Happy St. Patrick’s Day to everyone! I hope you read this with a pint of the Black Stuff in your hands and friends and family around you. More likely though, you’re sitting in your office or in a class somewhere looking to kill a few minutes. If that’s the case, then please, still try to find a nice stiff drink or say a calming meditation because I’m about to bring up everyone’s favorite topic: Should the NCAA permit payment to student athletes? Why am I bringing this up? Well, it’s found a new public outlet that raised a good deal of Twitter buzz today and Tex and Bayou demanded I scorch HLS with some words on the topic. (Note: Neither Tex nor Bayou demanded anything. They’re kind, decent men….when do I get my raise?)
The most recent rendition of the debate happened on the HBO show “Last Week Tonight” hosted by John Oliver. If you’ve never seen the show, it borrows some of the feel of Oliver’s former employer “The Daily Show” but with a decidedly more acerbic sense of humor. Also, because it’s on HBO, Oliver’s free to drop an F-bomb, and he does…multiple times an episode. I was very tempted to give this piece a more (ahem) colorful title in his honor.
The other major difference from “The Daily Show” is that Oliver eschews guests in order to do long-form narratives on whatever topic strikes him (or his writers) in a given week. The result is a frequently deeper, more thoroughly researched, and sharper take than other shows but still presented with a healthy dose of humor and wit. On Sunday, March 15, 2015, Oliver set his sights on the NCAA. And away we go….[Author’s note: This runs about 21 minutes. It’s a good watch but contains considerable language. If that’s an issue for your work, then slap on a NSFW below].
— John Oliver (@iamjohnoliver) March 16, 2015
While I wouldn’t call any of Oliver’s takes ground breaking, he did manage to hit most of the sound bite points surrounding the payment and treatment of college athletes. Among those points:
- A lot of people make a lot money on college sports.
- That doesn’t include the athletes.
- Athletes face rigorous schedules and are subjected to abuse and grind that gets under reported.
- The NCAA has crazy rules and punishments for unintentional violations.
- Schools will toss kids aside the moment they’re not useful to the team.
- Many businesses exploit a player’s name, likeness, or number to sell merchandise.
- The athlete sees none of this money either.
- Coaches are paid like kings in a disproportionate way.
- The notion that college sports have amateur integrity is a lie.
- Bill Simmons is a stooge….Okay, this last point wasn’t actually made, but they did show him in a video clip with Jalen Rose where he nodded along to whatever Jalen said like the bro Simmons loves to be.
The problem with the pay the players debate is that both sides have turned the discussion into a cartoon. Too much of the time one side is chasing the other around with three sticks of dynamite that say “Acme” and a faulty fuse that results in the whole thing blowing up in their face. Rather than attempt to reasonably discuss the situation of current student-athletes (I am not making a value judgment here by use of that term), each side would prefer to bludgeon the other with an over-sized mallet.
I know what you’re thinking: <sarcasm font> “Whoa, Moons! People acting irrationally about a debate. Imagine that.” </end sarcasm font> And yeah, I understand that when people speak passionately, they tend to get more extreme. However, if you want to have an intelligent discussion about paying student-athletes, here are 4 recommendations from me to you:
- STOP BEING ECONOMIC TRUTHERS
This is by far my greatest pet peeve with this entire debate, and both sides are guilty.
To the “pay the players” crowd: Stop saying that the players don’t receive any compensation. It’s a bad, terrible argument. Oliver used it in passing and then buttressed it to the “college degrees have no value” argument, and it’s just a terrible way to go. Did I mention yet that this is both bad and terrible? A college tuition absolutely is a form of compensation. In fact, for all you pay the players folks out there who were pretty excited about the ruling which would permit Northwestern athletes to potentially unionize: The court’s ruling explicitly relies upon a finding that college tuition is real, tangible form of compensation to reach its decision. Whether you like it or not, in America, you can only be deemed an employee if you’re compensated for your work. Tuition was legally found to be a form of compensation. Any of the tens of millions of people who make student loan payments monthly will also talk to you about the real monetary value that an athletic scholarship has in terms of future dollars.
