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South Florida quarterback Matt Grothe believes players whose jerseys are marketed to fans should get a cut of the profits. He's absolutely correct. But naturally, Grothe has been attacked by those who say he should shut up and be happy with his scholarship, which provides him tuition, room and board, and, if he earns one, a degree that will give him increased earning power in the future even if he never makes it to the NFL.
What Grothe's critics fail to consider is that he receives the same scholarship as the backup fullback or the backup libero on the women's volleyball team. Neither of those players contributes nearly as much to the athletic program as Grothe -- either in actual dollars from No. 8 jersey sales or in prestige, which allows the department to sell more football tickets and allows the Big East to command a higher price the next time it negotiates its TV deals. So basically, what Grothe's critics argue is that he should accept the fact that he is compensated the same as other athletes who are not as skilled and who do not contribute as much to the general welfare of the athletic department. I don't mean to get all Joe McCarthy here, but that sounds an awful lot like Communism.
Grothe isn't the only athlete being exploited by a system Vladimir Illyich Lenin would have adored. At The Swamp last week for Florida-Miami, I looked down into a sea of No. 15 (Tim Tebow) and No. 1 (Percy Harvin) jerseys. For a mere $149.99 plus tax, I can buy an authentic Nike Ohio State No. 28 jersey, just like the one Beanie Wells wears. Does Wells benefit from this? No. He receives the same scholarship as the backup power forward on the women's basketball team, a group that drains athletic department coffers instead of filling them.
Isn't this America? Shouldn't extraordinary employees -- make no mistake, "student-athletes" are nothing more than low-level employees -- be rewarded for bringing something extra to the table? Not as far as the NCAA is concerned. The NCAA doesn't use the U.S. model. It uses a model more similar to China's.
China used to restrict the financial growth of businesses. The Student-Athletes' Republic of College Athletics used to do the same with the athletic departments under its purview. Until 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the NCAA's football TV contract violated the Sherman Antitrust Act, Appalachian State against The Citadel might have been the only nationally televised game in a given week. The cartel feared televising games would reduce attendance. More forward-thinking minds realized that more than 80,000 people might want to watch a Texas game. The ruling paved the way for the lucrative TV contracts that have helped some athletic departments get rich and others remain afloat.
Like China in recent years, the NCAA and its member institutions finally have grasped their vast economic potential and opened their markets. That has led to a multibillion-dollar deal with CBS to televise the men's basketball tournament and a reported $895,000 annual salary for NCAA president Myles Brand. If Brand works 60 hours a week for 50 weeks a year, he makes $298.33 an hour, so he probably made about $1,200 writing this essay last month for the Huffington Post. In it, he writes that the capitalist model doesn't fit college athletics, though I wonder how passionately he'd defend a socialist model if he received the same paycheck as the guy who cleans his office. "[Capitalism] isn't a workable approach for every aspect of American life," Brand writes. "We don't apply it, for example, to churches or charities. And we don't use capitalism as the model for how education works. With some few exceptions, American higher education does not function within a capitalistic structure."
Unfortunately for Brand's argument, Division I-A football and Division I men's basketball are two of those exceptions. The NCAA and its member institutions use capitalist principles to govern both sports, with one glaring exception -- compensation for the thousands of low-level employees doing most of the actual work. Once again, our friends in Indianapolis mirror our friends in Beijing. Though no one from the NCAA ever squashed anyone with a tank, the message to athletes (the proletariat) is, "You're all equal, and all of you should be happy with your scholarship." As anyone who has watched Texas Tech receiver Michael Crabtree abuse a defensive back will attest, athletes aren't all equal. Some contribute more value than others. How would you feel if you were the best financial analyst in your firm, but you earned the same paycheck as a co-worker who didn't have half your skills or work ethic? You'd raise a stink. Or you'd quit and go to work for someone who appreciates you.
NCAA athletes don't have that choice, thanks to the cartel's system of penalties for transfers. Nor can they ever expect to be paid any sort of salary. The line between amateur and professional is thin enough as it is, and paying athletes does not jive with the educational mission at most universities. Besides, would you pay the football players and not the volleyball players? Schools still believe sports fit in the broader scope of their educational mission, so the cash-cow sports always will subsidize the others. Still, in the case of the jerseys, when schools are so obviously exploiting the value of a select few athletes, the NCAA could make an exception. Every time an athlete's jersey is sold, take two percent of the cost and place it in a trust. So schools wouldn't use the plan to offer improper inducements to recruits, make a rule that the school can't sell a player's jersey number until the player has spent a non-redshirt year in the program. No one will buy the jersey of a player who doesn't produce. Then, when a star athlete exhausts his eligibility after a career spent racking up stats and selling jerseys for his school, pay him the money in the trust.
This is, after all a, a capitalist society that values achievement over assimilation. The least the Student-Athletes' Republic of College Athletics could do is allow its more productive proles to benefit from a few of the principles that have helped coaches, athletic directors, media companies and the NCAA president get rich.