The League

Michael Oriard

Michael Oriard

An English professor at Oregon State University and the author of several books on football, including Brand NFL Making and Selling America's Favorite Sport and The End of Autumn Reflections on My Life in Football

An unsustainable system


"Improper benefits" given by sports agents to college football players have suddenly become a major story again, and each time it occurs, the story is a little different. The key questions are always the same: Who's to blame, and what's to be done about it? But as the story changes, so do the answers.

First of all, since we're talking about "The League," I would insist that the current problem is not the NFL's. Until the draft and the free-agent signing period that follows, college football players are college football players, not NFL players. NFL clubs assessing the character of prospective draftees, and the Players Association assessing the character of prospective agents, can deal with the revelations of improper benefits however they see fit. But the problem in itself is not an NFL problem.

It's the colleges' problem, but here, assigning blame and proposing solutions get a little tricky. There's no defense for the agents. The very act of offering benefits to college athletes with eligibility remaining exposes their dishonesty and unreliability. They may break no laws, only NCAA rules, but they instantly put their clients in jeopardy of losing eligibility and perhaps more, much more. The very act of offering improper benefits proves that they do not have the best interest of their clients at heart.

The athletes are surely to blame -- they knowingly violate the rules of their scholarship and put their institutions as well as themselves at risk -- but here the blame needs to be spread around a little, or at least contextualized. The $200,000 or so that Reggie Bush received while at USC was 4 or 5 percent of his coach Pete Carroll's salary for one year -- and all of the Reggie Bushes today are aware of such disparities. While a football scholarship today pays for what a scholarship paid in the 1960s, the average coach's salary in the Football Bowl Subdivision has risen from maybe $25,000 to $1 million, with the coaches in the major programs earning three, four, five times that much. And the trickle-down effect actually works in college football, as the head coaches' rising income trickles down to his assistants, the athletic director, even the president of the NCAA. In fact, it trickles down to just about everyone except the players. And the players know this.

So, improper benefits is the universities' problem, but just the tip of a much bigger problem: the growing absurdity of treating big-time college football (and basketball) as an extracurricular activity for the players but a multi-million-dollar entertainment business for everyone else. The old contract implicit in an athletic scholarship -- an education in return for athletic services -- has broken down. The growing evidence of low graduation rates, gaps between athletes and non-athletes in SAT scores, "clustering" in easy (sometimes meaningless) majors, calls seriously into question whether athletes' educational "opportunities" are real. Lip service to "student-athletes" notwithstanding, everyone knows that many of the athletes in the top programs are at college to get ready for the NFL (or NBA), not the civilian job market. This is where the issue of "improper benefits" gets tricky.

The NCAA will not allow its athletes to capitalize on their own athletic accomplishments or protect their own athletic interests -- the right to transfer without penalty, secure agents, etc. "Improper benefits," if viewed dispassionately, are among the rights enjoyed by most employees. Athletes are not employees, we're told, they're students, but that is ultimately the issue, or problem, at the bottom of all of this. The Ed O'Bannon case that is working its way to trial (asserting the rights of former college athletes to financial benefits from the use of their images), the rumblings in Congress about tax-exemption for hundred-million-dollar athletic programs, legal demands for "athletes' rights"-- these provide the context for viewing "improper benefits" as part of a much larger issue.

A real solution to the problem of improper benefits would have to go beyond policing agents, punishing athletes, and protecting programs from a problem beyond their control. It will have to come to terms with the increasingly unsustainable situation in which college athletes earn millions for everyone but themselves, and get too little in return.

By Michael Oriard  |  August 3, 2010; 10:30 AM ET  | Category:  College Football , NCAA , NFL Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati  
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Excellent analysis. The Olympics got smart on this issue many years ago, it's time for the NCAA to move into the real world.

Posted by: termiteavenger | August 4, 2010 2:21 AM

No one can seriously contend the NCAA rules are intended to protect "student athletes."

Rather, they are designed to maintain the colleges' access to low-cost, easily exploitable athletes, while coaches and others make lots of money off them.

Major football programs have nothing to do with colleges' educational missions. They are professional sports franchises -- usually with their own .com website -- in everything but name. Now, the conferences are moving to establish their own TV networks, with millions in revenue on the table, all driven by essentially free labor. Either pay the players, or expect these problems to continue.

Posted by: Meridian1 | August 4, 2010 8:46 AM

The problem is much deeper and throwing $$$ at students, or anyone, won't end greed. The information around Reggie Bush suggests that his follow-up to receiving the illegal gifts was always to ask for more. Changing what we allow to give to these athletes will only result in increased costs to the fans and students. And in cases like Reggie, they'll still cheat to get more.

Posted by: USA4ALL | August 4, 2010 9:35 AM

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