Michael Lewis (previous posts here) — author of Moneyball and The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (previous post here) — pens this NY Times op-ed in which he addresses a frequent topic on this blog — that is, the shameful economic exploitation of athletes by many universities in the business of big-time college football (see previous posts here, here and here):
College footballís best trick play is its pretense that it has nothing to do with money, that itís simply an extension of the universityís mission to educate its students. Were the public to view college football as mainly a business, it might start asking questions. For instance: why are these enterprises that have nothing to do with education and everything to do with profits exempt from paying taxes? Or why donít they pay their employees?
This is maybe the oddest aspect of the college football business. Everyone associated with it is getting rich except the people whose labor creates the value. At this moment there are thousands of big-time college football players, many of whom are black and poor. They perform for the intense pleasure of millions of rabid college football fans, many of whom are rich and white. The worldís most enthusiastic racially integrated marketplace is waiting to happen. [. . .]
If the N.C.A.A. genuinely wanted to take the money out of college football itíd make the tickets free and broadcast the games on public television and set limits on how much universities could pay head coaches. But the N.C.A.A. confines its anti-market strictures to the players ó and God help the interior lineman who is caught breaking them. Each year some player who grew up with nothing is tempted by a boosterís offer of a car, or some cash, and is never heard from again. [. . .]
Last year the average N.F.L. team had revenue of about $200 million and ran payrolls of roughly $130 million: 60 percent to 70 percent of a teamís revenues, therefore, go directly to the players. Thereís no reason those numbers would be any lower on a college football team ó and thereís some reason to think theyíd be higher. Itís easy to imagine the Universities of Alabama ($44 million in revenue), Michigan ($50 million), Georgia ($59 million) and many others paying the players even more than they take in directly from their football operations, just to keep school spirit flowing. (Go Dawgs!)
But letís keep it conservative. In 2005, the 121 Division 1-A football teams generated $1.8 billion for their colleges. If the colleges paid out 65 percent of their revenues to the players, the annual college football payroll would come to $1.17 billion. A college football team has 85 scholarship players while an N.F.L. roster has only 53, and so the money might be distributed a bit differently. [. . .]
A star quarterback, . . . might command as much as 8 percent of his college teamís revenues. For instance, in 2005 the Texas Longhorns would have paid Vince Young roughly $5 million for the season. In quarterbacking the Longhorns free of charge, Young, in effect, was making a donation to the university of $5 million a year ó and also, by putting his health on the line, taking a huge career risk.
Perhaps he would have made this great gift on his own. The point is that Vince Young, as the creator of the economic value, should have had the power to choose what to do with it. Once the market is up and running players who want to go to enjoy the pure amateur experience can continue to play for free.
Read the entire piece.