There’s been some online debate recently about whether college athletes should be paid by their schools; specifically whether star athletes should be paid. Well, paid more than a full ride scholarship, room and board, meals and personal tutoring.
There’s always something that has bothered me about the issue. Well, today, the Best Sportswriter on the Planet, Joe Posnanski, crystalized the debate for me:
Ask yourself this: Why do we care about college football? We know that the skill level in college football is vastly inferior to the skill level of NFL teams. Heck many Heisman Trophy winners are not even NFL prospects. Yet, by the millions, we watch. We cheer. We buy. We rejoice. We gripe. We wear. We eat. We live it. Many of us even argue that we PREFER the quality and style of college to pro, we LIKE watching those games more. But is it the quality and style we prefer or is it passion, youth, exuberance and that we feel closer to the game?
No, college athletics is not ABOUT the players. College athletics is FOR the players, but that’s a different thing, and that’s a distinction we don’t often make. College football only works on this grand scale, I believe, because it’s about the colleges. The alumni connect to it. The people in the town connect to it. The people in the state connect to it. People are proud of their connection to the University of South Carolina and Clemson, they are inspired by Alabama and Auburn, Penn State and Notre Dame and Stanford, they identify themselves through Missouri and Wisconsin and Florida and Texas A&M. The players matter because they chose those schools, they play for those schools, they win for those schools and they lose for those schools too.
So it seems obvious to me that the money from football — revenue-driving basketball too — should go to offer more and better opportunities at those colleges. That should be its singular purpose. The money from football — as much of it as possible — should pay for talented young tennis players to go to that school. It should pay to give opportunities to gifted swimmers, dedicated runners, hard-working volleyball players and so on. The point is not how many people watch those athletes play, or how many people care about the sports they play. The point is about opportunity and education and developing people and creating a richer environment at the school.
The vast majority of college athletes do not become professional players. For all but the biggest superstars, college athletics is an opportunity to get an education (and, outside of the money sports, they tend to do well). Every dollar you put into Cam Newton’s pocket is a dollar you take away from some other student. If college athletes were paid that would either (1) turn athletic programs into an even bigger money suck for universities than they already are; (2) mean some student doesn’t get a scholarship and, very likely, doesn’t go to college.
Commentators can talk all they want about free market principles. But would anyone know or care who Cam Newton was if he didn’t play for Auburn? Would he be making God knows how much money without the training and exposure the college game has given him?
If the players don’t like the system, they can leave — as many of the best do. Baseball players frequently skip college to go the pros. They also start out in the minor leagues, frequently fail to make the majors and make significantly less money. Basketball players can go right from high school to the pros. LeBron James did and somehow both he and the college game survived. Football players are restricted to being three years past college. But Ohio State found ways to blow bowl games just fine without Maurice Clarett.
This really seems to be an issue driven by a few high-profile superstars and some agents who want new clients. I see now reason to burn down the house for their benefit.