When you can no longer support the myth of the construct.
Read Time: 7 minutes
Kids. Kids will really lead you to take honest inventory of your decisions and convictions. You know the scenarios…the day your pre-teen watches you pop a beer in the car and then tells you that the officer who visited his school said it is against the law to drink and drive. The day your six-year-old daughter watches torch up a cigarette and tears up as she says that her teacher told her smoking kills people. Tough, man. Tough. And if we’re honest with ourselves as an adult and parent, we’ve all been there in one way or another.
I had a moment like this last night. It wasn’t as detrimental to public safety as drinking and driving, or as harmful to my health as tobacco use. Nonetheless it was the proverbial straw that crumbled a construct I’ve defended for most of my life - the nobility and sanctity of amateur college athletics.
Here’s how it went down. I was driving my son back from his bi-weekly karate practice. We are headed to see Ole Miss play LSU this weekend in Oxford, so the game was on his mind.
“Daddy, I know why Hugh Freeze got fired,” the twelve-year-old said.
“Oh really,” I replied coyly. “Why would that be?”
“Well, I don’t know how to say it in a nice way,” he said.
“Its OK just say it,” I reassured him, knowing full well what was coming.
We’ll omit the next few lines of this conversation because I don’t want to unnecessarily rehash personal allegations that we don’t know the context of. Let’s just say my son was privy to the claim that Coach Freeze had made some ill-advised phone calls on his university phone. Ok, back to the convo.
“Do you know why Coach Freeze really lost his job?” I inquired.
“The coaching staff was allegedly allowing boosters - people who really support the team - access to the players that they shouldn’t have, and the boosters were giving them money,” I explained.
“Oh, so the coachers were giving their players money?” he asked.
“No, the coaches weren’t giving the players money, but the coaches were letting other people give the players money.”
“Why did they need to give the players money?” he pressed.
“Well,” I said, “a lot of those players come from places where they don’t have a lot of money, and their families don’t have a lot of money, so it’s a way that they can help pay bills and stuff while they’re in college and not working at a job.”
“Oh,” he replied. “So why can’t people give them money?”
“Because it’s against the rules,” I answered.
Yeah… “oh.” Clearly that answer didn’t make much sense to a twelve-year-old. But in that moment of trying to clarify the situation, I realized it didn’t make sense to a 40-year-old, either.
“Because that’s the way it is” isn’t a valid - or moral - answer.
Many times in my career I’ve been accused of thinking that “the rules don’t apply to me.” This isn’t accurate. I understand that rules apply to me the same as everyone else. It’s not the application of certain rules I have a problem with, but rather the actual existence of a particular rule in the first place. Whenever I’m questioning a certain system or practice and ever get some version of justification being “because that’s just how it is,” or “because that’s the way it’s always been,” - that’s when the thing in question loses all credibility with me. “Because I said so” may be all well and good for dealing with a petulant toddler, but not so much in the adult business world. Or the higher education world. Or a world that is strange mashup of BIG business and higher ed.
But I had just committed exactly this cardinal sin. I had explained to my son that “people can’t give players money” because “that’s the way it’s always been.”
I can’t stand behind that construct anymore. It no longer represents the moral high ground that for so long I thought amateur college athletics to be.
Don’t get me wrong. I know college athletics in general - and college football in specific - is far from being pure as the wind-driven snow. College teams cheat. Coaches cheat. It’s often said that the NCAA could put any program at any school under the infractions microscope (infracto-scope?) and rule violations would be found. I suspect this is more true than not.
Even knowing this, though, I was still able to reconcile that the rule breaking was done by individuals, not institutions. The system of college athletics in theory was still an ethical one. Now, after an epiphany-inducing conversation with a twelve-year-old, I cannot make that reconciliation any longer.
The college athletic construct is, in it’s current incarnation, immoral. Maybe it hasn’t always been this way. In fact, I believe that at one time it was closer to something of an ideal. It was a true “scholarship program.” Then it became big business. It became a way for institutions to make money. It became a way for adults to get rich. It became a vehicle for brands to sell their wares.
But “people can’t give the players money,” because that would be wrong. BS.
