At this point, we are all aware that the current NCAA system for basketball and football is a travishamockery. There is no need to re-hash all of the money scandals that have happened over the past weeks, months, years and decades, of which there have been quite a few of varying degrees of seriousness. They all follow a common theme which is that the rules are broken because NOBODY has any respect for them. At this point, NCAA powerhouses are like heavy home run hitters in the 1990s: whether they have been explicitly caught or not, I suspect them of cheating. It was so endemic to the culture that I just assume that anybody who hasn’t been caught has just been better at hiding it from Charles Robinson and Dan Wetzel.
If somebody wants to play basketball professionally at age 18, he can only get paid for it right now by going overseas. Hopeful professional football players have no option to make money from playing football until they are three years out of high school. There is nowhere in the world where they can play professional football so if they aspire to play in the NFL they have no choice but to play in the NCAA.
For a vast majority of Division I players, this is actually a very good thing for their personal development. There are 345 Division 1 basketball programs and 119 Division 1a football programs. Estimating that on average 6 players per D1 basketball team and 35 per D1A football program would want to play professionally if given the chance at age 18 would mean that there are 2,070 basketball players and 4,165 football players for what is currently 60 NBA and 224 NFL draft slots per year. Later round draft picks in both leagues are far from guaranteed roster spots.
Even though these athletes generate ungodly amounts of money for their collegiate institutions, most would unlikely be able to have sustainable careers if the NCAA did not exist. You could argue that because the money is generated off of their backs that they deserve a cut and this is true but for the most part college fans root for laundry and there would be lots of people lining up to take these players’ places. Unfortunately, because this is the case, they are treated as commodities and the spoils of the system go to coaches, athletic directors, television producers, and postseason facilitators.
Given what they see going on around them, it is impossible to blame 18-22 year olds for accepting “illegal” (it’s only illegal because the NCAA says it is) benefits but it is also not as though these players are getting NOTHING of value in the transaction. They may not care about the education but most of them are WRONG in not caring. The true value of their four-year degrees is most likely greater than that of their salaries if they were able to play professionally at the corresponding ages. I was raised in as stable an environment as exists in the world and I was an IDIOT at age 18 (I imagine I will also one day feel that way about the person who is writing today); if permitted to play professionally many of these athletes would make decisions at odds with their long-term self interest.
Learning at college does not only take place in the classroom. College is an environment that is specifically designed to foster intellectual as well as emotional development. You learn how to survive independently for four years in a controlled environment. Further, at their best, the coaches serve as tremendous mentors. Wisconsin basketball coach Bo Ryan, for example, turns his players from boys to men.
I have seen the argument that because baseball has minor leagues that pay players and allow them to skip college that football should. Do we really think that it is a better system to have most players serve as interchangeable cogs in a farm system than for them to attend academic institutions where they are stewarded by professionals who are uniquely experienced to deal with boys that age?
The current system is generally unfair for all of the players but only extremely unfair for the select gifted few. I was listening to a 710 ESPN Max and Marcellus podcast last week and Max Kellerman had the best, most American, solution to this issue that I have heard. Paraphrasing, he said that D1 football and basketball players should follow the Olympics model and receive a modest stipend but be allowed to personally benefit from their likenesses. This means they would be allowed to promote products, sell their autographs, and work at sham jobs that they are paid a lot for but at which do not actually do anything. This would lead to uneven but meritocratic compensation for players, preserve the NCAA as the de facto minor leagues, not come at a shockingly high cost to the current benefactors of the system and not cheat other Division 1 athletes out of the ability to play their sports.
Would schools whose boosters spent the most money (why in the world someone would want to be a booster is a separate full column) have a leg up on others? Yes, but it appears that has already been the case for quite some time. Would there have to be some sacrifice by those who currently benefit most from the system? Hopefully.
It is abundantly clear that the NCAA needs reform. The most American way is to provide some reward for all of the athletes who generate the revenue but allow the elite athletes to truly cash in on their talents.