If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t Fix It
Amateurism is what makes collegiate athletics great.
The principal that student athletes compete for nothing more than a victory protects the innocence of the game, that when turned professional, clouds it with big salaries and thus turns into emotionless play.
The days of amateurism in college sports, at least college football and perhaps basketball as well, could be coming to an end.
Jeffrey Kessler, a 60-year-old antitrust lawyer from Brooklyn, N.Y., is challenging the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) that student-athletes should be treated as paid employees by their respective universities.
According to a recent article from BBC, a college degree today is worth anywhere between $250-$300,000 dollars.
But apparently that’s not enough.
“What we are seeking to do is remove the shackles so that schools can decide themselves what is fair and the appropriate way to take care of their players,” Kessler said in an interview with the New York Times.
On one hand, Kessler has a fair argument.
Focusing solely on college football, athletes make their respective schools tons of money and are the driving force behind ticket sales, memorabilia, television ratings, etc., but never see a dime of those massive dollar figures. College football is the main revenue source for most universities behind tuition and without talented players, can say goodbye to up to hundreds of millions of dollars each season.
Like any employee, athletes are required to show up and ‘work’ for ‘x’ number of hours per week and are promoted/demoted based on their ‘job’ performance.
Still, it’s not like the NCAA is operating a sweatshop.
Aside from a free education worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, athletes get the experience of playing in front of anywhere from 10 to 115,000 fans every week and in many cases get put right on the fast track to the National Football League. Those who don’t continue their player careers after college, get a degree from a top university, which often sets them up for life.
Complaints about NCAA players being improperly compensated for their services have been around for decades. It isn’t anything new.
What makes Kessler’s lawsuit different is it gives universities the option to decide how to fairly treat their players.
“This is a case to give the schools freedom to decide how to fairly treat their players, to give the players freedom to get some value for what they contribute to these schools,” Kessler said in the same interview.
“For many of these players who will never go on to the pros, this is their only chance to realize value for what they contribute. And I think ultimately it is going to be a liberating case for those who are fans of those sports as well — because what we’ve seen is whenever more competition has been added in the player markets, whether it has been *in the NFL. or the NBA, or Major League Baseball, every single time the game has gotten better, fan interest has increased and competition has proven to be a good thing for everybody.”
While the argument collegiate athletes deserve some kickback from all the money they bring in is valid, Kessler is threatening to rip apart the entire NCAA model built on amateurism and essentially remove the barrier between college and pro athletics.
Kessler suggests that each university should decide what their players are worth, setting up a competitive free agent market for potential recruits in high school.
“The market should decide what’s the result,” Kessler said. “If a school wants to offer $5,000 a year to their players, they can do that. And if another school wants to offer a different number, they can do that.
“Someone might say, “Let’s put it in a trust fund.” Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to pay through increased health benefits or insurance.’ Someone else might say, ‘I’m going to give you enhanced scholarships.’ That’s what markets decide.
“The players won’t get one dollar more than the markets decide they are worth. Schools will make different decisions. Some schools will not want to do this at all.
“I don’t think it will be the same as professional sports. The reason why college sports is unique is not because of this myth of amateurism. It is because players are playing for their schools. People have an affinity for their schools or a rooting interest in those schools, and that is different. There will always be that great attraction of college sports because people will root for Michigan or Notre Dame or Texas or whatever their school might be.
“That’s going to stay. That’s really what distinguishes college sports, I think, from the professional sports.”
The major hole in Kessler’s lawsuit is not only how much do schools pay, but who gets paid?
Focusing on college football, it’s not as if most programs can’t afford it. 117 of the 230 division one programs made at least $20,000 in revenue over the 2014 season according to USA Today. At the top of the list, Texas, brought in a whopping $165,691,486 this season.
But the problem occurs with other sports and who actually deserves the money.
Next to college football, college basketball is the next most profitable sport at most universities, but most basketball programs don’t actually generate money for the school. It’s football that pays for most of the athletic department’s expenditures and carries the other sports. In fact, most basketball programs operate at a loss each season.
Then there’s the case of Title IX, which states each university must have at least as many sports for females as they have for males. Wouldn’t paying men and not women contradict the sole purpose of Title IX, which is equality?
