Just Say No To The NCAA

By Dr. Boyce Watkins
Updated: March 24, 2008

NEW YORK — Last year, I engaged in a short campaign on CNN, CBS Sports, ESPN and the L.A. Times to highlight major problems with “big time” college athletics. It is not my goal to anger anyone, but rather, to share what I have seen in my 15 years teaching at universities with major athletics programs.

As a finance professor, I find the financial problems of the NCAA to be borderline criminal. As an educator, I find the educational mission of the NCAA to be fraudulent. As a black man who has seen what the NCAA does to the black community, I find myself simply offended.

The NCAA is in possession of an 11-year, $6 billion contract for the rights to air March Madness. This does not include hundreds of millions of dollars earned each year from bowl games, regular season games, merchandizing agreements and concessions.

Coaches earn as much as $4 million per year, while the players and their families, many of whom come from poverty, earn almost nothing. Coaches are allowed to jump from job to job, going to the highest bidder, while players who transfer lose a year of eligibility.

Coaches and administrators earn millions from excessive commercialization of player images, while a player is not allowed to earn a penny from his/her own image. This does not include the fact that many institutions will praise and promote a winning coach with low graduation rates and quickly fire coaches with low winning percentages and high graduation rates.

I have witnessed students being taken out of class for an entire week to play in a nationally-televised football or basketball game, with academics (and the fact that the student’s grade has been jeopardized) becoming an afterthought. Players are treated like professional athletes, not students, and a weak performance on the field will cause them to lose their scholarship.

Any institution operating as a government-sanctioned cartel, riddled with hypocrisy, disproportionate and exploitative compensation schemes, and glaring disregard for educational values should be scrutinized more carefully. Earning money is a wonderful thing, but I am not sure why coaches and administrators are allowed to earn billions each year from the labor of players with mothers who can’t pay the rent.

I know how much tuition costs, and it is miniscule compared to the amount of money players generate for their coaches and universities. I say pay the players a fair salary, let them negotiate their own contracts and shoe deals, and then allow them to pay their own tuition.

If you believe in fairness for these young men and women, I hope you will consider joining our coalition to boycott the NCAA and March Madness. If you love sports like me, then feel free to watch a game or two. Just keep your views to a minimum and avoid watching the commercials. This sounds silly, but it is my small effort to help us understand this complicated problem and to hopefully have some impact on the bottom-line of the NCAA.

I am not trying to cause trouble with these statements. I am simply asking for fairness. One star player (whose coach received millions in bonuses) saw his brother shot and killed in a housing project because his mother was too poor to move to a better neighborhood. Another player took money from a booster to help his family pay the rent, and then saw his scholarship taken away.

I saw a player’s mother forced to beg her church to help her get to the Final Four to see her son play, while the coach’s family received first class accommodations. What is ironic is that even raising money from the church would have been an NCAA violation, causing her son to lose his scholarship.

If you don’t agree with me, I understand. But as a professor, financial expert and a human being, I cannot remain silent on such an injustice. Some don’t feel the athletes deserve anything better than what they already get. We all must agree that basketball games don’t happen without basketball players, so if a game earns millions in revenue, then the basketball player is more deserving of this revenue than the coach. If that doesn’t make sense, then I’m sorry.

I hope you’ll join me in this effort.

Q&A on the NCAA

1. If the athletes don’t like the system, then why don’t they just do something else?

The problem is that the NCAA is allowed to operate as a Cartel. Effectively, this implies that all of the schools exist under the same umbrella and make price-fixing agreements that keep players from having any other options. North Carolina, Duke, The University of Kentucky and other NCAA schools all agree that none of them are allowed to pay the players for their services (other than the scholarship). This sort of operating behavior is illegal in nearly every other industry, because the source of labor then has no bargaining power. Going to the NBA is not an option for most of the players, so there isn’t much else they can do.

2. What are you asking for in all this? Some sort of special treatment for athletes?

No. I am simply asking that they have a free market. Many rules are put in place alleging to “protect” the athletes. The problem is that many exploitative regimes throughout history have used protection as a cover for self-interest (i.e. The War on Terror and the Patriot Act). The truth is that many restrictions placed on players exist to simply control the athlete and to ensure that the administrators don’t have to share the revenue. Schools should never be “forced” to pay the players. I am saying that we should not force schools to allow multi-million dollar players’ families to remain in poverty. Just let the market work, the same way it does in the rest of America. If a player has no value, then he/she will not be paid. But if the school can earn $15 million dollars from a player’s ability, then his family should get some of that money, not just the coach and the administrators. Remember: When money comes in the door…..SOMEONE IS ALWAYS GETTING PAID. I believe that the person doing the work should get a substantial percentage of the revenue generated from that work. It’s really that simple.

