Fixing college sports: In free agency we trust

April 17, 2014 

The NCAA must be feeling a bit like Dr. Frankenstein these days: assailed by college football and men’s basketball players who reject the NCAA’s precious, but mostly mythic, notion that they are student-athletes.

At Northwestern University, a group of football players scored a first-round victory before the National Labor Relations Board in a campaign to be recognized as “employees” eligible to unionize. For some college football fans, this evokes disturbing images of burly 18- to 22-year-old player-proletarians marching on picket lines instead of lined up on offensive or defensive lines, much less seated in classrooms.

Meanwhile, the lawyer who helped bring free agency to the NFL now seeks to do the same for college football and men’s basketball. Jeffrey Kessler filed suit in federal court last month.

Jenkins v. NCAA charges the association and its five “power conferences” with price-fixing and restraint of trade in violation of the 1890 Sherman Antitrust Act. College sports have “lost their way far down the road of commercialism,” according to the complaint.

But rather than undoing commercialism, Jenkins merely calls for making more room for players to come along on the road trip to riches. The NCAA should dispense with “false claims of amateurism,” it insists, and allow high school football and men’s basketball stars to hock their wares to the highest bidder.

This brave new world conjures up scenes of desperate coaches draining university endowments to satisfy a free-agency bidding frenzy.

Both assaults on the NCAA’s business model have much to commend them. Above all, they hold the promise of doing what should have been done a while ago: cutting players in on more of the multibillion-dollar bonanza their athletic talent generates. But these attacks also undeniably threaten to kill, rather than revise and revive, the student-athlete; that is, the ideal in which “student” precedes “athlete” and student-athletes receive an education they might not have otherwise had.

There is a better way. Free agency could be structured so that it would yield more college degrees and more money for players, a players’ counterpart to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s recent call for coaches’ salaries to depend to some degree on the academic performance of their players.

The first step would be to estimate how much money would be required to lure recruits if free agency were introduced into the power conferences. The next step would be to establish a trust fund in that amount, redirecting money from the revenues and income of all the parties who currently reap the lion’s share of what the players sow.

Players could redeem a share of the fund only after they complete their bachelor’s degrees. There could be some disbursements along the way for good academic progress, and perhaps more money for those who graduate with higher GPAs or receive more rigorous degrees.

Structured in this way, free agency would co-opt the ever-expanding commercialism of revenue-generating college sports, rather than capitulate to it by replacing student-athletes with unionized employees. It would yield higher graduation rates and more just economic deserts for players to begin to enjoy upon receiving their diplomas.

This is a win-win for the NCAA, the networks, the schools and everyone else who profits from college football and men’s basketball. They all pay lip service to the student-athlete ideal. Free agency, as described here, would let them put their money where their mouths are.

The stakes are much bigger than money. The current landscape has the “unmistakable whiff of the plantation,” as historian Taylor Branch put it in a 2011 article in the Atlantic. Anyone watching college bowl games or March Madness can’t help but notice that the fields and courts are dominated by young black men whose labor redounds disproportionately to the benefit of older white men.

A tiny percentage of these athletes will go on to lucrative professional careers. As for their teammates, too few of them will have a degree (much less a meaningful education) to show for their time spent in college.

A system of free agency that increases graduation rates while also spreading the wealth would purge that lingering plantation stench and inject new integrity into the ideal of student-athlete.

Mark Brilliant is an associate professor of history and American studies and a member of the Chancellor’s Task Force on Academics and Athletics at UC Berkeley. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.

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