“Right now, the spending by the schools on men’s basketball and football at every single institution dwarfs the spending at all of the women’s sports combined,” Kessler stated. “No one says that’s a Title IX violation because Title IX doesn’t speak to equal spending. There’s been a lot of use of Title IX as a kind of bogeyman, that just like the N.C.A.A. likes to say we can’t treat the athletes fairly in these two sports because of amateurism or we can’t treat them fairly because of competitive balance, so we can’t treat them fairly because they are students.”
Kessler’s lawsuit is also threatening the competitive balance of collegiate sports.
While schools may be able to decide what to play their student-athletes and/or what benefits they may receive while on campus to stay competitive, not every program can recruit players on the same scale.
Take the University of Wisconsin for example. In 2014, the Badgers ranked second among all college football programs in revenue with $149,141,405. Yet, Wisconsin is far from the top of the list when it comes to the biggest brand and best winning percentage in college football.
Wisconsin, and a number of other programs, can’t compete with the true blue bloods of college football for recruits, due to their lofty academic standards and location, which isn’t near a major talent base.
Kessler now wants programs like Wisconsin to have to compete monetarily as well.
The Badgers have found a way to make due as one of the top programs in the Big Ten Conference, winning three of the last five titles, but do so primarily with players the top programs didn’t want and players that can meet their strict academic requirements.
“In all the other years I’ve recruited, it’s been way difference academically,” Wisconsin defensive line coach Chad Kauha’aha’a said. “It’s just so challenging to find that athlete that can get into school here. There’s a lot athletes I could recruit at other schools and have no problems getting into school or NFL guys that help you win right away.
“Over here, it’s a challenge. You have to hand select guys. It’s hard to find guys. It’s hard to get a lot athletes we want. Not to say the guys we have we didn’t want, but our selection of players is a much smaller pool.
“People think we can get anyone we want in here, that’s far from it. We came here and that’s what we’ve got to get done.”
Kessler’s lawsuit will threaten a number of programs like Wisconsin that put academic reputation ahead of wins and losses.
Not only do the Badgers have to hand select players capable of admitting their admission requirements, but now the small pool of players available to them will be lured away by money and dollar figures from other schools that the program may not be able to match.
While Wisconsin was the second-most profitable program in college football this past season, much of the reason was their lack of spending. Among other areas, Wisconsin’s athletic department is widely known as one that pays its assistant–and even in some cases its head coaches far below what’s considered competitive compared other top programs.
Kessler’s lawsuit threatens programs like Wisconsin, who do things the right way, abiding by NCAA law, and budget their money wisely, rather than throwing it around to try and attract players to their schools.
“We try and be very frugal and efficient with our resources,” Senior Associate Athletic Director Bruce Van De Velde said. “We try not to waste anything. On the other hand, we make sure we have what we need necessary to do the job. We’re not limited with how we recruit. We have enough funding to do the necessary work to recruit any student athlete coast-to-coast.”
While Wisconsin maintains the money they spend on recruiting and assistant coaches is competitive, it’s far below average in the Big Ten Conference, according to reports.
Per ESPN, Wisconsin football spent just over $256,000 on recruiting in 2013, which was easily last in their own conference. In 2012, the Wisconsin athletic department as a whole ranked No. 11 out of 12 teams in the Big Ten in recruiting expenditures on both men’s and women’s sports combined, according to the Big Ten Network.
Taking a closer look at the football program, Wisconsin’s top assistant coach in terms of salary ranked No. 76 in all of college football. The Badgers had just two coaches inside the top 100, with the remaining seven rank No. 318 and lower on the list of paid assistant coaches across the country.
A program like Wisconsin, who clearly gets the most bang for their buck, is one of many that will have a hard time surviving a market for collegiate athletes, destroying an efficient and effective business model.
Wisconsin, who’s able to waste less, but win more, are that of a very rare breed and one that should be protected.
“That speaks to the level of our staff and our plan,” Van De Velde said. “We know how to execute that plan. We’ve been doing it for a number of years. We’ve been very efficient on how we execute that plan. Then our total budget—we don’t lack anything, but we don’t waste anything either. We’re very efficient.
“We weren’t limited at all by our resources. We have a budget to do everything first class and nationally. That doesn’t mean we aren’t efficient, we are.”
Despite their recruiting hurdles, Wisconsin has 42 players currently on NFL rosters. That mark ranks second in the Big Ten and No. 13 nationally.
Many of those involved with Wisconsin athletics were surprised by how little the athletic department spends in recruiting year-to-year, mostly because of the level of talent they get into the program and the success that’s come with it regardless.
