College football successfully debuted a Playoff and crowned a true National Champion ‒ the Big Ten’s Ohio State Buckeyes ‒ capping a terrific 2014 bowl season. Controversy and debate about just how many teams should be involved propelled the event to record ratings and fan interest. Former Dartmouth player Chuck Zodda looks at the latest proposal to change the game.
Last Thursday, the University of Maryland’s student newspaper broke the news that the Big Ten Conference is considering a proposal to impose freshman ineligibility for intercollegiate competition. Wallace Loh, the school’s President, quickly came out in favor of the proposal, noting, “It puts right up front the basic issue: Are we basically a quasi-professional activity or primarily an educational activity? And if you support it, you are basically saying very clearly the No. 1 priority is the education of the students.”
One problem: Redshirting a player does nothing to change the amount of time and energy spent on sports-related activities.
While nominally an attempt to change student behavior, the proposal likely overestimates the effect this will have on freshman athletes, while failing – perhaps even willfully so – to take into account the virtual inevitability of paid college athletes. It raises the question of whether this is a legitimate effort to reform the system, or simply an attempt to paper over well-publicized problems with collegiate athletics in order to keep multi-billion-dollar profits in the hands of administrators and staff, rather than sharing those riches with the players on whose backs they are earned.
Journey of a Walk-On Backup Kicker
A little background: I was recruited to Dartmouth College as a soccer player in the fall of 2005. Unable to crack the regular rotation, I left the team in the spring of my freshman year. Around that time, a friend from the football team approached me about possibly becoming a placekicker; I tried out in May and the football team brought me aboard with no promise of playing time or financial incentive. I joined simply because I wanted to.
I spent my sophomore year in a reserve capacity, kicking in junior varsity games and acting as a scout-team wide receiver to prepare our starting defense. The following season, after our kickoff specialist struggled, I finally made it into game action during my junior year in that role. With our field goal specialist due to graduate, I expected to take over placekicking duties in my senior year. However, the nature of college sports is that coaches are always looking for better players, and I was replaced by a freshman who would twice earn All-Ivy League honors.
In case it isn’t clear, I am not the poster child for paying college athletes. My 52-yard maximum distance on field goals and 3.6-second hang time on kickoffs simply was not good enough to make me an elite player. Even if I had been elite, my being a kicker would have placed me at the low end of the salary scale. Nevertheless, I participated in every aspect of the football program, including weight training, film study, off-season workouts, and all else required of a Division I athlete. I understand the demands placed on students by both the academic and athletic sides of their college lives. And because of this, I believe that what the Big Ten is proposing is morally wrong and completely indefensible.
“Primarily an Educational Activity”
The Big Ten proposal aims to make the redshirting of freshmen mandatory, ostensibly to allow them to focus on academics. Under current rules, a player who takes a “redshirt” year is allowed to participate in practices and other team activities, but is restricted from competition. And it is for this very reason that trying to hide behind the guise of improving academics is transparently fraudulent.
The amount of time I spent participating in football activities varied by season. During the fall, we typically had Mondays off, with full practices Tuesday through Thursday. When factoring in film study, extra work after practice, and travel time, the average practice day would begin at 1:30 p.m. and last until 6:30 p.m. Practices lasted two hours, but all the additional time on these days added up quickly. Friday was a walk-through day that truncated the regular schedule typically running from 1:30 p.m. to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays ‒ game days ‒ began with breakfast at 8:00 a.m. and a full schedule through the game, which typically extended from noon to 3:00PM; half of the games required multi-hour bus trips both ways. On Sundays we reviewed film from the previous game and had a light workout. All told, the time for in-season football activities totaled about 30-35 hours per week.
Out of season, workouts were much more limited. Winter saw weightlifting and agility sessions, with a total commitment of 6-8 hours weekly. Spring was largely the same, except for a two-week practice period taking up 30-35 hours each week and resembling the fall in-season regimen.
Despite only playing in games during part of my junior season, I still participated in every one of these activities. While I did not have an official redshirt designation, two of my seasons were equivalent to those of redshirted players. I saw no reduction in the amount of time spent on football activities, nor any expanded focus on academics – not even the ability to add afternoon classes to my schedule. The only difference? I was relegated to standing on the sideline on Saturdays instead of playing. Redshirting a player does nothing to reduce the amount of time and energy required of him for sports-related activities.
The Myth of the Student-Athlete
In examining the challenge of improving academics in college sports, one must look at the organizations charged with shepherding those pursuits. In the cases of large programs, the NCAA holds final authority on all matters. It is important to note that the NCAA has no involvement in the accreditation process of universities, nor does it act in concert with the United States government in any way. The NCAA exists independently to oversee college sports and ensure that all participants follow a set of guidelines whereby schools receive equal treatment.
The NCAA train wreck is best explained in an outstanding 2011 article by Taylor Branch from The Atlantic. Branch digs deep into the founding years of the NCAA, as well as the critical changes that happened in the 1950s to move the organization out of the shadows and into the spotlight. The most important piece of information comes from Walter Byers, who crafted the ambiguous term “student-athlete,” largely to prevent players from earning salaries or filing lawsuits for job-related damages incurred while playing college sports.
