Sports, Thrill of Victory

On Johnny Manziel getting paid and the NCAA

The latest Johnny Manziel saga, this one revolving about his potential ineligibility after he allegedly took money for signing autographs, has once again put the whole issue of whether college players should be paid or not at the forefront of sports talk. That movement seems to be gaining more steam every day, and certainly, the idea that a player who’s worth millions to his school (and probably to the NFL right now as well) can’t take a dime without jeopardizing his eligibility seems absurd — and at face value, I can’t disagree.

Look, I’m about as much as a free market guy as you’ll find. The idea of restricting what people are paid, so long as there’s someone willing to pay them what they’re worth — even if that amount seems obscene — is tightly-woven into the fabric of America. People take offense at the notion of athletes making seven- and eight-figure salaries every year, but those people are confusing economic and societal value, and they’re not the same thing. If an athlete can make $10 million a year and an owner can earn more than that by signing said player, whether that offends or notion of fairness is irrelevant as it is a good business deal for both parties. That’s what makes our system of commerce work.

So fundamentally, I wouldn’t care if Manziel got a little something for his troubles. His estimated worth to Texas A&M last year was $37 million alone, and so even if A&M had paid him $36 million last year, it still got its money’s worth.

The tide of public opinion has shifted more and more towards the athlete in these things; for Manziel not to be able to (allegedly) make $7,500 when it’s a fraction of a fraction of his worth seems patently unfair. But when these things come up, we generally look at them through the lens of the superstar and not towards the other 99.9-plus percent of other athletes, and that’s where complications arise.

So, you say, let a college student earn whatever he can. Under that scenario, let’s take a hypothetical, highly-recruited high school senior who can play at any college of his choosing — we’ll call him Joey Football. Joey’s cousin, Jimmy Football, signed with Enormous State University last year, and before he even played a game, did an autograph session that paid him $100,000 — and as it just so happens, the check was written by a billionaire ESU booster who couldn’t care less about selling the gear and getting his money back. Joey, seeing Jimmy now driving around in a new BMW, decides to also sign with ESU.

Or, let’s say that the NCAA decides that athletes may earn a little on the side, but perhaps not a six-figure amount. How in the world do you decide on an amount that works, but isn’t “too much?” Once again, you put the NCAA in the position to play God, for which it is always under fire as it is. And for those who complain that the rule book is already too complicated, you can imagine how much worse things could get from there.

I think you see where this is going. It’ll either be a free-for-all where only the schools with the richest and most aggressive donors can compete for the best talent, or you set up some kind of system where the NCAA could bear a passing resemblance to a communist country and Johnny/Joey/Jimmy still get the short end of the stick.

The other problem for college sports is this: yes, many college football programs bring in a lot of money, but have enormous costs. In 2010-11, just 22 programs actually turned a profit.

But that’s just part of it. It also doesn’t include the fact that other programs count on football to support them. Title IX legislation keeps a bunch of budget-draining womens’ sports afloat that wouldn’t exist otherwise, primarily funding them through football. From what I remember from high school geometry about the transitive property, the Johnny Manziels of the world are essentially giving full-ride scholarships to a whole host of female athletes. Who picks up the tab if Manziel doesn’t?

Whatever you do, it’s a problem without an idealistic solution. So, how about a bit of economic pragmatism?

We’ve got one set of rules for athletes and another for the rest of society. When you’re a college sophomore who’s a computer programming wizard and Mark Zuckerberg comes calling, the smart move is to quit school and to follow. With all our sanctimonious rhetoric about athletes “doing the right thing by staying in school,” is it the “right thing” for the player who immensely talented, but also is dirt-poor has no interest in school? With star athletes, we’ve been fitting square pegs into round holes for so long, we don’t bother to question how the design of the system defies physics. We just keep hammering away, even as the pegs splinter before our eyes.

So, how about this instead: re-design the holes to fit the pegs.

Instead of complaining about how the system is unfair to athletes and demand that colleges pay them money, open up the system and let the markets work. If a player really wants to get his, isn’t it best to let him get his paycheck from a place devoted to football instead of education? And if said player wants to skip all of college, or three years of college, or just one year of college, why should we stand in his way — especially when so many of them barely go to class as it is? This also should cut down on illicit booster activity, as it’s hard to out-bid the NFL for a kid who’s got his hand out.

The other side of the coin is that if a player is going to pass up his chance to go pro, he needs to respect the system. There should be no whining about not partaking of the spoils — if you don’t like it, suck it up for a couple more months and declare for the draft. Consider what you’ve done a contribution to the cause of your university, appreciate the opportunity you’ve been given, and move on when it’s time.

The one thing that would have to be addressed would be the testing of the draft waters. Players too often have to make speculative decisions based on where they think they might get picked and how much they might earn, and have to declare whether they’re staying or leaving ahead of time. Why not, as baseball does, allow players to get drafted and entertain contract offers consisting of tangible money and then make their decisions?

No, it wouldn’t be a perfect system, but a perfect system will never exist. But this one at least puts the fates of the athletes in their own hands and puts the payment for their services in the hands of those who can most afford it. If people’s objections to the current system are what they say they are, what could be a better solution than that?