The most remarkable aspect of the reaction to Taylor Branch’s brilliant 14,500-word Atlantic magazine opus on "The Shame of College Sports" is how little disagreement he’s encountered in the sports media world.
The article put forward a seemingly bold argument: the NCAA should pay college athletes. Branch, the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of the civil rights movement, wasn’t the first to suggest it, but his name recognition and platform in a non-sports publication certainly elevated the discussion. Atlantic editors might have expected the article—the longest piece the magazine has run in four years—to spark a national debate, but there’s been almost nothing of the kind.
Sure, The Wall Street Journal quoted an NCAA official saying that paying college athletes “is in no way on the table.” And yes, sportswriters have debated whether the current college sports system is more analogous to slavery or colonialism. But no seasoned sports observers have stepped forward to defend the NCAA or dispute Branch’s premise that big-time college athletes should receive salaries.
And indeed, the statistics and anecdotes Branch recounts are convincing. Revenue from March Madness has increased 50-fold in the past 30 years. “According to various reports, the football teams at Texas, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, and Penn State—to name just a few big-revenue football schools—each earn between $40 million and $80 million in profits a year, even after paying coaches multimillion-dollar salaries.” Yet the athletes whose work actually brings in those absurd revenues don’t earn a penny past the cost of tuition and books. Cam Newton wore 15 logos on his Auburn uniform last season as part of a $10.6 million contract between the university and Under Armour. Simultaneously, Newton and his father were under investigation for allegedly using a recruiter to negotiate a $180,000 payment from another major college program.
“The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not,” Branch concludes.
The inequity of the NCAA is, in fact, appalling, but I’m not convinced that paying athletes would be the silver bullet everyone's hoping for. The way I see it, such a move would either consolidate even more power in the hands of the NCAA (or some other central authority), or result in anarchy. And either of those scenarios would be even worse than the current system.
The biggest problem with paying athletes is that the vast majority of university sports programs don’t make any money at all. The eight-figure revenue totals Branch cites for the Texases and Floridas of the world are fairly misleading—according to an NCAA report earlier this year, just 22 of the 300-plus Division I athletic programs bring in any revenue for their universities, and the gap between the wealthy minority and the money-losing majority is growing. When watching a national championship game between Auburn (for years one of the most successful programs in the country and until this season, the home of Cam Newton) and the University of Oregon (whose most famous booster is one Phil Knight, chairman of Nike), it can be difficult to remember that those teams are the exception, not the rule.
What this means is that there’s no way the majority of universities would be able to compete with the behemoths that could afford to pay millions of dollars in student salaries. Remember how tiny Butler shocked the world by making it to basketball’s championship game two years in a row? Wouldn’t happen. College sports would start to look an awful lot like Major League Baseball, with the equivalent of the Yankees buying their way to titles.
In the same vein, paying players according to their value would do nothing for the vast majority of athletes. Newton would have made much more than the $180,000 his dad sought for his talents, obviously, but now he’s doing that anyway—he signed the largest endorsement contract ever for an NFL rookie with Under Armour, the same company that paid his university so much money for those 15 logos on his uniform last year. But only about 2 percent of Division 1 basketball and football players make it to the pros, and of the ones who do, most don’t throw for 432 yards in their second game. Everyone else would still be taken advantage of while their star teammates reaped the profits.
The other possibility is a revenue-sharing plan that would split total revenue between players across the country—also known as socialism. That would never fly with red-blooded American athletic directors and fans, but more importantly, it would require a completely dictatorial NCAA to administer the profits. The results, needless to say, would be disastrous.
Under the circumstances, the best option would be to allow students to strike their own endorsement deals while in college, without any involvement from the university or the NCAA. That would be more palatable to athletic directors because they would still have control over most of the revenue stream. As a bonus, it would give the NCAA one less thing to meddle in, helping it along the path to obsolescence. It wouldn’t solve all the problems plaguing the business of college sports, but unlike the current system or the one Branch proposes, at least it'd be fair.