Diagnose Before Attempting To Cure

Would a doctor treat symptoms without a diagnosis? Of course not. Would a mechanic repair a car’s engine before identifying what’s wrong? A good mechanic wouldn’t. Would a media pundit propose a fix to college basketball’s standards without articulating its problems? Of course they would. They’re meatheads.

Dick Vitale

“The NCAA’s got a problem. It’s making zillions of dollars,” Dick Vitale told TMZ Sports “Why not allow it? Let them get paid. I really believe that in my heart, because this has gotten totally out of control right now.”

Saying the players deserve a cut of the considerable revenue that college basketball generates sounds reasonable, but it’s as superficial as prescribing cough drops for pneumonia. It’s a little relief for a serious disease.

“Eventually, I think these kids are eventually going to have to get paid,” former Arizona Wildcats star Mike Bibby told USA Today’s AZcentral reporter Richard Obert. “It’s tough for a kid who can’t even get a slice of pizza.”

This is about pizza money? Wasn’t that problem addressed with the stipend for living expenses?

“Everybody knows everybody’s getting paid,” Los Angeles Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball told CBS Sports’ Kyle Boone. “That’s just how it is. Everybody’s getting paid anyway, you might as well make it legal. That’s how I feel.”

It isn’t corruption if we change the rules.

Mind you, I am not opposed to compensating the athletes; but I would like to know that whatever changes are made actually will fix the major college sports.

The Myth

Colleges use the carefully chosen term “student-athlete” when discussing those who play varsity sports at their institutions… just college kids participating in an extracurricular activity just like the Glee Club except the Glee Club’s members don’t get tuition, room, board, and books in exchange for their participation.

Athletes get those benefits just like other gifted students the university wants to attract: musicians, mathematicians, et al. They will excel academically in their chosen discipline and, as professionals, bring honor to the school and its program… except athletics isn’t an academic discipline unless the student-athletes are physical education or kinesiology majors who will distinguish themselves as the gym teachers and health club managers those curricula prepares them to become.

I would buy the student-athlete model if every sport resembled lacrosse. The game is fun to watch. The game features skilled, athletic competitors who can advance to a professional league, but that isn’t a big money proposition.

Notre Dame’s Arlotta Stadium has a grandstand that holds approximately 2,500 spectators, and there is a grass berm on the other side of the field where fans spread blankets or sit in beach chairs. Watching a game in a full stadium is a great way to spend a few hours on a warm spring afternoon. Adults pay $5.00. Kids pay $3.00.

Most college sports resemble lacrosse, student-athletes who take their sports seriously competing at a high level within the context of a college education; but NCAA Division 1 football, men’s basketball, men’s hockey, baseball, and an increasing number of women’s basketball programs are nothing like lacrosse. Those sports are professional minor leagues that benefit from the State U and alma mater brand. These professional minor leagues perform in high priced stadiums and arenas with luxury suites and video boards. Ticket prices resemble the NFL’s and the NBA’s, not lacrosse’s. Media contracts bring tens of millions of dollars to each major conference school.

There is nothing inherently wrong with this arrangement until one considers:

  1. The disconnect from a college’s mission
  2. The abusive labor arrangement

The Mission

Let’s consider some mission statements.


The University of Alabama will advance the intellectual and social condition of the people of the state, the nation and the world through the creation, translation and dissemination of knowledge with an emphasis on quality programs in the areas of teaching, research and service.

Penn State

Penn State is a leader in higher education and carries out its mission of teaching, research, and service with pride and focus on the future.

Our leadership in administration, faculty, and staff make our mission come alive every day. The Board of Trustees reviews and approves the budget of the University and guides general goals, policies, and procedures from a big-picture perspective. The President’s office ensures that all aspects of the University are running smoothly and promotes overall principles that students, faculty, and staff abide by for the long term. The University Faculty Senate represents the Penn State faculty with legislative authority on all matters regarding the University’s educational interests.

We strive to celebrate diversity in all aspects of our educational and operational activities. Our strategic plans are designed to result in ongoing improvements that help prepare future generations of leaders. Our budget is an integral part of our strategic process.


The mission of the University of Michigan is to serve the people of Michigan and the world through preeminence in creating, communicating, preserving and applying knowledge, art and academic values, and in developing leaders and citizens who will challenge the present and enrich the future.

