Remedy for fixing an outdated NCAA

Come January, the leaders of the NCAA will have a summit to discuss the future of college athletics. It’s an important meeting, one that could fundamentally alter the fabric of the college athletics experience.

As the Johnny Manziel autograph saga continues to play out, lots of you have been emailing and Tweeting asking what kind of system I would design if I were suddenly in charge of fixing a broken NCAA. 

I’m not a fan of the NCAA; in fact, I think all too often the organization has engaged in ruthless, arbitrary and capricious rulings. But I do understand that the NCAA has been charged with a fundamentally impossible job: combating a free market in a country founded on the principles of a free market. It continues to amaze me how people are surprised that football and men’s college basketball players receive payments.

Didn’t prohibition and the war on drugs teach us anything? If a market values something, the money finds a way to get to its intended target. Often, however, it’s not much money in the grand scheme of things. I mean, we’re talking about Johnny Manziel being potentially ineligible for a few thousand dollars in sold autographs. When you consider that college football is now a multibillion-dollar-a-year business, does that many any sense?

So how do you fix the NCAA?

You’ve got to separate the revenue-producing and non-revenue-producing sports.

How do you do that legally?

My idea sounds radical, but it’s actually simple:

College football and men’s college basketball need to stop providing scholarships to the 98 athletes a year who are playing in these sports. Instead the students should pay for their own schooling via the revenue that their athleticism produces. That is, every football and men’s basketball player should have his scholarship deducted from a check he receives every month. Set the scholarship costs at around $26,000 a year and pay each player in the neighborhood of $50,000 a year. The leftover money, nearly $2,000 a month, would go to each player to do with as he sees fit.

The end result: effectively each player would receive around $24,000 a year.

Now let me explain why I think this plan makes a great deal of sense.

1. The currently proposed full cost of scholarship stipends are insubstantial sums of money.

We’re engaged in a full-on debate about whether college athletes should be paid. Right now the NCAA’s plan — which is being fought by smaller schools — is to add a couple of thousand dollars to all scholarships. This money would be distributed to athletes to use to cover expenses that are incurred, but aren’t covered by the current scholarship.

That idea sounds good in theory, but it’s way too little money.

As billions of dollars roll into athletic department coffers, is giving men’s basketball and football players an extra $200 a month going to help out that much? Once the media realizes how little of a difference that money makes, it’s going to be criticized for what it is: a penny on the dollar. Rather than have to fight to increase this sum over the next several years, it’s time for a whole new paradigm.

Plus, why should all athletes be paid? By receiving scholarships to play their sport most athletes in non-revenue producing sports are already being compensated far in excess over what the free market would consider their skills to be worth.

Only football players and men’s college basketball players are being drastically underpaid.

2. It ends Title IX’s issue with paying all scholarship athletes or paying no scholarship athletes.

That’s because football players and men’s basketball players would no longer be on scholarship, they’d be paying for their own schooling.

Right now you can’t pay football and men’s basketball players a share of the revenue their talent produces because whatever you do for one scholarship student you’d have to provide for all scholarship students. That’s why these stipends represent such insubstantial money.

Classifying all scholarship athletes the same means if the point guard on the men’s basketball team gets it, the women’s soccer player has to get it, too.

But does that really make any sense?

It’s time to divide the revenue and the non-revenue producing sports into different classifications.

Why should the talents of the football and basketball teams be used to subsidize other sports teams that the market wouldn’t otherwise support? Let’s stop the fairy tale that all college athletes are equal. They aren’t. Some have a greater market value than others. Allowing individuals to profit off their own individual talents is the most fundamental essence upon which our country was founded. Right now college athletics is complete and total socialism.

This isn’t a purely market-based determination — although I have wondered what a five-star recruit might sell for if he put his talents up for auction — but it’s enough of a market impact to make the situation more ethical.

This paradigm shift allows the market to dictate a new tier of collegiate competition that more accurately reflects present-day realities. (If you’re worried about a court examining this new schematic and arguing that this is sex-based discrimination — it isn’t, it’s a revenue-based decision — you could even include women’s college basketball players, the most valuable women’s athletes on campus, and pay them the same stipend as football players and men’s college basketball players.

