With every new college sports scandal or revelation of an assistant coach who makes more than a CEO, the term “student athlete” becomes even quainter than raccoon coats, goldfish swallowing or phone booth stuffing. (Remember phone booths?)

Opinion

William L. Rukeyser
Special to CALmatters

College sports is big business and deserves to be treated that way. College football and basketball players are hard workers and deserve to the paid that way.

Unfortunately for the vast majority of them, the teams they currently work for are as close to the majors as they’ll ever get and the current system is intent on denying them the payday they deserve. Many will leave the halls of academe without a degree and without a future. They deserve better.

Some of the ideas presented here are not new, but I have never seen a systemic solution which would be a win-win-win for the players and fans and the colleges. Deregulation is the answer.

For the business of sports, particularly football and basketball, college sports function as the minor leagues, the farm teams. That doesn’t mean they are nickel-and-dime operations.

Cable contracts and merchandise result in many millions of dollars rolling in. For everyone concerned except for the players on the field or on the court. (The people who actually break a sweat to produce all that revenue.)

System Hasn’t Kept up With Reality

Once upon a time, “amateur status” was enshrined as a holy grail. It has long since been dismissed as a fiction. But the system hasn’t kept up with reality.

There is a simple way to reform the industry:

  • Recognize that each university or college team is a franchise. Some are more valuable than others. There are innumerable variables including location, star players, coach, fan base and history.
  • Recognizing that each is a franchise with a trademark and that the NCAA has been restraining competition for decades, the time is overdue for deregulation such as the aviation, trucking and phone systems underwent in the 1970s and ’80s.

Here’s how it might work. Current NCAA rules and contracts are ruled void because they are monopolistic and each college or university is free to do with its teams what it wants.

Some might decide to maintain the status quo, but when their accountants advise them, they might choose otherwise. The more savvy campus boards of trustees might decide it would be more productive to sell or lease the franchise and name/logo/mascot to entrepreneurs.

Those companies would be free to lease the stadium, if they wished, or move the team to a location that made better business sense. This could be a win-win for many small to medium-sized cities which have no professional teams and for the new team owners who would have an instant fan base.

They would also have players who no longer sailed under the flag of convenience “student athlete,” but could be treated as what they really are: talented and hard-working people who want to be paid for their labor.

Under deregulation, the players (or their agents) could negotiate fair compensation packages. If they were not picked up by the NFL or NBA they could continue to work for the team as long as they and the owner could negotiate a contract.

Free Market Would Handle Most of the Issues

When they retire from the team, they would be able to afford any college they wanted, if they wanted. Not just the place that recruited them.

There should be a mandate that a certain percentage of the revenue be allocated to two programs: Some should go to scholarships for economically needy or truly exceptional scholars.

The college or university that sold or leased the franchise would have a lump-sum payment or a revenue stream free and clear of the obligations of maintaining a complex organization.

And campus presidents would no longer have the humiliating situation of dealing with a “subordinate” (the coach) who makes far more than the administrator.

Of course, any campus that decided it wanted to retain ownership of its franchise would be free to do so and it would compete on a level playing field for athletes who would be paid just like those working for commercially owned teams.

The free market would take care of most of the issues and the fan would, very likely, see a better product in the stadium or on TV.

Would this system be totally deregulated? In fairness to the tradition of college sports, not entirely.

There should be a mandate that a certain percentage of the revenue be allocated to two programs: Some should go to scholarships for economically needy or truly exceptional scholars.

The rest should go to support intra-mural sports and those teams, like croquet and curling that will never make a dime. (Except in Canada; curling might be very profitable there.)

About the Author 

William L. Rukeyser is a native Californian who began his career as a broadcast reporter/editor and wrapped it up doing communications for non-profits, three statewide campaigns and a variety of state and federal agencies. He can be reached at ex.water.board.ruke@gmail.com. He wrote this commentary for CalMatters, a public interest journalism venture committed to explaining how California’s Capitol works and why it matters.

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