You have to hire people in a business and pay them to work there. Without the people, there is little to no underlying value. Maybe one day colleges will field teams of androids to outfit their athletic programs and this issue will be solved. But until the day the QB’s jersey reads “I Am Robot,” the simple fact is that without players there is no football and no way to make all this revenue for schools, adults, and brands.
"WHY CAN’T THEY GIVE PLAYERS MONEY?
BECAUSE IT’S AGAINST THE RULES."
But “people can’t give the players money,” because that would be wrong. No matter how many times you say it, it doesn’t make any more sense.
Everything evolves. Why not college athletics?
The environment of college athletics has changed. The business of college athletics has certainly changed. Training regimes, strength and conditioning programs, and the actual athleticism of the athletes have changed. Why should the system remain the same?
Let me clarify that I have NO PROBLEM with the amount of money associated with college athletics. This isn’t a cane-shaking, “get money out of politics” or “go back to the way it was” type diatribe. For one, the genie is out of the bottle. For another, I don’t see the problem with colleges, adults, and brands making TONS of money on college athletics. It’s good for the economy. Good for the schools. Good for the families of individuals. But what’s left out of this equation? Yep, you guessed it. The labor pool - athletes.
But Tim…most of the players ARE compensated. It’s called a “scholarship”…ever heard of it??? And those are worth tens of thousands of dollars and give the vast majority of athletes who aren’t going to play professionally a shot at a good paying career after college. What you got to say to that???
Well, thanks for asking. And, yes, I am familiar with a scholarship. I had one. And thank goodness I did. I partially agree with the premises to some degree. I don't think that colleges and universities should pay their athletes because they already do, at least those with scholarships. Scholarships do have value. Scholarships are tax-free. Scholarships are indeed a form of compensation. I'm not advocating for athlete salaries. I am advocating that it shouldn't be an infraction of rules for a "person to give money to the players."
UCLA Quarterback Josh Rosen caused a bit of firestorm earlier this year when he went off script and declared, in a nutshell, that major college athletics and academics are essentially incompatible.
I think that may be taking it a bit far, but I get what he means. You can’t put the time and effort in needed to compete on such a high level and be expected to maintain the same kind of dedication to your classes. That’s not asked of most adults. There isn’t really a corollary in the workplace. But to a larger point, it is absolutely impossible for college athletes to maintain academic performance, athletic competitiveness, and work a paying job. You can’t argue that point. I played varsity tennis - a “non major” sport - for a small college and I didn’t have time for a part-time job. There’s no way the quarterback for UCLA could work to earn extra money for himself, or help out back at home.
But “people can’t give the players money,” because that would be wrong.
Why do we not apply our capitalist principles to college sports?
I’m continually amazed that some of the staunches defenders of a free-market, capitalist system also support the NCAA regime which seeks to perpetuate the myth of amateur sports in an anti free-market manner. Someone, ANYONE, please explain to me, and my twelve-year-old why in the world boosters - or anyone - are prohibited from offering college athletes and their families financial support? And “because those are the rules” doesn’t count anymore as an answer.
Because the big colleges have more boosters and supporters and would lure the better players.
THEY ALREADY DO.
Because players would make a decision on attending a college based on non-college financial offers instead of “what’s the best fit for them.”
What if the BEST FIT for them is being able to have financial stability while attending college? They go pro, great! They went to college and got a great job…which is the PURPOSE of college in the first place. OR, they don’t go pro, but end up with a college degree and marketable set of skills to take to the workplace. Which is the PURPOSE of college.
Because it hurts the integrity of the game.
Please. Don’t even. The fact that there is a black market for compensating players hurts the integrity of the game. The fact that a big part of recruiting is negotiating in the shadows is hurting the integrity of the game. Why can’t we bring everything into the open, so we know what’s what. Isn’t that better integrity? Political candidates are required to disclose their donors. Boosters and supporters would have to disclose their financial contributions to players as well. Seriously, what is the big deal?
“Why can’t people give the players money?”
Kids, man. Kids can lead you into some of the most difficult realizations of your life. Thank God for kids.