One of the major arguments the NCAA makes against paying college athletes is that the value of a college education is large enough to render any additional payment unnecessary. The organization purports that receiving a free college education more than makes up for one’s inability to earn additional income related to athletic pursuits. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, a college graduate earned $457 more per week than a high school graduate in 2013, equal to nearly $25,000 in additional income over a full year.
There are two flaws in this line of reasoning: First, it assumes that all athletes on athletic scholarship would receive no aid money from additional sources if they chose to go to college even in the absence of said scholarships. Given the financial background prevalent among college athletes, many would likely receive significant assistance in the form of need-based aid, or would have other scholarships available. But the more egregious error is assuming that these athletes would not be in college at all if not for their athletic prowess. If this were not assumed by those making the “value of a degree” argument, then why would the earnings of a high school graduate be a fair point of reference? The argument that student athletes should be grateful to athletics for receiving a college education is utterly patronizing to these young people, many of whom would make fine – and perhaps even better – scholars in the absence of sports. And to the extent that this assumption would be true in some cases, does it not actually show that our collegiate athletic programs are even more warped than we imagine, as they allow students who are otherwise unqualified for college to take the place of those who are so qualified?
In recent years, the NCAA has begun tempering its stance on exactly how student-athletes may be compensated. The latest move, in August 2014, was to allow schools from the five power conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12, and SEC) to pay student-athletes a stipend above and beyond their athletic scholarships. The NCAA for years championed the cause of the student-athlete ‒ the man or woman who plays simply for the love of the game. Now, the NCAA says that it is legitimate for a student to earn compensation for his athletic efforts, but only in limited amounts.
If a “student-athlete” is a real thing, and not simply a term created for the benefit of those reaping profits at the top, how could such a fundamental issue change in this manner? Furthermore, the limits the NCAA has discussed ($2,000 to $5,000) are completely arbitrary, with no basis in any federal, state, or municipal law. The concept that players like Reggie Bush and Vince Young were properly compensated for their performances and contributions by the scholarship they received was condescending and false from the beginning. The idea that a relative pittance of several thousand dollars somehow rights the wrongs perpetrated by the NCAA and its member schools ignores the millions of dollars that star athletes generate for the major football programs in TV and merchandise revenue.
The NCAA has now realized that the flimsy arguments it has built its history on are crumbling, and this is an attempt to placate players with something, anything, to avoid paying them market rates. And when looking at the Big Ten proposal with this in mind, the farcical nature of its promises becomes even more apparent.
Time is Money
The Big Ten proposal seeks to rule freshmen ineligible for competition. Since such players would not be competing in NCAA events, the conference argues they should not be compensated. The proposal is a way to reduce the overall cost of programs by deferring payments to athletes until they are actually allowed to compete in events. What additional value can you bring to the school if you are not involved in the games that produce revenue? The path the Big Ten is trying to take is very clear: Academics are not the priority; the objective is, as always, securing the flow of profits to the NCAA and its member institutions, rather than to the men and women whose athletic performances generate that money.
Consider any other enterprise that students undertake in college. Is a student prohibited from work-study programs because of money earned working at Applebee’s? No, they are encouraged to work extra jobs as a way to avoid excessive debt. Is a jazz saxophonist prohibited from performing in the college ensemble if he earns a paycheck playing at a New York City club in the summer? No, he would be trumpeted as an example of the benefits of a college-sponsored band – heck, he might be profiled in the college magazine. Yet college sports continue to treat money for athletes as the enemy, because as soon as money becomes involved, college athletes will begin to realize that schools have been receiving massive sums of money off their hard work.
College sports are the one place in America where people are told that money does not matter. One of the major ways that schools attempt to differentiate themselves is in the earnings and employment statistics of their graduates. Yet if your specialty happens to be hitting a baseball instead of writing poetry, you are immediately told that you must sacrifice the pursuit of money because your scholarship and love of the game are enough. Could you imagine telling a computer programmer that in order to remain enrolled in Computer Science 304, he must divest his stake in his web company because his academic scholarship and love of computers should be enough? It would be ludicrous. Since it is the status quo, it is widely accepted in college sports, because that’s the way things have always been. But it doesn’t have to continue to be that way.
The Way Forward
So what is the path forward for college athletes? How do we figure out who should earn what in each sport? How do we pay for all athletes if budgets are already stretched too tightly as it is? These are all legitimate questions that do not have easy answers. Moreover, they are unpleasant questions. They require us to look at the ugly side of college athletics, away from the championships and banners, and towards the way we treat our athletes and the mission of education. If we do that, the solution is within reach.
For academics to be a legitimate priority instead of simply a term used to whitewash the fact that student-athletes are having their rights limited – indeed, perhaps infringed upon – the first thing that must happen is that colleges must seriously entertain the idea of shortening the seasons of major sports. Football and basketball seasons have become elongated exercises in mental and physical endurance. Football season currently runs from August through January for teams competing for national championships. Basketball season extends from October through April for title contenders. The number of games needs to be dramatically reduced in order to allow students to have a fair shot at competing academically, not just athletically.