“It’s obviously surprising because of how much recruiting we do—that it’s so low,” Wisconsin’s Director of Recruiting Vince Guinta said.
“There’s a lot of things that go into a recruiting class. Money is not the only thing that matters in recruiting by any stretch, but resources are very critical. But it depends on how you use those resources.
“We try and be responsible on how we spend money. We have an unbelievable program, an unbelievable university, and unbelievable facilities. Marketing comes a lot easier when we’re at the level we’re at.
“If we can find a way to get a kid to Madison, Wisconsin, then we have a good shot at getting him, because it’s such a special place, a special campus, special town. Those things don’t cost money.”
Kessler’s lawsuit is seemingly the end of a list of lawsuits against the NCAA fighting for student-athlete compensation.
Ed O’Bannon is a former star basketball player at UCLA, who won a national championship with the Bruins in 1995. O’Bannon was the first to challenge the NCAA, filling a lawsuit, citing a violation of the Sherman Antitrust Act and that the NCAA deprived him of his right of publicity.
The lawsuit centered around a video game series starring O’Bannon, using distinctive features that identified him and other collegiate players without using their names. The game still matched each player’s height, weight, facial features, skin tone, and jersey numbers.
In August of 2014, O’Bannon won his lawsuit against the NCAA. Thousands of former and even current men’s basketball and football student-athletes could now be in line for a substantial payday.
“What we did is just a small amount of change,” O’Bannon said in an interview with ESPN. “This is just the tip of the iceberg. I think that a lot of change is going to happen. This is just the beginning.”
In January, another movement against NCAA amateurism took place.
Former Northwestern quarterback Kain Colter filed a petition asking that student athletes at the university be represented by a labor union.
In March, supported by many of his teammates and other Northwestern student athletes, Colter won his case. The National Labor Relations Board sided with Colter, giving Northwestern student athletes the right to form the first labor union in the history of collegiate athletics.
Unlike Kessler’s and O’Bannon’s lawsuits, Colter’s wasn’t driven by money.
“A lot of people will think this is all about money; it’s not,” Colter told the Chicago Tribune. “We’re asking for a seat at the table to get our voice heard.”
Kessler’s lawsuit threatens and appears likely to finish off what Colter and O’Bannon started.
Most known for his efforts which brought free agency to the NFL, Kessler doesn’t see the big picture.
Trying to give 18,19, and 20-year-old kids power over the NCAA and their universities will not only eliminate the competitive spirit of college athletics, but handicap many programs in terms of the players they can bring in, allowing for very little competitive balance.
But Kesser doesn’t want to hear it. His advice to universities: “Figure it out.”
“Fans won’t like it. How will we compete? The game won’t thrive,” Kessler told CBS Sports, rattling off complaints by NFL owners of free agency from the 90’s. “The same thing is going to be true here.
“Well-run schools and athletic directors will figure out the best way to thrive in the new system, but a much fairer system for the players. The programs that aren’t well-run still won’t be well-run.”
The lack of support Kessler has from current student athletes is telling. Clemson’s Martin Jenkins, Middle Tennessee State’s Anfornee Stewart, and Wisconsin’s Nigel Hayes are the only three named plaintiffs on the lawsuit.
Out of thousands of collegiate student athletes, Kessler has three willing to support his fight to get them paid.
As the old adage goes, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
Kessler is toying with a model that’s been extremely successful and popular since it’s existence.
Why mess with a good thing?
Eder, Steve. How Kessler’s Lawsuit Could Change College Sports. N.p., 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 6 Dec. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/sports/how-jeffrey-kesslers-lawsuit-could-change-college-sports.html?_r=0>.
Eder, Steve. Jeffrey Kessler Envisions Open Market for College Athletes. New York Times, 27 Aug. 2014. Web. 13 Dec. 2014. <http://www.nytimes.com/2014/08/28/sports/jeffrey-kessler-envisions-open-market-for-ncaa-college-athletes.html?_r=0>.
Farrey, Tom. Ed O’Bannon: Ruling is tip of iceberg. ESPN, 10 Aug. 2014. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. <http://espn.go.com/espn/otl/story/_/id/11332816/ed-obannon-says-antitrust-ruling-only-beginning-change>.
Petersen, Kiernan. Paying for college: how much are degrees worth?. BBC News, n.d. Web. 12 Dec. 2014. <http://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-echochambers-29070437>.
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