On the State of College Basketball (and Football too)

Let’s get something straight right away: if Sean Miller did in fact pay the potential number-one NBA draft pick, Deandre Ayton, $100,000 for a single season at the University of Arizona, then he got one hell of a deal. We’ll come back to this.

Watching the madness unfold surrounding the FBI’s investigation into college basketball this week has been a simultaneously unsettling, confusing, and humorous experience. First of all, it seems absurd that the FBI is involved at all in college basketball. Why tax money and federal resources are being devoted to investigating young athletes allegedly getting paid under the table in a billion-dollar industry, while school shootings are becoming normalized, domestic terrorism — particularly among white nationalists — seems to be increasing, and the evil empire is meddling in numerous elections around the globe, is beyond me. There are better things the FBI should be worrying about.

Money changing hands in college basketball and football has been the worst kept secret in sports. Everybody knows that players are getting paid; there’s legitimately nothing surprising about the information that’s come out this past week. We need to stop acting shocked and appalled — all of us, including university administrators, have known that this is happening.

For years there has been a divide among the common fans of college sports, particularly when it comes to men’s basketball and football. The fundamental question and point of divide is this: do the players deserve to be paid? Forget for a minute the schematics of how such a system could be built; this is another question entirely, even though it often gets cited as a reason for answering the first question in the negative. Such a system is possible to create. We’re dealing with America’s hubs of education, innovation, and creativity; I trust that they could come up with something. Still, the primary question remains: do our college football players and men’s basketball players deserve compensation?

Many argue that players are already receiving compensation in the form of a full scholarship and education. These people say that the value of the education provided by universities is more than enough to compensate for the monetary value added by student-athletes’ presence and performance. Education, of course, is the way to the American Dream. Work hard, go to school, and anything is possible. That’s what we tell our youth — including our young athletes. We don’t need to pay you in dollars, because we’re giving you something better and of equal value: education and opportunities. But this argument is wrong on many, many levels.

Let’s address that last part first. Education, while valuable, is far from the end-all-be-all in terms of economic mobility and security. Does having an education increase opportunities? Sure. But simply providing an education — and we’ll get into soon whether or not an education is actually being provided in an honest way by many college athletic programs — is not enough. According to a 2013 study from the Pew Charitable Trusts, 70% of people born into lower income households stay there; only 26% rose to the middle class (and only about half of that group graduated from college). Around 86% of college athletes live below the poverty line. The last number alone should provide enough context for universities to understand that those student will most likely need additional resources and special academic attention in order to be truly successful. The classroom is already a hard place to succeed for any college student. Now add in a 43.4 hr/week schedule — the average time spent dedicated to football activities alone for division-I football players — and minimal or poor-quality educational assistance, and the prospect of succeeding academically seems increasingly difficult to imagine. Even with ideal circumstances and educational opportunities, these students are still fighting an uphill battle towards economic security. The majority of college athletes, regardless of whether or not they obtain a college degree, are going right back to where they came from.

To see the farce of a scholarship being enough, look no further than the University of North Carolina. The iconic college basketball program, constantly promoted by the NCAA and their media/television partners, essentially created an entire academic department consisting of no classes and manufactured grades for their athletes. The NCAA investigated and found that over an 18-year period, academic advisors, who changed grades and accepted plagiarism, funneled student-athletes into African-American studies classes that never met. Essentially zero penalties were handed down by the league. Why? The NCAA said it best themselves — “The NCAA did not assume a duty to ensure the quality of the education of student-athletes.”

In 2015, the Chronicle of Higher Education reported that over 20 universities were being investigated for academic fraud. Sadly, this number is most likely a gross underestimation of what was really going on. A college basketball insider I spoke to recently estimated that less than 25% of college athletic programs actually care about their student-athletes succeeding academically. The goal of university athletic programs and their academic advisors is not to produce well-educated students — it’s to produce academically eligible athletes.

By and large, division-I athletes tend to take easier classes, have easier majors, and perform worse. Are athletes dumber? Absolutely not. They are not failing; the system is failing them. Athletes are incentivized to take easier classes. We want them to focus on their top-20 matchup coming up on ESPN next week, not ace an organic chemistry class. How often does a student-athlete’s information pop up on screen to reveal that they are a theater major? How many of those kids are going on to pursue careers on Broadway? Every March Madness the NCAA rolls out the same commercial, proudly touting that the largest employer of college-athletes is Enterprise Rent-a-car. Let’s stop pretending that colleges are equipping the majority of our student-athletes with the tools they need to cure cancer; universities are using them to make money, and then sending them off to a rental-car kiosk.

I am going to make another generalization here, but I believe the following to be true. When it comes to the majority of revenue-raising division-I sports programs, the goal of educating is, at best, tertiary for the university to winning and making money. This brings us back to the situation at hand at the University of Arizona. Let’s forget for a moment that the stories released by Yahoo and ESPN — one of which claims that the Head Basketball Coach, Sean Miller, was caught on an FBI wire-tap buying the servicers of Deandre Ayton — have minimal and circumstantial evidence. Let’s forget for a moment that ESPN has redacted their story twice since it was released. Let’s forget for a moment that Deandre Ayton was already signed, sealed, and delivered to Arizona before the alleged wire-tapped call took place. Let’s forget all of that, and operate under the assumption that Ayton received $100,000 to play one year at the University of Arizona.

I’ll say what I said at the beginning: Miller got one hell of a deal. The business of college recruiting is messy. Adults are vying for the servicers of children, and a lot of money is at risk…a lot of money.