You want to talk about whether it’s fair compensation, okay….but don’t deny that the student-athlete receives compensation in the form of a scholarship. It makes you sound dumb and obstinate. Oddly, it’s a favored argument of too many members of the public forum intelligentsia who think if they say it enough, some people just might buy it. If the NCAA’s stupid for thinking that using the words “student-athlete” makes it impossible for them to be employees, then the “pay the players” intelligentsia are equally dumb for thinking if they just keep denying that a scholarship is a form of economic compensation that will be true.
To the “they’re amateurs, don’t pay the players” crowd: Stop arguing that a college scholarship is asbolutely the same thing as real money. It can be assuming that a person’s choices would not change, but it’s not a 1:1 analogy. Stop pretending that a free college education is always a reward in and of itself. Recognize that at least some of these individuals, through legal gerrymandering and collusion between the NCAA and professional sports leagues, have had an artificial barrier to entry erected in their economic craft forcing them to accept a scholarship to college or nothing at all. Appreciate, whether you like it or not, that they have a highly marketable, rare skill whose value is being suppressed. Finally, while it is the exception more than the rule, acknowledge that there are players whose play adds far more economic value to their school than the cost of attendance. It’s not always a fair trade off, and the system is extremely stacked against the unique individual making exploitation all the easier.
- BE CAREFUL WITH THOSE ANALOGIES
Again, both sides have this issue. Heck, most of us have this issue. Analogies are a favored way in debate to make a rhetorical point, but they are dangerous. It’d probably be best to use them sparsely if at all because this NCAA debate is a unique beast forged through decades of weird and shifting alliances. However, just a few reminders if you’re someone who must try to analogize:
- Yes, there are other professions with barriers to entry even if a person seems qualified. In most states, you can’t practice law, be a doctor, or serve as a CPA without going to, completing, and passing not only educational requirements but also licensing requirements. There are many, may regulated professions. Any analogy that starts off with “In no other realm can a (person) be forced to do _______________ “ is likely false. Avoid it at all costs. No, don’t try to tell me why your analogy here works. Just let it go. Your point might otherwise be alright, but it’s not by suggesting no other person has ever been confronted with a barrier to entry.
- Re-read point 1. Your wage/compensation analogies are probably too extreme. Student-athletes are not slaves. They do not live in third world conditions. These are not appropriate to say.
- Yes, people daily must do things that are unpleasant or not what they’d like to do. Contracts, implied and explicit exist in many facets of our lives. Student-athletes work very hard. I tend to agree with the point Oliver made through the words of Richard Sherman that many “normal” students would find the rigors of a student-athlete’s schedule difficult. However, let’s keep that within the realm of reasonableness. Banking too heavily on this line of reasoning to justify compensation doesn’t make a lot of sense. There are plenty of people who work far harder than student-athletes and just weren’t genetically gifted enough to have the opportunity to go to college for free. Seriously, leave the hardworking analogies at the door. Don’t’ be so quick to create just two clumps of people who attend college, and definitely don’t be too quick to proclaim the ones attending for free to be the hardest working of all.
- BE REALISTIC ABOUT WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT
There’s a funny thing almost everyone involved in this debate implicitly does without realizing it: They talk about the money that’s brought in and the exploitation, and the glory, and the barriers to entry, without acknowledging we’re really just talking about college football and men’s college basketball. Seriously, there’s a reason no one was suing over EA Sports’ NCAA Field Hockey or Swim and Dive game…they don’t’ exist. It’s just these two sports that bring in all the money and glory that get the “pay the players” people going. Yes, there are exceptions. Occasionally, other programs in other sports turn a profit as well, but this debate exists do to the money made from the television and advertising contracts tied to football and men’s college basketball. To the sides, I say this:
To the “pay the players” crowd: I get that in a pinch you’re willing to concede this point. That, heck, you’d even be on board with for now just paying the football and men’s basketball players. At least it would be a start….But it’s not that simple. There are many laws, both at the state and federal level, that make such a system a virtual impossibility. The concession you’re making is hollow. Public universities would be subject to all sorts of scrutiny for turning students into employees and monetary compensation is the tip of the iceberg of the impact it would have. Also, admit that most sports make no money at all. Admit that when you’re talking about all the money School X or Y is making you really just mean their football and men’s basketball program. Admit that you don’t know jack about the profit/loss statements for any other sport program. To the extent you do happen to know that School Z’s baseball team made a profit in 2013, admit that’s an anecdote and you don’t have any evidence to support the conclusion all baseball teams also turn a profit.
