College sports, “amateurism”, and track

LATE EDIT: Today’s 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, SI’s 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 Grantland.com, 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 baseball’s reserve clause, and making comparisons to the NCAA’s (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 wasn’t 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 shouldn’t be blamed if they don’t 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 SI’s Seth Davis:

Indeed, [Taylor Branch's] 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.) It’s 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 underpaid–the stars on profit-making football and basketball teams–and 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 they’re worth, then most men’s sports and all women’s sports cannot exist.

This is how it is everywhere on college campuses. Insitutions of higher learning don’t exist to make a profit (and the public ones can’t 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 doesn’t.

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 doesn’t make a dime’s worth of difference to track meet attendance at those two universities).

Thus the terrifying truth embedded in Pierce’s column: the NCAA system is headed towards collapse.

On October 27…the 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 that’s 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 doesn’t understand the bad points of this move–which is the danger to the very existence of the underpaid athlete, the athlete that isn’t on a football or men’s 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? You’d guess that it would be only the star athletes in the money-making sports, but it’s 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, it’s 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 can’t 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 don’t 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 can’t get there, they become less able to compete for the best players in any sport, because they can’t 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 men’s swim team, plus tennis and wrestling. Critics blame Title IX because the women’s teams don’t get whacked, as well.

Well, she didn’t say track, but we’ve 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 men’s track programs among its twelve members. In Conference USA it’s eight out of twelve, in the Mountain West it’s six out of eight, and in the WAC it’s four out of eight. But in the five big-money conferences, 55 of the 58 members have men’s track programs. That’s 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 doesn’t bring in much. We track people always complain about the absurdly low number of scholarships our sport gets–12.6 for men and 18 for women. But that’s the fourth-highest number available for men’s sports (behind only football, hockey and basketball) and second-highest for women (behind rowing, hadly a widespread sport). And then there’s 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, they’re 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 men’s 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?

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5 Responses to College sports, “amateurism”, and track

  1. @DavidRFrank says:

    I’ve felt from the very start that this decision is going to impact more athletes negatively than the few getting the extra $2k. One of the best summaries of the issue. Thanks.

  2. CoachbearX says:

    While I understand the money making potential of the “higher profile” sports, I cannot agree that track and/or cross country is cost intensive.
    It is my opinion that these programs provide the best bang for the buck. There are not excessive specialty coaches; many of them (distances e.g.) coach both men and women’s programs. I seriously doubt that any of the team sports are able to do this.
    Also, equipment outlay does not compare with ball sports. Shots, disci, hurdles, vertical jump equipment can last for decades, with small additions or deletions corresponding to rule changes (e.g. javelin, polevault).
    Let’s not even discuss the GPAs of track & field specialist vis a vis the “revenue producing” sports. In this regard, I would tend to agree that the marginal “student” athletes in football and basketball, probably deserve to earn a share of the profits that they bring into the schools, and that support the other non revenue programs.
    But, any true student athlete, at whatever level they competed, would surely take away their experiences on the collegiate level as having had a significant effect on their lives. And that is what is called education.

  3. Kansas Wiley says:

    I’m going to ask a question that seems to me obvious yet which no one else has asked: If the end of the what goes on at Division I programs would be such a disaster, then how have D II and D III and NAIA programs managed to continue and succeed and even produce some very good athletes?

    • admin says:

      I don’t agree with part of the premise of your question. They have not produced good athletes, not at least in terms of track and field as a spectator sport. How many 2008 Olympians came from D-II, D-III and NAIA? How many current professional track/field athletes have come from those colleges? Very few.

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