Notre Dame

The University of Notre Dame is a Catholic academic community of higher learning, animated from its origins by the Congregation of Holy Cross. The University is dedicated to the pursuit and sharing of truth for its own sake. As a Catholic university, one of its distinctive goals is to provide a forum where, through free inquiry and open discussion, the various lines of Catholic thought may intersect with all the forms of knowledge found in the arts, sciences, professions, and every other area of human scholarship and creativity.

I can find room for competitive sports in these contexts. I cannot find a basis for operating professional sports franchises in either the words or implications of these mission statements.

How did this happen? How did colleges go from the lacrosse model to the football/basketball model? It happened step by step over decades, and now we’re here with tail wagging dog. It’s an entrenched system that, at best, doesn’t conflict with the colleges’ missions. Unfortunately the FBI’s investigation and any number of other incidents as serious as assault cover-ups and child abuse have put these professional sports businesses at odds with missions.

This is a problem that has nothing to do with athletes’ compensation.


The labor issue, on the other hand, has everything to do with athletes’ compensation.

It’s important to acknowledge the compensation athletes already get. It isn’t trivial. Free college that costs others as much as $65,000 per year has more than nominal value. It has annuity value for life. In addition, trainers, facilities, and nutritionists prepare college athletes who aspire to professional athletics careers.

While significant, any reasonable estimate of this compensation’s dollar value does not reflect the economic value that football and basketball athletes create for their schools. Do the math.

  • 80,000 tickets sold for $80 apiece, a sold out football stadium, is $6.4 million in ticket sales. Plus concessions. Plus parking. Plus licensed merchandise sales. Plus suite sales. Seven times a year.
  • Average attendance of 12,000 for a basketball game with an average ticket price of $35 results in $420 thousand. Plus concessions. Plus parking. Plus licensed merchandise sales. Plus club sales. Eighteen times a year.
  • Big Ten schools have a new series of media contracts that will bring each conference member school more than $50 million per year.

NFL players receive between 47% and 48.5% of total league revenue. The minimum salary is $465 thousand for rookies, and it escalates for each year of service.

NBA players receive 44.74% of total league revenue. The minimum salary is $815 thousand for rookies, and it escalates for each year of service.

More math:

  • Ignore concessions, club memberships, etc. Just add the ticket sales for football and basketball and the media revenue cited above and you get $102 million in revenue.
  • Apply the NBA’s percentage of revenue, the lower number, to the $102 million to get a players’ share of $45.8 million.
  • Allocate the players’ share among 85 scholarship football players and 13 men’s basketball players because they’re responsible for virtually all of the revenue. That gets you to compensation of $467 thousand per athlete.

Granted, that’s back of the napkin analysis; but even if I’m off by 25%, it still is hard to claim that tuition, room and board is reasonable compensation given the economic value the athletes create. It’s such a good deal for the schools that they can fully fund scholarships at the limits set for every one of their sports and still pay less in compensation to all athletes than 44.74% of their football and basketball revenue; and the cynical part of me believes funding those scholarships merely is a cost of being in the business of football and basketball. It justifies an employment model that keeps labor cost low while keeping employment law, collective bargaining, workman’s comp, and any number of other employment issues out of the equation.

The employment model is a complicator when considering payments to athletes. If football and basketball players are student-athletes, no different from the lacrosse team or the rowing team, how can payment to one group not apply to all groups? Title IX is going to require equal treatment for the men and women athletes. This is why college athletics administrators don’t complain about the challenges of Title IX compliance. It’s another cost of keeping the cheap labor model alive.

This is a problem of equity. Colleges take advantage of athletes who don’t have good alternatives if they aspire to the NFL or the NBA. They impose the rules of an amateur model on their minor league sports, and enforce them arbitrarily and ineffectively as an underground fills the compensation void the colleges created.

Better compensation might be an answer. A minor league system like baseball’s might be an answer. Something else might be an answer. All are worth discussing, but let’s not soft peddle the problem. In terms of compensation, colleges are treating their athletes like the professional sports leagues treated their athletes until the athletes started to fight for a fair share in the 1960s. That’s unconscionable.

The Biggest Problem of All

“When I decide that a kid has the talent I am looking for, then I try to find out about his character. I once had an elementary school principal in Wichita, Kansas tell me, ‘Coach, I wish you’d say academics is the second priority.’

“No ma’am,” I said. “because if he’s a great player and a 4.0 student but he’s going to be a pain in the rear end, I want it to be somebody else’s rear end.”

 – Roy Williams

Williams’ North Carolina program engineered academic fraud for years; and when it was discovered, he and Athletic Director Bubba Cunningham successfully argued that NCAA punishment was not appropriate because the same courses athletes passed without doing any work were available to non-athletes. At the same time, the university told its accrediting agency that it was an athletic department problem, not a university problem.

