The hot button of the moment, income inequality, has made its way to sports and turned the poverty of college athletes into Topic A. From historian Taylor Branch's opus in The Atlantic, to economics columnist Joe Nocera's analyses in The New York Times, to senior writer George Dohrmann's detailed exploration in these pages of how such a scheme might work (Pay for Play, Nov. 7, 2011), the call goes up to "pay the players." The failure of last week's NCAA convention to adopt even $2,000-a-year cost-of-attendance stipends and four-year guaranteed scholarships will only amplify the chorus agitating for a market wage.
Of course, the market in question is a rigged one. Rules bar the huge sums flowing into big-time college sports from going to the people who actually generate them. So the money winds up in a few permitted pockets: those of coaches, athletic directors, conference commissioners and bowl officials. Salaries for coaches in men's college sports have more than doubled since 2003; last year the average Division I-A head football coach took home nearly $1.5 million, and at BCS schools that figure surpassed $2.1 million. Commissioners of the top five BCS conferences averaged more than $1.1 million in '09, while nine bowl executives currently make more than $350,000. College athletics' 1% might deserve those sums if they were evaluated like any executive in the business world. But they're not. "It's an artificial market," says Smith College economist Andrew Zimbalist, who studies the finances of college sports. "The players don't get paid. The schools pay no taxes. The states hand out subsidies. And no stockholders insist on returns."
But Virginia Commonwealth basketball coach Shaka Smart believes there's a way for big-time college sports to promote "income equality" without anyone having to Occupy State U. After his turn as the It Boy of last spring's NCAA tournament, Smart landed an eight-year, $9.6 million contract extension. Yet his affluence and philanthropic profile in the Richmond area lend credibility to his proposal: have colleges tithe a percentage of their revenue to the destitute communities from which so many of their leading performers come. He envisions scholarships for promising high school graduates whose talent might be in math or music rather than sports. Or a foundation to shore up school districts imperiled by budget cuts. College athletes still wouldn't be paid, but with their effort they'd be paying forward. "There's a major opportunity gap in this country for kids, and it starts so early," Smart says. "Let's take some of the money and at least shrink that gap.
"I don't pretend to have an exact system, because I don't know how the money works now—only that CBS pays billions and coaches make millions. I'd love for someone to organize, to come to the coaches and say, 'Here's a plan.'"
Zimbalist suggests a possible path. First, get Congress to grant an anti-trust exemption, to permit caps on any salary that in an age of austerity seems either economically illogical or morally indefensible. Next, get real about the money that college sports makes and loses. According to a 2005 study written by soon-to-be White House budget director Peter Orszag and his brother, Jonathan, a typical top-tier athletic program runs an operating deficit of $10 million. "The first obligation is to restore fiscal sanity by using [the savings in salary] to plug that hole," says Zimbalist, who also proposes reducing the number of football scholarships, having FBS schools cut spending on nonrevenue sports and instituting an NCAA football playoff. "Then start giving to poor kids. Otherwise you're giving away money you don't really have.
"Ethically, [Smart's] proposal is lovely. The problem is how you figure out the surplus."
Alas, the college sports establishment is likely to respond to the Smart Plan much as soccer reacted three years ago to a similar initiative. Education for All, a UNESCO program dedicated to early-childhood education in the developing world, asked FIFA and Europe's five top soccer leagues to consider a 0.4% "Better Future" tax on all sponsorship and broadcast revenue. The $48 million to be raised by that levy would have covered two million children over a five-year period. The proposal went nowhere.
But what if Smart's brethren of the lodge and their football counterparts were to take the lead? By modeling a reduced sense of entitlement, coaches would invite their players to fall in behind them. Every coach knows that a tie is "like kissing your sister." Here's a chance to show that a tithe feels infinitely better.