Posted: Wednesday September 21, 2011 11:57AM ; Updated: Wednesday September 21, 2011 1:23PM
Seth Davis

Should college athletes be paid? Why, they already are

Story Highlights

Taylor Branch's piece in The Atlantic was well-reported, but still has its faults

The notion that student-athletes earn nothing for themselves is simply untrue

If players want more compensation, they can simply turn professional earlier

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NCAA president Mark Emmert and others agree the student-athlete scholarship model needs revamping.
NCAA president Mark Emmert and others agree the student-athlete scholarship model needs revamping.
Michael Conroy/AP

A lengthy article in an esteemed national publication criticizes the hypocrisies of college athletics. The author details a multitude of scandals involving seedy recruiting, nefarious boosters and academic fraud. The narrative winds to a damning conclusion: "[T]hanks to the influence of the colleges, there is growing up a class of students tainted with commercialism."

You might think I'm referring to the essay by Taylor Branch that was published last week in The Atlantic under the headline "The Shame Of College Sports." But I'm not. I'm actually referring to an article that appeared in the June 1905 edition of McClure's, a prestigious monthly academic journal. The two-part series, authored by a former Harvard football player named Henry Beach Needham, makes a compelling case that the enterprise of amateur athletics is doomed. In The Atlantic, Branch also writes that "scandal after scandal has rocked college sports," but while that phrase implies this is a recent trend, Needham shows us that it actually extends back more than a century.

I mention this as a counterweight to the prevailing conventional wisdom -- namely, that the publication of Branch's article is a landmark event that has skewered the NCAA's bogus amateurism model for good. The piece has certainly spurred much discussion. A post on The New Yorker's website deemed it a "watershed." Jeff MacGregor of suggested "a kind of cultural critical mass has finally been reached." Frank Deford called it "the most important article ever written about college sports." From NPR to MSNBC to Business Insider to every sport outlet in between, the story has been hailed as a slam-dunk, once-and-for-all indictment of the NCAA.

To be sure, Branch's article represents a brilliant piece of reporting, which is not surprising considering he won a Pulitzer Prize for his three-volume series on the American civil rights movement. Branch lays out in fascinating detail the structural and legal history of the NCAA that has led us to this point. However, when it comes to analysis, fairness and context, Branch's work leaves much to be desired. If there is a reasonable counter-argument to be made, Branch ignores it. If there is a fact that contradicts his conclusions, he omits it.

Indeed, the entire article is based on a faulty premise, which is introduced right away in the sub-headline: "[S]tudent-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves." This is indisputably untrue. Student-athletes earn free tuition, which over the course of four years can exceed $200,000. They are also provided with housing, textbooks, food and academic tutoring. When they travel to road games, they are given per diems for meals. They also get coaching, training, game experience and media exposure they "earn" in their respective crafts. Despite all that, Branch asserts that "[t]he tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not."

If Branch or anyone else wants to argue that college athletes should be paid more, let them have at it. But to claim that college athletes earn "nothing?" Pure fiction.

So then: Should college athletes be paid more? As the subject of Branch's most recent bestseller, Bill Clinton, might say, it depends on what the definition of "paid" is. There is a significant and growing gap between the value of a scholarship and what a student-athlete genuinely needs. This is what is referred to as the "cost of attendance" issue. Many people in college sports, from NCAA president Mark Emmert on down, have argued that the scholarship model needs to be updated so this gap can be closed. Part of the challenge is that the gap exists for every athlete in every sport, so the fix must be applied broadly -- and expensively. Yes, I'll believe it when I see it, but at least the discourse on this front is moving in the right direction.

However, when Branch and so many others talk about college athletes getting "paid," they are not talking about merely the cost of attendance. They're talking about giving athletes what they're "worth." It's a convincing argument when cast alongside the mind-boggling dollars that are pouring in. Branch points out the SEC recently surpassed the $1 billion mark for football receipts. The Big Ten is close behind at $905 million. He reminds us that the football programs at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan and Penn State earn between $40 million and $80 million each year in profits. The NCAA received $771 million from CBS and Turner to broadcast last year's basketball tournament, a sum that Branch asserts was "built on the backs of amateurs -- unpaid labor. The whole edifice depends on the players' willingness to perform what is effectively volunteer work."

So we learn a lot in this article about how much the schools are making. We learn almost nothing, however, about what they're spending. Branch virtually ignores the basic profit-and-loss structure of college sports. For example, did you know that out of 332 schools currently competing in the NCAA's Division I, fewer than a dozen have athletic departments that are operating in the black? And that of the 120 programs that comprise the Football Bowl Subdivision, just 14 are profitable? That means some 88 percent of the top football programs lose money for their universities -- and that doesn't even include the reams of cash the schools are spending on the so-called nonrevenue sports. Those are some basic, salient facts, but you won't find them anywhere in Branch's 15,000-word opus.

We might want to believe that the reason schools lose so much money is because of the runaway spending on coaches salaries, new facilities and frivolous items like private jets. Those are indeed reckless expenditures; Myles Brand, the late NCAA president, frequently railed against them. They don't, however, begin to account for just how expensive it is to operate an athletic program. Branch derides college athletics as "Very Big Business," but the truth is, it's actually a "Very Lousy Business."

People who say that college athletes should be paid as professionals like to invoke the principles of the free market. That's the framework advanced by an entity called the National College Players Association, which recently issued a study that put some dollar figures on this question. The NCPA says those numbers demonstrate what the players would be worth "if allowed access to the fair market like the pros."
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