Last Saturday, I caught a bit of the UGA vs. Auburn game and marvelled at the poetry in motion that is Knowshon Moreno, the Dawgs star running back. The next day, in a Sunday New York Times opinion piece, Michael Lewis asked why college football players are the only parties not making money off the game:
“College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?”
UGA’s football program generated $59 million in revenue recently, Lewis wrote, but the players, whose labor provided that value, got nothing, and they get in trouble if they’re caught accepting almost any remuneration for their labor. “At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen,” Lewis wrote.
The injustice of this situation grows when we consider that so few college football players graduate. The pretense that college athletes are students first and athletes second is silly, Lewis wrote. How many star high school players choose their college based on academics? It isn’t that college athletes can’t learn, Lewis wrote, but that ” … they’re too busy. Unlike the other students on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing. Neglect the task at hand, and they may never get a chance to play football for money.”
Lewis suggested paying college players based on the ratio of revenue to payroll in the NFL. Texas Longhorns star quarterback Vince Young would have made about $5 million in 2005, for instance. “In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge, Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year — and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk,” Lewis wrote. Moreno would surely be worth a million or two.
So why not set up the paid college sports marketplace, and let those who really want amateur status make the choice, Lewis asked. “The N.C.A.A. might one day be able to run an honest advertisement for the football-playing student-athlete: a young man who valued so highly what the University of Florida had to teach him about hospitality management that he ignored the money being thrown at him by Florida State,” Lewis wrote.
This is a thought-provoking proposal, but I don’t think I want to turn college sports into a totally commercial enterprise. For sports that don’t make money, and for lower divisions, athletics really is a way for students to attend college who might otherwise not be able to go. Football at Fort Valley State, for instance, hardly makes enough money to pay anybody, and for every Rayfield Wright there are hundreds who never went any further as players.
What say you all?