You would also need to peg women’s scholarships and men’s at the same level to ensure that schools didn’t try and cut 98 women’s scholarships as soon as this plan was implemented).

3. What’s the cost?

Not that much.

First, you need to set a baseline cost for football and men’s basketball players to pay tuition across the college landscape, I’m using $26,000 a year because the math works out well. Assuming each player receives $50,000 total, that would mean the schools would redistribute $24,000 or $2,000 a month to these players. The rest of this money would go to pay for their college tuition and board. These funds would be mandated across the country to ensure equality — that is, one school couldn’t charge less for academics and pay players more. The players would have the money deducted from their checks each month and records would be kept to ensure that all players are paying the same amount across the country.

So the actual cost to the school would be $24,000 a year multiplied by 98 athletes or just $2.35 million dollars a year. Given that a school like Texas made over $150 million in revenue last year, that represents just over one percent of total revenues.

4. For most major athletic departments $2.35 million a year is a rounding error that would require no real budgetary change.

But what if you did need to raise more money to pay for this?

Here’s the deal, you could pay for this by allowing players to sell their autographs, jerseys, etc. Heck, you could even give them all the money you get for licensing video games. Only, instead of the players keeping the money which would be an NCAA violation, the proceeds would be collected to benefit the entire team. Sure, a star player’s autograph is worth more than a red-shirt freshman, but is that star player winning games by himself? If a guy Johnny Manziel wants to sell 5,000 autographs to Aggie faithful, have the school authenticate the autographs and sell them to fans.

The resulting proceeds go to all the players in the revenue-producing sports.

Schools could get creative to raise money. If you have a decent-sized fan base that wants to support its players, you’d raise this money in a hurry.

Hell, major college programs could even add a one or two dollar surcharge on tickets to games to pay off this entire amount without even needing to do a bit of additional work.

5. As part of this paradigm change, the revenue-producing sports should have their own rulebook.

Look, I understand it’s popular to say that men’s swimmers, women’s volleyball players, and quarterbacks on the football team should all be treated the exact same under the rules.

But that is ridiculous.

The next women’s field hockey player to allegedly get a car and a job for her parents will be the first.

Instead of worrying about insubstantial bureaucratic rules violations, let’s focus on the big issues. Academic fraud, paying players insane amounts of money to sign, these kinds of issues that we can all agree go well past the bounds of acceptable and fair play. Let’s have a real debate on these issues and formuate new, much less restrictive and complicated rules.

Bump violations, improper messaging on Facebook? I mean, come on, are these restrictions really necessary?

The NCAA currently has codified a complete and total mess of rules.

And what actually changes?

The biggest and most successful programs get the best players.

Or maybe I’m missing all those recruits choosing to play for Ohio instead of Ohio State.

6. It’s time to pay players.

As billions of dollars roll into athletic programs, the argument to pay players is going to continue to increase.

I’m not arguing for a complete and total free market, but if college games are being televised in a free market shouldn’t the players be compensated at least somewhat?

We’ve created an athletic system where college football and basketball are effecitvely the NFL and the NBA’s minor leagues. So long as the leagues restrict 18-year-olds from entering their leagues straight from high school then this will continue.

Paying the players with cash while requiring them to pay for their schooling means that college players in revenue-producing sports would be making a more bargained-for exchange. They’d be being paid as if they have a job and pocket pretty similar overall salaries to what your average baseball minor leaguer would receive. Only they’d also be receiving educations in the process as well.

Looked at this way, the college football and basketball minor-league system might become the ideal.

Would some players waste their money? Of course. But it’s their talent, they have the right to spend their money as they see fit.

It’s not like you can get in that much trouble on $65 a day.

7. What about the schools that say they can’t afford these costs?

First, I don’t believe them.

Second, if you truly can’t make these finances work, well, I’m sorry, you probably shouldn’t be playing at the highest division of college athletics. You can play there for just basketball — as hundreds of schools do already — but maybe you want to stay at the scholarship level of college football instead of stepping up to a new division.

It’s time to change the way college football and men’s basketball are structured.

Paying players while requiring them to pay for their own schooling represents the best possible solution that I can think of to protect the games we all love.