Let’s take a closer look at the 2015 College Basketball Final Four. The games, played at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis, had a crowd of 143,287 people. The average ticket price to attend a game was $1,151.98. Turner Broadcasting paid for the television rights to the tournament to the tune of $10.8 billion in 2010 for the next 14 years, and made $1.2 billion in ads from the 2015 tournament alone.

The four schools competing in the final four that year all made a lot of money from their athletic departments too. The money each university and sports program made in 2015, according to Business Insider, can be seen below:

University of Wisconsin

o Football — $47.3M

o Basketball — $19.4M

o All other sports — $13.5M

Michigan State University

o Football — $52.8M

o Basketball — $18.4M

o All other sports — $7.8M

Duke University

o Football — $25.2M

o Basketball — $27M

o All other sports — $24.3M

University of Kentucky

o Football — $34.1M

o Basketball — $23.7M

o All other sports — $2.3M

The two coaches in the championship game that year, Mike Krzyzewski and Bo Ryan, made a combined salary of $12,628,032. This isn’t your typical amateur sport where somebody’s dad volunteers to run the team in between selling insurance. We’re dealing with a billion dollar industry here.

By bringing in a top recruit like Ayton to the University of Arizona, Miller and his assistant coaches are adding inherent value to the university. Even if a proper education were provided, the value of the scholarship alone — around $37,000 for football and basketball — does not offset the value added by a player like Ayton’s presence on campus. Student-athletes, particularly of the caliber of Ayton and other top-recruits, have an absurdly high free-market value. Winning brings an institution a lot of money, and they know it. Would allowing a free-market recruiting system in college sports make the game itself less fun for the viewer? Maybe. Would top-ranked recruits flock to the top schools? Maybe; but they already do that for the most part. Would brand-name programs have even more of an advantage when competing? Again, maybe. Does this outweigh the denial of free-market opportunities and missed opportunity-cost for student athletes, particularly when they are already largely poor, and have a small chance to turn pro or even advance to the middle class? To me, that’s an easy answer.

The current system set up by the NCAA is a sham that is driven by and profits from free-labor. It’s not just the stars that are losing out on large profits either. According to a 2013 report from the National College Players Association, the fair market value of an average division-I college football or men’s basketball player was $121,048 and $265,027 respectively. Players from big name programs were valued even higher. A Duke Basketball player, for example, was valued at $1,025,656. Universities are largely aware of this — that is why so many are willing to look the other way when programs are committing academic fraud or are paying players under the table. Because, of course, cash rules. Spend a little money, take some risks, and watch the dollars roll in.

Even with some schools (illegally) paying players, many kids get screwed by the system. Take, for example, Silas Nacita. Nacita was a walk-on for the Baylor University football team in 2015. Right before the 2015 football season kicked off, he was called into the compliance officer’s office. It was there that Nacita was told that he would no longer be a part of the Baylor football program. At the time, Nacita was poor, hungry, and homeless. After sleeping in ditches and hotel lobbies and desperate for help, he accepted a kind offer from a friend: a place to live, food to eat, and a little financial assistance. The NCAA deemed this an impermissible benefit, making him ineligible for competition at the collegiate level. Nacita wasn’t a star; he wasn’t even a starter. The NCAA, though, not only robbed him of any financial gains he contributed to the collegiate athletic system, they robbed him of 12 years of hard work and the dream of playing college football.

Past the ridiculous rules and missing out on money made for their university, student-athletes are also robbed of their own likeness — meaning student-athletes sacrifice ownership of their image, which is also being used to make money for everybody but them and their families. All of the posters and billboards, the autographs and jerseys; the money made from these sales go to the sneaker companies, the NCAA, and the universities. The freshman who has a work-study in the school bookstore makes more money when selling a student-athlete’s jersey than that student-athlete will ever see from the sale. If a student-athlete decided they wanted to profit from their own image by receiving money for autographing a jersey, for example, they would be deemed ineligible from competition.

And once again, universities and top athletic programs are very aware of this fact. That is why people are getting paid under the table. It is also why college recruiting has become such a dirty game. Universities know the rules, are largely aware of how unfair it is, and want to keep their players somewhat happy. Some kids, knowing they’re getting short end of the stick in the current system, are happy to accept what they can get. Competition and greed are quintessentially human characteristics. We want to win, and we want to make money. There’s no escaping it.

This brings us back to the issue with the FBI. The basis for their involvement is that because American universities receive federal dollars, and these same universities are currently at risk of being defrauded through signing players who could later be deemed ineligible by accepting impermissible benefits and causing a mess for the school to clean up, any infraction against the NCAA — whether at the hands of a college coach, sports agent, etc. — can essentially be made a federal crime. What first seems questionable to me is this: the FBI is currently doing the job of the NCAA for them, a 501(c)(3) non-profit, who has their own investigating body and resources to police rules infractions. Second, if universities and the public are well aware that these tactics are being taken in recruiting, by university officials, sneaker companies, or agents, is anyone really being defrauded here? These schools, particularly the blue-bloods of college athletics, know damn-well how the game is played. There’s no fraud here, only plausible deniability.

It’s time to blow up the system. We need something fair and accountable to all parties involved, including the athletes. What the nuts and bolts of that system could actually look like, I’ll save for another time. What’s clear now, though, is that college athletics, as currently constructed when it comes to men’s basketball and football, is a travesty. Rules need to be followed, and protections need to be in place to ensure that bad-actors and greasy agents don’t manipulate or harm the children involved. But what’s most important when looking at the events of the past week is this — the off-the-court problems in college basketball are not failures of corrupt people; rather, they are the natural results of the corrupt system in place.

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