for the perspective. I don’t get to talk to Pac-12 football fans that often.

  8. Drew Conlin

    This is from a friend a prof at Michigan :

    “about fucking time as far as i’m concerned.

    every university worth its academic salt should do for all of the big ticket sports what robert maynard hutchins did as to football”
    Because it violates SJ rules I won’t link the 1954 sports illustrated article in which Hutchins defended his decision to end football at Chicago in 1939. It’s online I’m sure if anyone cares to read it.
    Sometimes when you got no good ideas of your own you use others.

  9. Hunting Guy

    H. L. Mencken.

    “College football is a game which would be much more interesting if the faculty played instead of the students, and even more interesting if the trustees played. There would be a great increase in broken arms, legs, and necks, and simultaneously an appreciable diminution in the loss to humanity.”

  10. LTMG

    The practical reality is that college sports programs, particularly for football and basketball, hockey and baseball to a lesser extent, is a feeder program for professional sports. If not for the educational aspect, these student athletes would be minor leaguers able to completely cash in on their athletic abilities. In a few states, head coaches are the highest paid government officials earning salaries equal to their professional team counterparts. It’s well past time to recognize reality and neuter the NCAA. It’s usefulness has passed.

  11. cthulhu

    The late Blackie Sherrod, for years the dean of Dallas-Fort Worth sportswriters, would occasionally endorse the Single Platoon Party: college football players would have to play both offense and defense, with limited substitutions, just like the old days. This would cause the college game to emphasize much different physical characteristics than the pro game, substantially reduce roster size, and differentiate the college game from the pro game so much that the NFL would need to set up a farm system.

    As someone who grew up in a football-obsessed state, going to State U’s games while they won multiple national championships, etc., this is about all that could get me interested in college football again.

    College basketball could get rid of the shot clock and the three-pointer, have jump balls after each basket, etc. – too many people have never seen a true defensive struggle on the court.

    In the absence of something like this – pay the poor bastards.

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