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Paying college athletes won't solve everything

John U. Bacon

This fall California Governor Gavin Newsome signed a law that will allow college athletes to sell their names, images, and likenesses to whoever wants to buy them.

True, it’s just California, where only four Power-Five schools play; the law won’t take effect until 2023; and the measure addresses just one aspect of the complicated relationship between athletes and their schools.

But you wouldn’t know that by the reactions to the law. Advocates for the athletes are declaring victory, convinced the promised land is within sight, while the NCAA is warning that the apocalypse will soon be upon us.

Both are wrong, but neither side has thought this all the way through.

Most agree it’s impossible to support the farce that the NCAA is foisting upon us. Coaches often get millions in buy-outs after they fail, while athletes aren’t allowed to make a dime off their names while they’re succeeding.

But I’m not sure this law will deliver everything its advocates want, and I’m guessing it will bring a few things they don’t. Advocates often sound like eager Brits advocating for Brexit, with little notion of how it would actually work, and what the unintended side effects might be.

True, it’s very hard to argue against athletes being allowed to profit off their play. It might also help make public what many schools are already doing privately. But I’m convinced the change will bring a host of unintended consequences, too.

When Ford or McDonald’s sign Olympic athletes to sell their products, they actually expect them to sell their products. But most college athletes will probably be paid by local boosters, who probably won’t care if the athletes sell a single car, so long as they play for their school.

Why would this matter? I’ve taught at three major universities, and flunked two starting football players, with no pushback whatsoever from anyone. Will a local car dealer who’s shelled out a quarter-million dollars to get the star quarterback on campus be so restrained? And if his player isn’t starting, will the coaches hear about it?

The advocates are convinced that none of these changes will affect the appeal of college sports, but I’m not so sure. You can debate whether fans should feel romantic about college football, but there is little doubt that many fans do.

We’ve already seen plenty of evidence that they are reaching their limit with the greed that already rules college football and basketball, from the salaries to the buyouts to the TV timeouts that pay for it. Despite quadrupling the number of bowl games, creating league championship games, and setting up a bonafide playoff system, attendance has been going steadily down nationwide for years.

When did you last attend a boxing match or a horse race? If the bottom can fall out of those once robust sports, it can happen to college football, too.

But the main reason I question this law as a tonic for all that ills college football is not that it goes too far, but that it doesn’t go nearly far enough.

Karl Marx, the ultimate champion of the working class, knew that whoever controls the means of production has the power. Even if the NCAA allows players to get paid by boosters, there will still be only one path to the NBA or the NFL, and that’s through the NCAA. You can’t call that freedom.

Despite the many good reasons to let boosters pay the players, I think there are better reasons not to – and a better way to fix the problem that paying the players is intended to fix.

What football and basketball players need is what baseball and hockey players have enjoyed for almost a century: a viable minor league, so players who don’t want to be college students, and prefer to be paid in cash instead of scholarships, can do just that. 

We don’t have to wonder if creating a separate minor league system will work. We already know: Just check out college hockey. The players who would rather have a paycheck than a scholarship can jump straight to the minor leagues – and they do. Because the players who opt for college are not forced to do so by the NHL, the graduation rates tend to be much higher in college hockey, and the scandals much fewer.

Many Michigan football and basketball players turned down illegal payments from other programs to attend the University of Michigan, usually because they thought it was their best chance to get a good education, with more security and a safer future than others offered. Given the many benefits they receive from the university – which can add up to $800,000 before they graduate, almost half of that tuition -- it seems likely most such players would continue to go to schools like Michigan, even if they had a minor league option.

The others could take the money and run— legally, this time.

John U. Bacon has worked nearly three decades as a writer, a public speaker, and a college instructor, winning awards for all three.
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