College sports, amateurism, and track

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LATE EDIT: Todays issue of Sports Illustrated proves my point below; George Dohrmann says we can pay college athletes in big-time sports by basically getting rid of all the other sports, and the numbers game puts track and field at the very top of the list. But back in July, SIs clearest thinker, Joe Posnanski, explained to us that college sports must operate on a profit-floats-loss system because college sports are more about the colleges than they are about the sports.

Over at, Charlie Pierce posted an article titled The Beginning of the End for the NCAA. He begins by talking about Curt Flood and his 1970 challenge to baseballs reserve clause, and making comparisons to the NCAAs (recently deposed) rules against paying college athletes.

Something like [defending the reserve clause] has happened over the last 20 or 30 years in regard to college athletics. Every few years, some angry, stick-waving prophet would come wandering into the cozy system of unpaid (or barely paid) labor and start bellowing about how the essential corruption in the system wasnt that some players got money under the table, but that none of them were allowed to get any over it. Sooner or later, these people said, the system would collapse from its own internal contradictions — yes, some of these people summoned up enough Marx through the bong resin in their brains from their college days to make a point — and the people running college sports had best figure out how to control the chaos before it overwhelmed them. Nobody listened. Very little changed, except that college sports became bigger and more lucrative, an enterprise of sports spectacle balanced precariously on the fragile principle that everybody should get to make money except the people doing the actual work.

(emphasis added)

This is a common stance among sportswriters, who shouldnt be blamed if they dont know any better. After all, they only cover sports that get attention and only at colleges that get attention.

Speaking for the opposition some six weeks ago was SIs Seth Davis:

Indeed, [Taylor Branchs] entire article is based on a faulty premise, which is introduced right away in the sub-headline: [S]tudent-athletes generate billions of dollars for universities and private companies while earning nothing for themselves. This is indisputably untrue. Student-athletes earn free tuition, which over the course of four years can exceed $200,000. They are also provided with housing, textbooks, food and academic tutoring. When they travel to road games, they are given per diems for meals. They also get coaching, training, game experience and media exposure they earn in their respective crafts. Despite all that, Branch asserts that [t]he tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.If Branch or anyone else wants to argue that college athletes should be paid more, let them have at it. But to claim that college athletes earn nothing? Pure fiction.

Take a step back from the world of college sports and look at some ordinary middle class parents with ordinary middle class kids who are looking at the extraordinary costs of a college education, which has doubled every nine years of the last few decades while middle-class income has stayed flat. Many of them look at high school athletes who have signed for a college scholarship as if they had won they lottery. An example of this outlook can be found in the auto insurance commercial in which a six-year-old was taught to dunk in order to pay for college.

As George Carlin once said, I think the truth lies somewhere in between. (He was actually referring to the state license plate mottos Live Free or Die! and Great Potatoes, but it translates well to this situation.) Its interesting that Pierce refers to Marx, because college sports is now and virtually always has been socialist in nature. A small number of college athletes are vastly underpaidthe stars on profit-making football and basketball teamsand everyone else is overpaid. The system is based on that interchange, which is in turn based on a maximum wage of tuition, fees, room, board and books. If you instead pay everyone what theyre worth, then most mens sports and all womens sports cannot exist.

This is how it is everywhere on college campuses. Insitutions of higher learning dont exist to make a profit (and the public ones cant even balance their books without tax dollars). They exist to provide education. A few parts of colleges take in more than they spend, and they help float everything else that doesnt.

Sportswriters, of course, spend more time talking to coaches than the academics that make the whole place function. They only cover the star athletes on profit-making football and basketball teams instead the rank-and-file swimmers, runners and soccer players. Their world is the athletes that are underpaid. As track fans, our world is those who are overpaid. Any track person who even gets meal money on a road trip is a net drain on the athletic department and is overpaid. Period. Track does not make more than it spends, with possible exceptions at Penn and Drake (and the quality of the home team doesnt make a dimes worth of difference to track meet attendance at those two universities).