But character counts.

“I’m at the stage of my career when it’s not only about winning and developing players.”

 – Rick Pitino

Pitino was fired after embarrassing the university one too many times via the FBI investigation. Louisville already was in the NCAA sights because Pitino’s player development activities included hiring prostitutes for recruiting visit weekends. Of course Pitino denied any knowledge of such activities and blamed someone from the non-coaching staff. Vacating UL’s 2013 national championship is among the penalties assessed.

“I’m myself,” Sean Miller said. “I’m the coach and I’m going to push our team to be the best we can be. I’m going to push each of our players to be the best they can be. I’m going to love them. Once in a while they’re not going to like things that you do. It’s like a parent.”

 – Sean Miller

Miller didn’t coach his Arizona Wildcats on Saturday after being recorded authorizing payments to a recruit. The University is trying to decide what to do with him.

“That we are the gold standard, not just for college basketball but for all of college athletics.”

 – John Calipari

Every victory Calipari’s Memphis 2008 NCAA Tournament finalist earned was vacated for using an ineligible star player. It wasn’t a first.  His 1996 UMass squad’s had to vacate its NCAA Tournament victories for using an ineligible star player. Now Calipari talks about running a gold standard program while filling his team with players who never intend to stay longer than one season. That isn’t illegal, but is this a gold standard for college athletics?

“Every person has a different view of another person’s image. That’s all perception. The character of a man, the integrity, that’s who you are.”

 – Steve Alford

When he was at Iowa, Alford met with one of his star player’s assault victims to introduce her to the leader of the local Fellowship of Christian Athletes. Under the guise of counseling, they tried to arm-twist her into dropping the charges. Indeed, the character of the man is who he is.

“Well, you know, one of things about…and I think first from coach Wooden is just, you know, the pyramid of success. And I think the Wooden leadership academy and what they’ve instituted here just continues that. And that’s something that I think that attracted me here. About the development of the student-athlete, not only on the field but off the field. And how important that Dan and the people in the athletic department think of it.”

 – Chip Kelly

Kelly left Oregon ahead of the NCAA posse. His indiscretions included a cover-up of illegal recruiting tactics; and during the investigation, we learned that he interfered through an intermediary to have a recruit’s grandmother declared his guardian because the mother wouldn’t sign the letter of intent for Oregon. Oregon received 3 years of probation and a reduction of scholarships. Kelly received an 18-month show-cause penalty that prevented other universities from hiring him.

The show cause penalty expired during Kelly’s unsuccessful time in the NFL. With Kelly eligible to coach in college again, UCLA awarded him a five-year, $23.3-million contract to continue the character building mission he started at Oregon.

There are so many more examples. Joe Paterno squelched child abuse reports. Hall of fame coach Jim Boeheim’s program was penalized for academic fraud. Michigan State coaches and administrators covered assault complaints and allowed the perpetrators to play. Mike Krzyzewski, once the shining example of winning while graduating players from his prestigious university, has fully embraced Calipari’s one-and-done approach.

Bad people are front and center in college sports. They are rewarded financially. They are lionized.

This is not lost on the athletes. It isn’t just financial inequities. They see that almost everyone involved is talking one way and bahaving to the contrary. Why should they follow the rules? Their leaders don’t. Why shouldn’t they get theirs by whatever method is available?

In a Nutshell

Major college sports are enterprises that embrace and reward dishonest people in leadership roles, don’t fit the universities’ missions, and impose a compensation model on the athletes that takes advantage of their limited options.

Cure that.

15 thoughts on “Diagnose Before Attempting To Cure

  1. Interesting article. However it does not take into consideration the costs of running big time athletic departments. A few years ago there was article about Wisconsin athletics when it went to the Rose Bowl and the athletic department for that year lost money. I would suggest that very few athletic departments make a profit. My granddaughter plays D-1 softball but when the team travels are certain distance the parents are asked to help with expenses, they also hold benefits during the year to defray expenses.

    Athletes receive tuition, books, clothes, cash stipends and better food than the average student. All tax free.

    Even if you pay college athletes it would not stop the cheating. Pay an athlete $100k an someone will offer him another $100k under the table.

    One answer would be if the NFL and NBA develop a farm system like baseball, where players out of high school can earn a living playing professional sports. Kids who value an education can go to college on a scholarship.

    However the real answer is for colleges live up to their mission statements and drop inter-collegiate sports.

