NCAA Football: The Economics of a Global Pandemic

I keep reading that people don’t want politics with their sports.  Yet, politicians are using the return to sports and the behavior of athletes as a political battleground.  We now live in an age where discussions have become aggressive displays of preconceived notions. People are entrenched in their positions based on how they loosely align in a deeply flawed bipartisan political landscape that lacks any sense of subtlety or critical thinking.

That’s a weird way to start an article about the NCAA’s various conferences announcing cancellations, postponements and hopes for a return to play.  However, as I mentioned, the political landscape was brought to sports, not the other way around.  Given the context of an outbreak of a global pandemic and the most significant civil rights protests in the United States of the 21st century we now have considerations as they relate to college athletics that have never been quite so apparent to the national consciousness. 

I have been banging on the drum to compensate NCAA athletes (either all or those who are most involved with generating income) for quite some time. It is an obvious case of inequity where coaches earn millions, conferences and television networks earn hundreds of millions and the basketball and football players who generate the income for the already wealthy do not earn anything.

Now in a world besieged by sickness our view of such an inequitable relationship seems to have shifted somewhat.  Perhaps the reason for this is simply that the players who would be asked to play are children and those who may have been opposed in the past now consider these athletes in a similar manner to their own children who parents strive to protect. We’ve heard reports that at least 5 Big Ten conference athletes suffered a rare heart condition (Myocarditis) after contracting and/or recovering from Covid 19.  This condition, if undiagnosed or left untreated can cause damage to the heart and, in some cases, lead to cardiac arrest. 

Also, on campuses where courses may only be given online, where students may not be attending physically or where classes may be suspended due to the spread of this virus, it also seems entirely greedy to risk the exposure of student athletes to a potentially fatal disease.  The sense of greed comes simply for the biggest of the conferences who seem most concerned with how much money these conferences will lose if NCAA sports do not continue.  These are of course the same funds with which they do not pay players but instead pay for Dabo Sweeney’s mortgage, Nick Saban’s oatmeal cream cookies and all the shiny toys used to recruit another class of unpaid labor.  

I specifically used the terminology unpaid labor because if classes are not operating, if the consensus is that the virus is not under control and that there is no cure (as of yet), then players would be taking the field for the sole purpose of earning money for the school in question.  At this point, it could not possibly be misunderstood that amateurism is a farce and the players are, in fact, unpaid employees of rich athletics programs masquerading as learning institutions.

Most recently Jim Harbaugh and Nick Saban made the argument that players would be safer playing than left to their own devices.  This is clever.  Pretending that having players attend practices and engage in contact sports (considered by doctors to be problematic for the spread of the disease) for their own good is a laughable, yet novel approach. The two coaches made such statements without any of the conferences (most notably the SEC who have not yet cancelled or postponed their season) proposing a plan that would help protect and support their players.

This was a particular point of interest when the PAC-12 players created a list of demands for their return to play.  These demands were not addressed and the conference cancelled their season.  The reason they provided was for the safety of their players but in reality, it is quite clear that the issue was that they would rather sacrifice a season than offer compensation to their athletes.  One point that was brought up during that protest was that if they reduced the PAc-12 commissioners’ salary from 5.3 million dollars to a meager 450’000 dollars they could pay each of the player 10’000 dollars a year. That is money generated by making a single change to a system that is protected by ideology that is irrelevant and out of date. 

Most recently Dabo Swinney stood behind his quarterback who pushed for the ACC to return to play for his senior season.  Yet, when Trevor Lawrence said that the NCAA players should be unionized so that they would have a say in their own protection it was clear that he didn’t fully understand what the movement, supported by his quarterback, was demanding. Swinney referred to existing organizations such as student committees as the solution. Naturally I found nothing surprising about a rich, control-freak head coach wanting to keep the power structure in place.

The first conferences to cancel their seasons were the Ivy League and the MAC.  At first they got credit for being the most responsible.  However, and you may call me cynical if you wish, I think this was once again motivated by money.  These are conferences that invest far less in athletics than the major FBS conferences and as such would not be willing to spend the appropriate funds on the constant testing it would require to have a football season.

All of these conferences acting somewhat independently may avoid some complex issues they likely are not ready to handle.  Firstly, different cities and states may have different protocols and these states may have teams that share a conference. Travel raises concerns as well as we see the success of the NHL and NBA bubbles in stark contrast to the the marlins infecting the league quicker than a south beach strip club. It also prevents guys like me from starting the conversation about the rights of players and what fair compensation would be.

What I find truly fascinating about this discussion is the inevitable vitriol and bile that will fill the comments section.  People will call me a leftist while not knowing my personal politics.  The people who will get the most angry are those who want freedom but weirdly do not want players to operate in a free market.  Statistically those who do not support paying athletes tend to be those who are in the lower-middle class or below yet they support the educational industry that draws millions of dollars in funds.  These largely are people who work for a boss and would not wish to be taken advantage of but side with the wealthy in an unjust working arrangement. The same people who claim to have earned everything they have in their lives on merit don’t think that athletes should share in the prosperity that they create.

There are two arguments that do not support paying college athletes. Firstly is that the students earn a free education.  This is  a completely nonsensical argument that is similar to a McDonald’s employee being given access to nuggets in lieu of payment.  If the argument is that school funds shouldn’t be spent on players then why is it ok for millions of dollars to be spent on the facilities for and promotion of said athletics? Why can college coaches earn money but players cannot make money from their likeness? The starting point for recruitment should be a free education when you consider how little the education costs to the school in comparison to the money it generates from the sports in question.

There is also an inherent flaw in the amateur structure where the reward for physical prowess is credit in academia.  This is a story about a player who asked me not to use his name.  He was a player in an SEC school.  In his freshman year he was a role player that would rotate onto the field in specific packages. During his freshman year, a year in which he was offered a full scholarship to the university, this player was injured and missed the rest of the season.  This player was cut prior to the next season.  He was not even invited to practice once team activities continued.  Moreover, his scholarship was revoked and he needed to pay for his remaining three years.  This was expected of him after he was injured playing for a school for which he received no monetary compensation.  This is one example of the lie perpetrated by the erroneous defense of the model that trades academics for athletics.

The second argument is that it would create an unfair advantage to the “bigger schools”.  I ask how different this from the system we currently have in place.  Clemson and Alabama have made college football a two horse race for years and NCAA Basketball has had historical powers to represent their championship for the bulk of this current era.  Now instead of paying players, players receive illicit benefits from schools, donors and boosters. This money is untaxed and unreported to the government and exposes players to a completely unnecessary black market.  All of this to protect the wealthy while pretending to guard the integrity of competition. 

This is an opportunity for college athletes to leverage schools to change the system that has long since been seen as unjust.  Players have the opportunity to let their voices be heard when historically they had no power as compared to their millionaire coaches.  They have the right to safety and health and a global pandemic is the first time it has truly been examined.  They have the right to fair compensation as guaranteed by a free market.  If this opportunity passes without players earning what is theirs, we may not see the balancing of the scales as soon as we may have thought.   

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