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Editorial: Paying Players - Don’t Do This

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There will be consequences to adding to the impressive list of benefits already offered.

Bureau Of Engraving And Printing Prints New Anti-Counterfeit 100 Dollar Bills Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images

There is an old and widely-attributed anecdote that has a man posing a question to a woman of some social standing, “Would you sleep with me for a million dollars?”

When the woman allows that for what he was willing to pay she would, he continues, “What about for five dollars?”

Offended she retorts, “Of course not! What kind of woman do you think I am?”

“That’s been established,” he says. “Now we’re just haggling.”

The collective memory has cast any number of probable luminaries in the role of the propositioning man. Winston Churchill, of course. That goes without saying. But Mark Twain, W.C. Fields, and Groucho Marx have also all been linked to the stories. Improbably, so has Bertrand Russell.

The most likely, or at least the first person referenced in regards to the story that I came across, is a Canadian wag named Max Aiken who fancied himself Lord Beaverbrook. His object de conquest (not a French phrase, I totally made that faux [“faux” is real] italicized thing up from whole cloth) is referred to as a “Yankee Actress,” but the newspaper stories referencing him and the alleged conversation substitute “live with” for “sleep with.” That’s a bit too anodyne for my tastes. Churchill it is.

Way back before the need for reading glasses and a knee brace, I was a too-happy-go-lucky student at the University of Alabama. My roommate, who I’ll refer to from here on out as Math Genius because he holds a PHD in a field of mathematics that maps multidimensional theoretical rhomboids or some such, was third or fourth chair violin in the student orchestra. I paid for a ticket to at least two performances by him and the orchestra. He didn’t get a penny.

My wife was in a student theater production as an undergrad at Duke. We have one of the posters used to advertize the production framed on our bedroom wall. Per the poster, admission was six dollars for students, seven for the general public. Her share of the take from all seven performances: bupkis.

I was a Shakespeare junkie when I was at UA. If they put it on, I’d pay the five dollars to, and this is true, oddly enough, admire how the show was lit. I suspect not a penny of my five bucks graced the actors’ bottom line.

Despite the current calls for student athletes to receive a share of what they bring in, what we know is that we are fine charging for the enjoyment of student effort without giving the student a share of what is brought in. We realize that there is a benefit to the student by being a student. We have no problem with an amateur public display of what has been learned from an expert and open at a cost to the public. What we have is an inversion of the Yankee Actress story. To some, at a certain point the dollar amount divorces itself from principle. They’re haggling.

I made the point the other day in a Jumbo Package comment that there is no economic reason whatsoever for colleges and universities to pay players any more than they currently do. It should be obvious to anyone, whether they have ever been on the hiring side of the equation or not, that wages are set to attract the best talent at the least possible cost to the employer. Sometimes labor is in demand. Wages are competitive as to capture the best and most capable producers. Sometimes the market is oversaturated labor wise. Prospective employees are in competition with each other and as such must sell their time and effort below the dollar amount of their competitors in order to work. This is not revolutionary insight. An offer either attracts talent or it needs to be raised.

As it stands student athletes are offered between one and two hundred thousand dollars, depending on a school’s tuition, medical care, room and board, tutors, a team of nutritionists and physical trainers, and instruction in their sport from highly qualified coaches. Is that enough to attract talent?

It seems to be. As I said in the comment section, the talent isn’t just attracted, they are clamoring to accept the deal. If this were an actual employment offer and the reaction to a job posting on Zip Recruiter or some such was to receive a flood of homemade highlight reels showcasing ability and if the employer were to hear the applause from a crowd of well wishers in a high school gym as the prospective hire signifies that he has accepted the job by theatrically lifting a puppy or putting on one of an assortment of hats, he might conclude the he’s offering too much.

But this is not real employment. The compensation package offered is not set according to the traditional market forces of supply and demand. It is set in place for the good of the student athlete of whom, per ncaa.org, there are more than four hundred and sixty thousand. How many are actually contributing to a profit for their athletic departments?

In 2014, per ncaa.org again, only twenty-four athletic departments finished in the black. That was up from twenty in 2013. Speaking of unpaid labor, we contributors at rollbamaroll have very few research assistants and the intern they sent me just sits around playing Ratchet & Clank all day and drinking warm Yahoo (but he smells nice, kinda like oregano, so I don’t mind), so I didn’t do a rigorous search so much as look for trends, but the number of profitable athletic departments seems to hover between twenty to twenty-five in any given year.

At those twenty to twenty-five schools, how many sports actually bring in more than they spend? Football, we assume. Basketball, probably. Baseball? I doubt it.

If we count scholarship players on teams that finish on the plus side of the ledger, we are likely talking about seventeen hundred to two thousand one hundred and twenty-five football players, and two hundred and sixty to three hundred and twenty-five basketball players. Considering the number of student athletes the NCAA reports are out there, the ones bringing in money constitute a rounding error. Where does the money come from to pay the more than four hundred and fifty-seven thousand five hundred and fifty others? It doesn’t take Math Genius to see the problem here.

The most likely outcome of salaried student athletes will be less of them.

Restricting payment to revenue-earning sports raises a few legal issues, but those can be overcome through legislation, although I can’t imagine any campaign to pay male football players at the expense of a women’s soccer team would be much fun. But the legality should not get in the way of deciding what is right in a Platonic sense. You can reasonably make the claim that because they bring in dollars football players have a claim. You can reasonably make the claim that because the swim team doesn’t bring in enough to fill its chlorine coffers it should cease to be rather than divert income from the football guys. But contra all the “Big time college football is a business!” rhetoric, Colleges and Universities have a mission to educate.

Sure, they may employ businessmen and women to run departments like athletics, and they may expect those departments to do everything in their power to bring in funds, but those departments are all parts of a whole whose aim is something other. Broadening the number of students who can trade on their athletic ability to earn a degree serves that aim while limiting that number by paying players does not, and no matter what your views on this issue are, both the players and the institutions have by their actions signaled that they are just fine with the current arrangement.

On a final note, there is an argument that the only reason that football players accept the status quo is that there are no other options to showcase their talents. That simply is not true. There are semi-pro teams all over the nation and Arena football to give just a few examples off the top of my head. Neither has anything like the coaching expertise or visibility of college football so, the argument goes, college football has a monopoly. I find this argument odd. You can go to the Arena League and make the average salary of around eighty thousand dollars and you will be seen by NFL scouts. Alternatively, you could go to UA, receive room and board, an education with tutors to help should you struggle, fantastic coaching, and as an added bonus, amazingly high visibility. Players understand that the PR machine that college football has created is yet another benefit to be considered against taking a salary. The fact that the NCAA is able to provide a platform, not just better, but monumentally better than the alternatives is not an argument for pay for play as it is an addition to the overwhelming list of things students already benefit from under the current system.