Jim Delany does a remarkable job of acting exactly like you’d expect the commissioner of America’s most quintessentially Midwestern collegiate conference to act. He’s flashless, clinical, alternately too naive and too cynical but never cautiously optimistic, and always seemingly about 20 years behind the times. In other words, he’s a draw play on 3rd and 4.
Then again, sometimes the man is exactly right. Many people in the world of sports and media who have taken him for an anachronistic bumpkin have wound up wondering who took their lunches. This is the guy who created a network with Fox and still gets lots of his games on ESPN. Underestimate him at your own risk.
On Wednesday a group of college athletic directors put forth a typically tone-deaf statement regarding the rise of the “pay-for-play” concept. Whether by choice or by impulse, an unlikely spokesperson emerged for this group: Jamie Pollard, athletic director at Iowa State University. Pollard took to Twitter to argue that the value provided by the NCAA to student athletes is more than enough compensation, and any scheme to pay the players is unworkable. For this, Pollard was predictably sliced to ribbons by ordinary fans and many within the media.
It’s a nonstarter, that argument that the value of the free education and training ought to be enough for any student athlete. There are exceptions, but most fans don’t think it is. Anybody with a little bit of mathematical knowledge can see that college football and men’s college basketball generate utterly insane amounts of revenue for universities, money which goes to offset “Olympic” (i.e., money-losing) sports but still leaves enough to pay career 7-5 football coaches $2 million a year. You can’t claim poverty if you can afford to do that. Saying the money isn’t there to pay the players is just not going to fly.
Delany, playing to his grey flannel dullard stereotype, started going there in a conversation Wednesday night. He even had the temerity to say that players who expected to get paid for their athletic endeavors should skip college altogether and go straight to the minor leagues. This caused at least one wiseguy to wonder if Delany knew the NFL doesn’t have a D-League or a minor league or even anything close to it.
That wiseguy should have known better than to wonder if there was something related to this discussion that Jim Delany didn’t know.
“I think we ought to work awful hard with the NFL and the NBA to create an opportunity for those folks. We have it in baseball, we have it in golf, works pretty good, we have it in golf, we have it in hockey. Why don’t we have it in football, basketball? Why is it our job to be minor leagues for professional sports?” Delany said.
That, more than anything else, is the best comeback possible to the question of why college athletes shouldn’t be paid. It doesn’t establish that they shouldn’t be paid, it merely questions why that task should fall to the colleges. After all, the colleges aren’t the sole beneficiaries of the student athletes’ labors and the only reason the NCAA winds up running de facto developmental leagues for both the NFL and NBA is because the NBA’s D-League is laughably small while the NFL’s doesn’t exist. Both leagues have it written into their rules and/or labor agreements that players simply can’t join straight out of high school.
That forces every good football player and almost every good basketball player to serve what amounts to an internship in college athletics. Like all internships, it provides experience without tangible reward or guarantees. Players get free tuition, room and board but not incidental expenses. They work 20 hours a week (or more) at their internships, which severely cuts into their study time and even limits their choice of majors, but because of academic progress rules they can’t back off to part-time status. And, just like any other internship, there’s no guarantee they will actually get hired even if you are pretty good at it.
The NFL and NBA, unlike the NHL, MLS, and MLB, pay none of the costs associated with this developmental/sorting process.
Delany has thus hit on the one compelling argument against paying student athletes, at least in revenue sports: isn’t it a bit odd that these two revenue sports are the two sports whose professional leagues have little to no minor league system? Or the two sports where the ownership and the players’ unions both agree that no 18-year-olds ought to be allowed in? There’s no way for a gifted 18-year-old football player to get paid for his labor and you think that’s the NCAA’s problem?
It isn’t. It’s just a big subsidy offered up to the NFL and NBA, two entities that really don’t need help making money.
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