Everyone’s Rich But The Athletes

By Michael Lewis
Updated: November 20, 2007

NEW YORK — The three most lucrative college football teams in 2005 — Notre Dame, Ohio State and the University of Texas — each generated more than $60 million for their institutions.

That number, which comes from the Department of Education, fails to account for the millions of dollars alumni donated to their alma maters because they were so proud of their football teams.

But it still helps to explain why so many strangers to football success have reinvented themselves as football powerhouses (Rutgers?) and also why universities are spending huge sums on new football practice facilities, new football stadium skyboxes and new football coaches.

College football’s best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that it’s simply an extension of the university’s mission to educate its students.

Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: Why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why don’t they pay their employees?

This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value.

At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The world’s most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen.

But between buyer and seller sits the National Collegiate Athletic Association, to ensure that the universities it polices keep all the money for themselves – to make sure that the rich white folk do not slip so much as a free chicken sandwich under the table to the poor black kids.

The poor black kids put up with it because they find it all but impossible to pursue NFL careers unless they play at least three years in college. Less than 1 percent actually sign professional football contracts and, of those, an infinitesimal fraction ever make serious money.

But their hope is eternal, and their ignorance exploitable.

Put that way, the arrangement sounds like simple theft, but up close, inside the university, it apparently feels like high principle. That principle, as stated by the NCAA, is that college sports should never be commercialized. But it’s too late for that.

College football already is commercialized, for everyone except the people who play it. Were they businesses, several dozen of America’s best-known universities would be snapped up by private equity tycoons, who would spin off just about everything but the football team. (The fraternities they might keep.)

If the NCAA genuinely wanted to take the money out of college football, it would make the tickets free and broadcast the games on public television and set limits on how much universities could pay head coaches.

But the NCAA confines its anti-market strictures to the players — and God help the interior lineman who is caught breaking them. Each year some player who grew up with nothing is tempted by a booster’s offer of a car or some cash and is never heard from again.

The lie at the bottom of the fantasy goes something like this: Serious college football players go to college for some reason other than to play football. These marvelous athletes who take the field on Saturdays and generate millions for their colleges are students first, and football players second

Of course, no honest person who has glimpsed the inside of a big-time college football program could actually believe this. Even from the outside, the college end of things seems suspiciously secondary.

If serious college football players are students first, why — even after a huge NCAA push to raise their graduation rates — do they so alarmingly fail to graduate?

It’s not that football players are too stupid to learn. It’s that they’re too busy. Unlike the other students on campus, they have full-time jobs: playing football for nothing. Neglect the task at hand, and they may never get a chance to play football for money.