UPDATE: It looks like Manziel has been suspended for a half-game–so, basically, nothing at all. Apparently, the page on which Texas A&M announced the statement with the NCAA had an advertisement from which you could purchase an autographed photo of Johnny Manziel. Too perfect. Dan Wetzel has another great column here.
A while ago, I wrote this “parable” intended to highlight the hypocrisy of college athletics. In the wake of the Johnny Manziel autograph scandal, more and more observers are beginning to agree that the system is inherently unfair. Rick Reilly writes in this stellar piece:
The NCAA has very clear rules: Everybody and their gastroenterologists can make money off Johnny Manziel except Manziel himself. The pursuit of wealth is available to every person enrolled at Texas A&M except student-athletes. The whiz pianist, the science prodigy, even the hopeful sportswriter. When I was at the University of Colorado, I worked 40 hours a week at the town newspaper, writing. Nobody threatened to throw me out of school.
Admittedly, the students represent the school in some way, and should be expected to abide by certain standards of behavior. But why should that by definition prevent any legal profiting off of their fame? Non-scholarship athletes are allowed to work, and athletes with other scholarships are allowed to work–why can’t scholarship athletes be permitted to sell their labor or brand?
What we have in college athletics is the mixture of two different sorts of services: education and entertainment. At top athletic schools, the football and basketball programs are highly profitable and are used to support the other athletic programs and the educational ventures of the university.
Without any historical background, it’s not entirely obvious why an institution should be running both an entertainment business for profit and an educational business not-for-profit (leaving aside whether a for-profit model is better for education). Professional franchises try to sell their product and drum up support by associating themselves with a city or state (or region: New England or Carolina). If another franchise moves to that region, they will be required to share profits with the established team for infringing upon their “territorial rights” in that sport.
College franchises sell their product through association with a college, which may extend the reach of their “fan base” beyond a region. College athletics is also billed as a different sort of product–anyone who follows the pro and college versions of football and basketball will know that the games are somewhat different. But there’s also the “spirit” of college athletics, a youth and excitement that the NCAA has been able to roll into a very compelling product.
College athletics began as a way for students to maintain healthy bodies with healthy minds. But with the growth of mass entertainment in college athletics, its profitability caused a specialization. Eventually, colleges ceased to care about a recruit’s academic abilities and focused only on their athletic promise. The student bodies at big state schools have “athletic specialists” whose talents are exploited by others to subsidize the “academic specialists.” This is wrong. Talented athletes should be paid based on the market value of their services.
Incidentally, other countries don’t permit their colleges and universities to be used as free farm-systems for their professional leagues. In Europe, soccer clubs can be formed at the lowest levels and can move up year by year based on their performance. There are no government subsidies for stadia/arenae and no giant college athletic programs.
Why have college athletics at all? Why not separate the two ventures? Or, we could make athletes employees of the university and just pay them based on the value they add to the school, like janitors, professors and presidents? I was amused to learn that the Chilean soccer team, Universidad de Chile, has no affiliation with the university. Let’s split off the education and entertainment businesses, allow the sports teams to use the “brand”–the name of the school–but the players will be paid and can do what they want with their money.
This won’t happen until the NCAA’s draconian restrictions on player compensation are challenged and overturned in courts. I hope that will happen soon. In the meantime, all the wealthy (mostly white!) administrators, pro franchise owners, and TV execs will continue to profit at the expense of the (mostly minority) athletes who are the product.
More interesting reading/listening: