The NCAA isn't so bad, after all

Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The NCAA could be better. But the good far outweighs the bad.

Not a week goes by without a new storm cloud popping up over the NCAA. The darkest cloud is the consolidated In re NCAA Student-Athlete Name & Likeness Litigation -- commonly referred to as the "O'Bannon lawsuit" -- which will seek class action certification in June. The Miami investigation was a massive black eye for the NCAA. And there are the weekly potshots from Twitter and elsewhere deriding the NCAA as nothing more than a modern plantation.

Recently, two Big 12 football coaches got caught up in the most contentious issue right now. First, Bob Stoops inelegantly stated that he believes a scholarship and the other associated benefits of being a student-athlete are more than adequate compensation. Not long afterward, our very own Bill Snyder said college athletics is "in a bad place right now" and that he (Snyder) is "grossly overpaid for what I do."

Is a college education "nothing?"

Some clearly believe college athletes really are getting nothing for their efforts. But are college athletes -- and we'll focus particularly on college football and basketball players -- really getting nothing for what they do?

The obvious answer is "no." College football and basketball players receive a scholarship that pays for most of their educational expenses at some of the nation's best public and private universities. At K-State, based on current tuition and assuming 120 hours are required to obtain an undergraduate degree, the tuition alone is worth $29,268 for a Kansas resident, or $77,664 for a non-resident. And K-State is consistently ranked as one of the best values in collegiate education, so that number is undoubtedly higher at most other public universities, and a lot higher at private schools. Add in books, housing, and other miscellaneous expenses, assuming the athletic scholarship covers them, and that total rises significantly.

And those aren't the only benefits student-athletes receive. Many, though certainly not all, receive instruction from excellent coaching staffs. Professional trainers work with them to develop strength and endurance. Through the athletic training table, they receive better food than most students. Academic tutors are available to help student -athletes with their studies. And most schools have built palatial locker rooms, training facilities and weight rooms for their athletes to enjoy.

If you're a pay-for-play advocate, you're likely to respond that all that is nice, but it comes nowhere close to the value generated by the student-athletes in football and basketball. Collectively, this is true. Between TV contracts, licensing fees for video games and the like, and merchandise sales, college football and basketball players are collectively worth millions to their universities, and possibly billions to their conferences. So is it fair that they only receive the benefits outlined above in light of the value collectively generated?

Assessing the difference among college athletes

The simple answer is yes, but it requires a little more explanation. Not all college football and basketball players are created equal. There are superstars, such as Johnny Manziel and Trey Burke this year, who were strong enough draws to turn on TVs, and sell tickets, merchandise and video games. Below that level, there are guys like Chris Harper and Arthur Brown a K-State who, while not national names, will play the game professionally and do quite well.

Those guys would be able to make money playing football or basketball after high school. But they're in the vast minority. Consider that there are 124 FBS programs as of January 10th, 2013, and each program is allowed 85 scholarship players. For ease of calculation, we'll assume each team actually has 85 scholarship players. That would mean there are 10,540 scholarship football players in FBS. The NFL Draft consists of seven rounds, with 32 picks per round for a total of 224 draft picks. Ignoring supplemental picks and undrafted free agents, only about 2.1 percent of college football players can be drafted in any year.

The odds are longer in college basketball, for obvious reasons. College basketball teams can have 13 scholarship players each year. With 347 Division I men's basketball programs, there are about 4,511 scholarship basketball players in Division I. The NBA Draft consists of only two rounds, for 60 total picks. Again ignoring other means of making an NBA roster, only 1.33 percent of college basketball players can be drafted in any given year.

But let's be completely fair on this point. The reason college football and basketball exist at such a high level is that both the NFL and NBA have instituted age restrictions. NFL players must be three years removed from high school graduation, while NBA players only need one year. Note that these are rules instituted by the professional leagues. Be mad at the NCAA for a variety of reasons, but the NCAA is not the entity that requires amateur athletes to play for it on the way to a professional career, though it obviously benefits from this arrangement.

Would farm systems in the NFL and NBA be the end of high-level college athletics?

Anyway, back to fairness. Let's assume that the NFL and the NBA did away with their age-restriction rules and instituted their own farm system. They likely wouldn't operate these leagues on only 224 and 60 players, respectively. But this doesn't substantially change the calculus from above. Let's assume that the NFL created a 32-team developmental league, with a 53-man roster limit. This would open up space for 1,696 players. That amounts to 16.6 percent of college football players on scholarship.

In the NBA, a 30-team farm system with 13 players per roster would make room for 390 players. That's still only 8.6 percent of scholarship college basketball players.

And that doesn't even address the compensation issue. Major League Baseball has no age restriction, and high school players are often drafted and signed. But unless you're one of the first- or second-round picks who lands a six- or seven-figure signing bonus, the pay really isn't that great. The odds of earning an MLB draft pick aren't any better than earning an NFL or NBA draft pick, and a lot of high-school draft picks probably decide to play college ball simply because the compensation isn't there down on the farm.

The obvious point here is that, while some college football and basketball players could make a living playing their sport beyond high school, the vast majority -- about 85 percent of college football players and more than 90 percent of college basketball players -- could not do so. For those student-athletes, the benefits associated with playing college sports are more than they could expect to receive in the absence of NCAA competition.

What we're really talking about: a very, very few college athletes

So when pay-for-play advocates argue it's unfair that college athletes receive "nothing" in return for the vast value they create, they're really arguing that a very small percentage of college football and basketball players receive less compensation than they generate, and than they could receive if the NFL and NBA didn't restrict entry into their leagues. Ignoring the fact that the NCAA and its member institutions don't force these athletes to play college sports, is this unfair?

If it is, then it's no more unfair than most industries. For one example, associate attorneys at law firms are generally required to bill a certain number of hours per year. The revenue from these billable hours far exceeds the associate's compensation, and covers pay for non-billable staff, as well as overhead and other expenses. And, of course, partner profits. Of course, if the associate doesn't think their compensation is fair, they have the freedom (theoretically) to change law firms or find a job in a different industry. That nobody has come along and created an alternative to the NCAA is not the NCAA's fault.

It's not as bad as they say, but it could be better.

Though I don't believe the current system is grossly unfair such that it requires a significant change in terms of pay-for-play, that doesn't mean it's perfect. Several reforms would go a long way toward making the system better. Three specifically are full cost-of-attendance scholarships, full insurance coverage for injuries sustained while competing, and limiting practice time so student-athletes can focus on academics.

Read here for more on full cost-of-attendance scholarships. Either the NCAA or its member institutions would fund the full cost to attend school, although the details would be a bit contentious. While the article -- written by an actual compliance officer -- notes that the notion of the starving student-athlete is mostly a myth, this would take care of attendance costs, possibly permit the student-athlete's family to travel to games more often, provide entertainment money, etc. If funded by the schools, it means less money for Bill Snyder, but given that he's "grossly overpaid" already, is that such a big problem?

Insurance coverage for student-athletes came into focus recently after Kevin Ware's gruesome injury in the NCAA tournament. Though this post notes that the NCAA permits schools to provide insurance coverage for athletes, and that most schools do so, it strikes me that we could go further. Schools are unlikely to shortchange football and basketball players who suffer a high-profile injury, but what about a tennis or volleyball player? Ensuring that medical expenses don't fall through the cracks seems only right given the health risks these student-athletes take to represent their schools.

Finally, we turn to what Bill Snyder seemed to address with his recent comments. My biggest concern with college athletics is not that paying for a college education is necessarily insufficient compensation for playing college sports. Rather, the pressure to win leads to coaches pressuring marginal students into "easy" majors so they can stay eligible. These majors may well not be a subject that interests the student-athlete in the least, and may not teach any skills the student-athlete will find applicable after graduation.

Originally, I planned to analyze the majors chosen by K-State's football and men's basketball players to see if academic clustering -- pushing athletes into "easy" majors to maintain eligibility -- was a problem at K-State. But I think the discussion of what constitutes an "easy" major, and whether that's a problem, is a long and ultimately pointless discussion. There are a lot of majors offered by a lot of universities that don't provide strong post-graduation employment prospects.

Instead, I'll again echo John Infante and call for an athletics major for college athletes. College athletes spend a ton of time -- time that should be curtailed, in my opinion, especially "voluntary" offseason workouts -- preparing, practicing and playing their sport. If college athletics is part of a holistic college educational experience, they should get more academic credit for it than they currently do. Call athletics participation a lab, and permit six hours of academic credit for it over a maximum of 10 semesters. That's 60 hours, or half of the 120 required for an undergraduate degree in most majors at K-State.

From there, the curriculum can be pretty flexible. Those who believe they're likely to become professional athletes could focus on that, with courses in personal finance, nutrition, public relations, marketing, intellectual property law, and other relevant subjects. Others could focus on coaching, or athletics administration, with relevant curricula for them. These need not be classes only student-athletes can take. A lot of them already exist in other majors.

Conclusion

The NCAA isn't perfect. Its enforcement arm would benefit from close scrutiny, and a lot of its rules could stand a commonsense overhaul. But overall, it's a system that provides a lot of benefits to a lot of people. Thousands of college athletes who literally couldn't get a dime from any other entity for their athletic prowess after high school get an entire college education paid for. And the value of that education is not merely the dollar value of the tuition and related expenses. It's in the continuing value a degree provides, not to mention the payments that won't be allocated to student-loan debt -- and interest thereon -- years later.

And yet somehow, we have people cheering for the entire system to burn to the ground because a relative handful of college athletes are undercompensated for their athletic abilities. And further, the reason they're undercompensated for these abilities is not because of anything the NCAA has done, but rather because the professional leagues in their sports have made rules barring their competition. It's not their fault that they're forced to wait out an ineligibility period before entering their chosen profession. But it's not the NCAA's fault, either.

BOTC writer Jon Morse contributed substantially to this post.

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