Sports Illustrated this morning launched the first of a five-part series of investigative reports on the Oklahoma State football program by reporters George Dohrmann and Thayer Evans. This installment is about players being paid under the table during the reigns of coaches Les Miles and Mike Gundy, with subsequent reports planned about academic fraud, players smoking weed, and campus “hostesses” having sex with recruits. The details of today’s report are familiar from past scandals: assistant coaches and ardent fans (“boosters,” to use the common but humorously 1950s-sounding term) handing out cash to top players and hooking them up with no-show jobs.
The reaction from a large segment of the online college football press might be best summed up by popular writer Spencer Hall:
The possibility that bothers us most: the repeated invocation of the NCAA rules in order to make the exchange of services for cash [newsworthy]. If the general thrust of the investigation makes clear that the notion of amateurism is bankrupt in so many senses, and provides a case study on how even big programs bleed down scraps to feed the dogs who pull the sleds of college athletics, and that this is a black market created to evade the demands and regulations of the free market…then that would be journalism in service of something noble.
In other words: why worry about a few players getting a little money when the bigger problem is poor players participating in a money-flooded system and getting relatively little out of it? (To take a typical hypothetical: a Heisman winner who fills stadiums, earns big TV ratings, and sells thousands of t-shirts gets compensated with a scholarship. The coach he plays for gets compensated with a new $10 million contract.)
People like Hall generally believe that these kinds of scandals are a missing-the-forest-for-the-trees situation. (To Sports Illustrated’s credit, the piece doesn’t try to villainize the players involved, noting that most used the extra cash for everyday living expenses rather than extravagances.) Patrick Hruby of Sports on Earth, another articulate pay-the-players activist, advocates the most radically simple solution to the issue: just let colleges pay football players as much as the market will bear as employees.
This, needless to say, is a position many fans find very unsettling, even those who tend to sympathize with players. Reporter John U. Bacon dove into the Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan and Northwestern programs for a recent book; he’s not naivé about the way that players can get a raw deal in the big business of college sports. But in a recent Q&A at the Michigan site MGoBlog, Bacon makes a thinking fan’s case for the amateur system. You’re encouraged to read his entire argument, but it boils down to this: if you disassociate college football from the college extracurricular system and turn the NCAA into an economically fair minor league, you lose a lot of value for both fans and players. Fans would lose an emotional connection to their teams, which means there would be many fewer fans (quick! name your favorite minor league baseball team), and then there wouldn’t be money to give to the players in the first place. Meanwhile, players would also lose the legitimate benefits of the college system — education, a support network, and lifelong ties to a team and institution that represents values besides profit. Laugh all you want at that last part, but maybe then watch former college wide receiver Junior Hemingway being interviewed after the 2011 season when, after three crummy seasons, his Michigan team won the Sugar Bowl to finish 11-2:
Would Junior Hemingway, who just caught his first NFL pass after spending the previous season on the Chiefs’ practice squad, and may very well never have much of a pro career, have gotten greater value in his life out of spending years 18-22 of his life playing for the Altoona Crushers of the hypothetical National Football Developmental League? That’s not a rhetorical question. I legitimately don’t know. It’s a real Diving Catch-22. (Woof.) What are we going to do about all this? My plan is to get lunch and hope that it all gets figured out by the time I get back.