    If you pa

  2. Nicely laid out and stated. The revenue now is so great that it seems incredibly unlikely any school will back away from the trough/sewer, but it’d sure be nice.


    Oh boy,
    Every time i see this story I have to ask my self how much good can 85 athletes,18-22 years old, and
    his agent, car dealer, clothier,restaurant, friends and relatives do with $447,000 per annum.
    Also more importantly lets bring in the controller and see if the guy who is making that kind of money
    is pulling his load when it comes to the allocation of the direct and indirect cost of supporting all the
    activities and facilities needed to keep him tuned up and ready to go. Just going to school is no longer
    the only yardstick. He now has to show his margin contribution to keep up. Then there is the competing
    for talent. Who wins that one if we are going to monitize the process? No way if Texas or Oklahoma comes
    calling. Also what are you going to say to the the other ND athletes who haven’t been included
    in that $447,000?. As I understand it Football carries more than its fair share so do the other athletes
    get a loan from there higher paid compadres? Good luck. Maybe a bonus system is better.

  4. Nice analysis. The cures are available.

    See the proposal by super agent Donald Yee (he represents Tom Brady), now more than 5 years ago. It sets up an alternate business plan having nothing to do with the educational institutions. (The lone exception might be that stadiums are leased to various teams.)

    In sum, his proposal calls for taking the current athletic programs private and allowing the free market to run it’s course; subject to all usual business and labor requirements.

    This way the schools can get back to education and the boosters, networks and marketers can run their sports as they see fit.

    Of course the status quo hates this. It is change. But it needs to be tried. It couldn’t be worse than what we have.

  5. Great piece. So sad but so true. It’s part of the legacy of college athletics. Don’t know how to fix the series of problems except as the University of Chicago did. But, with the millions of $ circulating and the related name recognition, can anyone make a calculation as to which bastion of higher education will go the route of the Maroons ? It’s like gun control– handwringing and talk until the clouds pass. There’s more money in college sports, or close to it,than non-military firearms spending, I’d guess, in a oven year.

  6. There was once a day when college seemed bigger than the NFL or NBA and salaries for professional athletes weren’t insane. Maybe, should have paid the athletes long ago and kept the NFL and NBA as small bit players. Now, it’s way too much cash to pass up. The NFL, NBA, and MLB are kings of the sporting world. Pro game is not nearly as exciting in many areas. Maybe, one day folks will switch to soccer, boxing, or some other game and change dynamic.

  7. Good article. But really doesn’t express the difference between programs like ND, Alabama, and Ohio State that fill stadiums every week and have networks fighting to air their games, and the other 90% of schools, who don’t turn profits, and lose money annually.

    I’m a good libertarian who in the real world is happy when businesses compete and pay what they can pay, but in college sports, if the 1% can pay 6 figure salaries to their players in revenue sports (how do we get around Title 9, btw…), but the rest can’t pay a dime over tuition and stipends, the competitive advantage will just continue to increase for the popular teams.

  8. If college athletes are to be paid for their services, set up a trust fund to be paid to them when/if they graduate. That way, 17-19 year olds won’t spend thousands on worthless tatoos and overpriced bling & sports cars. Go ahead and give them an allowance for pizza.

    • A requirement to graduate to earn their pay makes me cringe at the corruption opportunities. You think Alabama is bad currently about shedding scholarship players to make room on the roster? Imagine how many athletically under-performing players start “failing” out of school just to save the school money.

  9. Brian in Cleve says:

    Trust fund idea is a very good one. Has great potential, but still does not address the point another poster made about dishonest money being passed under the table during the player’s career…

  10. NFL and NBA need a legitimate minor league program. That would give kids who are talented enough to bypass the college process, make some money, and still get access to their respective league. NBA has D League but that is seen as a death sentence to get sent there whereas Minors in MLB is a legitimate and effective proving ground

  11. KO, very well organized and written. Thanks. I suppose the NBA and NFL could establish full-on minor leagues, and schools would convert to a club sport model. This would be quite painful for loyal alums (like me) who love their alma mater’s sporting teams, but it might help separate the financial elements of this mess.

  12. Christopher Cochran says:

    Whether you like it or not, money talks, and bulls_ _t walks. It’s a fact. Whether or not you, Notre Dame, or anybody else likes it, the title wave of paid athletes at colleges will win-out. It’s already a tilted field based on academic standards, and it’ll become more unbalanced when the $ollars pass above-board, and not just under the table. It’s gonna happen – you may not like it – Jenkins/the BOT may not like it, but … get used to it …