3. Are you against the NCAA making money?

Absolutely not! I am a Finance Professor and a Capitalist. I appreciate good business when I see it. I think that the NCAA should simply make a choice: either go completely professional or completely amateur. You can’t operate as a professional organization while signing billion dollar TV deals and then become a non-profit amateur organization when it comes time to reward the players who are actually doing the work. I am in favor of the NCAA either paying everyone according to the fair market value they can negotiate, or NOT PAYING ANYONE. Non-payment, a more socialist model that the NCAA claims to promote, would imply that no coach earns more than (say) $70,000 per year. Every coach with low graduation rates would be fired, and players would not be allowed to miss class to play in a game. In other words, the players would come to college to actually get an education, not to simply play sports.

4. Isn’t a scholarship fair compensation?

Quite simply, the answer is no. I say this as both a financial expert and an educator who places a high value on learning. Many universities earn more money from one nationally-televised basketball game than it costs to pay tuition for every player on the team for an entire year. I would personally rather see the players allowed to negotiate their own contracts and then pay their tuition afterward. If one were to offer a coach and his family free tuition rather than their seven figure salary, they would be outraged.

5. It’s too complicated to find a way to pay college athletes, it just won’t work.

This argument was put forth by NCAA President Myles Brand, who I was on a CBS sports special with last year (along with “Coach K” from Duke, Billy Packer and others who earn millions of dollars from the labor of college athletes). My problem with this argument is that things work when we want them to work. Schools always find a way around the technicalities when it comes time to pay a coach $4 million dollars per year. They find ways to make sure that the tournaments occur, that vendors are paid, complicated TV deals are signed and merchandizing agreements are worked out. If it were a priority, they could surely find a way to be fair to the athletes. If they can’t, then simply drop all the restrictions on compensation and let the market do its work.

Some argue that paying athletes would destroy the purity and integrity of college sports. Actually, it is this glaring hypocrisy that continues to destroy the integrity of collegiate athletics. Allowing coaches and players to have the same rights to negotiation would allow the system to make more sense.

6. Which athletes should be paid anyway?

Athletes should be paid like the rest of us: If what you do earns money, then you have the right to negotiate (without oppressive restrictions) for your share. When Tom Cruise makes a film, he gets paid quite well. He doesn’t get the money because he’s a nice guy, he gets paid because he is generating revenue for someone else. That’s how capitalism works. So, any athlete in a revenue-generating sport should be allowed to negotiate with his/her school. If the athlete is not worth the money he/she is asking for, then the school won’t pay it. The same occurs when you try to get a job: if they offer you $45,000 and you are worth $70,000, you negotiate with the company across the street. It would be illegal for all firms in your industry to come together and agree to only pay you $25,000 per year. But that is what happens in the NCAA, where all the schools agree to non-payment of athletes. This should be outlawed.

7. What are the possible solutions to this problem?

This is a big problem and a big system, it’s going to take work. But I have some thoughts on possible solutions to the NCAA puzzle:

– The IRS and Congress must get involved:

The Ways and Means Committee of the House of Representatives began proceedings last year that questioned the non-profit status of the NCAA and argued that they should not be considered an amateur organization. In their letter, it was stated that “Corporate sponsorships, multimillion dollar television deals, highly paid coaches with no academic duties, and the dedication of inordinate amounts of time by athletes to training lead many to believe that major college football and men’s basketball more closely resemble professional sports than amateur sports.” I argue that challenging the NCAA’s financial situation might get their attention and inject some fairness into the system.

– Teach athletes and former athletes to work together

Most of the people exploited by the system don’t realize they’ve been cheated until after it’s over. I argue that former athletes and others who are aware of how the system works should explain this to young athletes, who are sometimes so blinded by their own “shine” that they can’t see what’s going on. Athletes coming together and considering a boycott of the NCAA tournament would send a strong message to the league. That is my dream, but the reign of terror the NCAA has over the athletes makes a boycott situation difficult to imagine. Any player thinking of rebelling is likely to be punished quite heavily.

8. There are other problems in the world, why are you spending your time on this one?

I agree that it’s hard to get someone to feel sorry for a player on national television. But I’ve witnessed many horror stories about players who are punished for doing the right thing. For example, there have been cases of players not having enough food and losing their scholarship because someone gave them a bag of groceries. If a player takes money from a booster to help a homeless relative, they are then punished. When a player like Reggie Bush used his fame to help his family get a home, he was demonized and penalized. Simultaneously, his coach and university earned millions from the fact that Reggie was the most highly recognized professional athlete in America. This doesn’t make much sense, given that coaches can take money from nearly anyone who offers it to them. I fight for many issues of injustice, and this happens to be the one that we are attacking right now. We must fight one battle at a time, and I hope that my passion for this effort is understood.

If you don’t agree with me, I respect that. But if you do, please join me in this effort.