Also along these lines, the size and geography of conferences must be looked at due to the travel forced on students by “super conferences” formed out of a desire to create conference championship games in football. The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) used to contain nine teams and stretched from South Carolina and Georgia to northern Virginia. After multiple rounds of expansion, the league now has 15 members covering ground from Florida to Massachusetts, and as far inland as Indiana. The travel burden placed on athletes by the geography of the conference is a major issue ‒ if you actually care about creating an atmosphere that balances academics and athletics.
These two areas are critical to any reform that seeks to legitimately look at the balance between athletics and academics in college sports. It would also dramatically affect the bottom line of the NCAA, as it would reduce the size of the massive television deals that supply the majority of revenue.
The next issue that must be dealt with is figuring out how much to pay college athletes. Before going any further, let me state that I believe that only Division I athletes should be compensated. Much like Division III athletes cannot earn athletic scholarships due to the finances of smaller schools, I believe that in order to make this proposal sustainable, it must also differentiate between schools of different sizes. Thus, only athletes at the highest level of competition, where the revenue generated is significant, should be eligible to be paid. To do so at lower levels would drastically restrict athletic opportunity which does have value beyond the revenues associated with certain Division I sports.
In terms of structure, a simple hourly wage coupled with an incentive-based system would be best. Recent survey stats show that between six and eight percent of high school athletes end up playing a varsity sport in college. Demand for those slots greatly outstrips supply, as healthy labor markets tend to have between one and two seekers per job opening, according to the BLS JOLTS report. So it makes sense to set a base hourly wage at minimum wage for the country, currently $7.25 per hour. This means that a walk-on kicker such as myself would have made $217.50 per week working 30-hour weeks in-season, and $43.50 per week in the offseason working 6-hour weeks. It’s not a lot. It’s actually pretty comparable to the $2,000 to $5,000 per year the NCAA proposed last year.
But the key is in the incentives. The NCAA should add performance bonuses for various achievements and awards. For example, the three leading rushers in each football league could receive bonuses based on their production. End-of-year award winners would receive bonuses based on those awards. Teams would receive playoff shares similar to professional leagues for post-season accomplishments. And most importantly, players whose jerseys are sold in large numbers would receive a portion of the proceeds from each jersey. But where would this money come from?
Leveling the Playing Field
We know that athletic departments and school budgets are tight. And so the true question becomes whether athletic directors, coaches, and NCAA administrators would be willing to reduce their own salaries to pay the students that actually generate the income their salaries are dependant on. Let’s do a quick case study for an average NCAA football team. Including walk-ons, a team may have 120 players. At $7.25 per hour, a player will earn a base of $217.50 per week. If we reduce the full season to 12 weeks, that works out to $2,610 per player, a cost of just over $313,000 to fund the team. It’s not cheap. But if you remove the rules restricting paying college athletes and streamline the compliance requirements, a large portion of the funding could come from the cash freed up on both the NCAA and college side due to reduced regulatory burden, along with head coaches for major programs being the likely candidates to take a haircut to make the math work. With the average head coach in Division 1 football earning $1.64 million per year in 2012 according to USA Today, there is certainly enough revenue to figure out how to shift compensation.
This is the real test for college athletics. Can coaches and administrators accept the fact that they will have to take a pay cut to compensate the athletes? The money is there. It simply needs to be redirected, and if athletic departments were serious about caring for the welfare, well-being, and education of their athletes, this should be a no-brainer.
The very fact that the Big Ten has floated their proposal about freshmen is indicative of a realization that there is a problem. It is typical of the machinations of NCAA programs, though, that the proposed solution just happens to benefit the school while offering only the illusion of helping students.
But another question arises: what to do with non-revenue sports? A women’s field hockey team may have 25 players that cost a total north of $50,000 per year in salaries under my proposed system. These sports have coaches making far less than their football or men’s basketball counterparts, and they generate nowhere near the revenue.
The answer is that smaller sports would be subsidized partially by those with higher revenue — just as occurs in the current system. The incentives for scoring titles or end-of-year awards in the small sports would be low, set by the revenues of each sport, but there would still be bonuses built in that allow for additional earnings. In this way, those sports could offer platforms similar to those of the major revenue-producing teams, which might actually encourage additional participation if this is viewed as a way to help pay for college on teams where scholarship counts are lower.
The proposal by the Big Ten to create a mandatory freshman redshirt period does little to actually focus students on academics, and is largely an attempt to help defer the eventual costs of paying players. If schools are serious about reforming their athletic departments, they need to look at drastically reducing competition schedules, as well as paying players for the time spent with their teams, and for production on the field. This is the most direct path out of the rules quagmire in which the NCAA currently sits. It would finally allow for a better balance between academics and athletics, as well as the proper and just compensation of college athletes.
Follow Chuck on Twitter @ITP_ChuckZ.
Chuck Zodda knows the importance of staying in your lane, how to fake a punt return, the humanity of punters, proper placekicking technique and the Jets.