Thus the terrifying truth embedded in Pierces column: the NCAA system is headed towards collapse.

On October 27the NCAA voted to allow its member conferences to decide whether to pay their athletes an annual stipend of $2,000 to cover the incidental costs of a college education. NCAA president Mark Emmert was firm in his denial that this constituted pay for play.Nonsense.

Of course, it is.

And thats the ballgame right there. As soon as you pay someone $2,000, you cannot make the argument that it is unethical to pay that person $5,000, or $10,000, or a million bucks a year, for all that.

But Pierce celebrates that, and doesnt understand the bad points of this movewhich is the danger to the very existence of the underpaid athlete, the athlete that isnt on a football or mens basketball team.

Remember, it is the normal state of affairs in college athletics to lose money. Even in the five or six conferences with the largest incomes, a significant portion of schools still lose money. Basically everyone else in every other conference does too. So what just happened was a voluntary increase in costs, and not a small one either.

Who will get those $2,000 stipends? Youd guess that it would be only the star athletes in the money-making sports, but its supposed to go to anyone on a full athletic scholarship. There are also Title IX implications, meaning that every $2,000 that goes to male athletes must have a matching $2,000 that goes to female athletes. Since most of the so-called non revenue sports cut up their scholarships to spread them out among more athletes, it may be necessary to also cut up an additional $2,000 in the same proportions.

While the decision to dole out this extra $2,000 is up to each conference, its hard to imagine many conferences with the wisdom not to add to their bottom line. Those colleges with money to burn will exploit this competitive advantage in order to maintain or extend their dominance. Gwen Knapp of the San Francisco Chronicle:

The too-big-to-fail BCS schools will almost certainly ante up. But expect many of the outsider schools that cant afford the tab to act like home buyers of five years ago, overextending themselves to buy now or be priced out forever.They will throw more cash at unsuccessful football teams in hopes of joining the elite someday. The schools that dont have football will establish teams, completely ignoring the fact that the sport is more likely to become a cavernous money pit than a ticket to the BCS promised land. If they cant get there, they become less able to compete for the best players in any sport, because they cant afford $2,000 stipends.

Even at some of the BCS schools, little guys may end up losing. Does this cycle sound familiar? School A hires one football coach at an exorbitant sum, fires him with time left on his contract, brings in another pricey coach and pays them both simultaneously. The school suddenly sees an Olympic-sized pool of red ink and decides to cut the mens swim team, plus tennis and wrestling. Critics blame Title IX because the womens teams dont get whacked, as well.

Well, she didnt say track, but weve seen the same thing happen far too often.

Where does it happen the most? In the so-called mid-major conferences that try to play I-A football but are permanently outside the power structure. The MAC has only six mens track programs among its twelve members. In Conference USA its eight out of twelve, in the Mountain West its six out of eight, and in the WAC its four out of eight. But in the five big-money conferences, 55 of the 58 members have mens track programs. Thats a rate of 60% in one part of Division I-A and 95% in the other.

Track is a luxury that is affordable only for the rich or the penny-pinching. It costs a lot and doesnt bring in much. We track people always complain about the absurdly low number of scholarships our sport gets12.6 for men and 18 for women. But thats the fourth-highest number available for mens sports (behind only football, hockey and basketball) and second-highest for women (behind rowing, hadly a widespread sport). And then theres the exorbitant cost of facilities and equipment and the relatively large number of assistant coaches.

So college sports across the board just decided to raise costs for everyone in everything. (Technically, theyre passing the buck on that decision to the conferences, but no one will pass on it.) The floodgates have been opened and what is $2,000 per year could and will quickly rise with no limit in sight. As a result, I fully expect mens track to completely disappear in the mid-major conferences, take a big hit in the minor conferences, and even feel some pain in the major conferences.

And this is a victory for college athletes?