To the “they’re amateurs, don’t pay the players” crowd: Your “they’re amateurs” argument takes a substantial blow when we are talking about football and men’s basketball. Yes, I’ll concede not all programs are created equal. There are some schools where basketball or football aren’t as big, but that’s not really the point and you know it. Stop being obtuse and pretending that college football and men’s basketball are just about the purity of the game. John Oliver got this point right. These sports programs do not sustain themselves just for the love of the game. If every sport always lost money the NCAA would eventually dissolve. There’s a lot of money in play, and it’s okay to admit that.
- THE NCAA’S A TERRIBLY FLAWED ORGANIZATION, BUT NOT BECAUSE OF THIS ISSUE
It’s easy to take a swing at the manure filled piñata that is the NCAA. They do and say a lot of dumb things all the time. John Oliver’s piece tangentially raises a lot of those problems. The number of rules that coaches, staffs, and universities are expected to follow and be aware of at all times is nearly laughable. And that’s for people who concern themselves with the rules full time. Now, imagine the disconnect and task that comes with trying to educate players on these rules. The NCAA’s often Draconian enforcement of the rules makes it all the worse. Oliver brings up several examples including Rick Majerus buying a lunch for a student-athlete just before the student flies home for a family funeral or the player who received a discount on a ballroom for his 21st birthday as having received “impermissible benefits.” There was Shabazz Napier’s comments last year about being hungry. The “is a bagel a meal” debate. The sympathetic story of Silas Nacita and how accepting a place to say while homeless deemed him ineligible. There’s no shortage of reasons to dislike the NCAA or the people who run it.
While the NCAA has earned much of the distrust many in the public have for its practices and reasoning, the decision on whether to permit payment to players is not an area that the organization has fundamentally screwed up…so far. The history of academic dishonesty and professional players disguised as students was a major reason the NCAA became a full-time professional gig in the 1950’s. It’s a remarkably difficult task the NCAA has. There are 1,281 institutions that belong to the NCAA and nearly a half-million student athletes it develops the rules to oversee. Given that the organization has for so long battled the influence that money has on the integrity to the sports it regulates, it’s no great surprise that they consider the issue of permitting payments with a wary eye. I’m not here to defend the NCAA. If you want to laugh at the notion of the NCAA and use of the word “integrity,” you won’t see me raise a major fuss. However, treating the issue of player payment cautiously is well justified by the history of athletics.
Additionally, Oliver raises some of the middle-tier steps that NCAA should be proactively taking. Guaranteed 4 year scholarships is a major step for the schools in the right direction. Want to prove you’re not holding a 20-year old ransom? How about making sure if he comes to school with good intentions and works hard he won’t find himself abandoned prior to getting that ever valuable college degree? Insuring and assisting players who are injured while participating in college athletics is another important step. However, these issues are distinct from the issue of paying players. Oliver and many may be correct in lumping them together as part and parcel of the same corrupt process, but it need not automatically be so. More importantly, don’t use the ad hominem argument that because the NCAA’s screwed up things like protection for injuries that they’ve also screwed up the issue of player payment.
We will inevitably have to continue discussing this issue as it’s not going away anytime soon. The rules above can help guide a more reasonable and nuanced discussion of what we’re talking about. Avoid hyperbole. It’s totally the worst thing to ever occur in the history of the World to anyone. Give thinking a try, you just might like it. But make that vow to try thinking effective 12:01 AM on March 18. For now, how bout we order a couple of pints and leave this dirty NCAA business to the side?
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