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As you may know, if you've been reading long, we've
been sponsoring a forum about the current state of the game. Today Thad
Williamson responds to Bill Brill's latest thoughts.  As always our readers
are welcome, and encouraged, to add their own comments and opinions.


Brill Responds To Williamson |
Bilas |
Responses To Bilas
| Bilas
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| Brill | Bilas Responds To Brill
| Thad


Let me start by simply clarifying two "numbers" issues. Whereas I provided
an estimate of how much it would cost to compensate 1,000 graduating
Division I players a year, Brill correctly points out that the actual
number of players who graduate each year is much lower (less than 300.) The
1,000 player figure I used was for purely heuristic purposes, an
outer-limit estimated of the number of players who might have a claim on
compensation in any given year based on the assumption of 100% graduation
rates at 315 schools with 3.25 players in each class. Even with this outer
limit estimate of the number of players who would actually graduate, it
would take only about 10% of the annual TV money to provide each with a
$50,000 payment upon attaining their degree.

The fact, then, that far fewer than 1000 players a year graduate simply
indicates that would be even cheaper for the NCAA to provide substantial
compensation to graduates. Instead of requiring 10% of the TV money,
perhaps only 5% or so would be needed for the first few years, until, it is
hoped, graduation rates rise from their current embarrassing level. But
this observation actually strengthens my overall point: the NCAA can afford
to compensate basketball players. No one should mistake the numbers I offer
as an actual study of the nuts and bolts of a compensation system and its
costs--and such studies will surely be needed to advance the idea. But at
this point, I think it's useful to offer a few ballpark figures if only to
show that compensating players need not come anywhere close to breaking the
NCAA bank.

Secondly, Brill points out an apparent contradiction between my stipulation
that up to 6 scholarship athletes would be allowed on the freshman team,
and the NCAA current limit of 13 players. To clarify, my view is that 13
scholarship players would continue to be limit, but with no more than 6 to
be enter school in a single year. (Exceptions might be made for special
circumstances.) An average program would then in a given year be likely to
have 10 scholarship players on their varsity and 3 on the freshman squad;
with the rest of that freshman squad (and the varsity as well) filled by
walk-ons. If this seems like too few players, I am receptive to the idea of
increasing the total scholarship limit to 15 or even 16 to accomodate a new
system (so a school could have, say, 10 or 11 scholarship players on the
varsity and 5 or 6 on the freshman team at a time.)

The more important criticism Brill raises of the freshman team idea is that
it could not be done for all sports, and that legally it would be
impossible for the NCAA to make only basketball and football-playing
freshmen sit. Actually between 1968 and 1972, that was exactly the rule:
in '68 the ban on freshman eligibility was lifted for the nonrevenue
sports, with the basketball and football following in '72. To my knowledge
at that time there was no legal problem with that policy. Moreover, I think
it could also be pointed out, in defense of a moratorium on football and
basketball players sitting, that while they would the only ones to sit, in
my scheme they also would be the only ones to get a paycheck when they
graduate. Finally, if it's restricting eligibility to 3 years that is a
legal problem, I would be willing to allow a fifth year (and a fourth year
of playing). For me, the goal of freshman ineligibility would be to help
players adjust to school and to weed out the serious from the not-serious
students, not so much to reduce eligibility from four years to three.

But this discussion raises another important issue: namely, the NCAA's
legal status. Many of the NCAA's preogatives and policies have slowly been
chipped away at in court, and some observers, such as former NCAA head
Walter Byers, think that one day the courts may find the NCAA in violation
of antitrust laws on the issue of compensating athletes (i.e. the entire
scholarship system.) Perhaps. But I think any kind of rational
restructuring of college athletics will eventually require federal
legislative action: both to grant the NCAA (or some governing body)
antitrust exemption status, but also to set clear expectations for NCAA
behavior if it wants to maintain that status.

Brill in fact, in pointing out that changes in TV timeout policies or in
the formula for distributing revenues or in the NCAA's overall approach to
negotiating with television (as I called for) are not likely to happen,
correctly points to the limitations of change within the existing
structures. I quite agree with him when he says the changes I propose
aren't likely to happen, within the current structure, anytime soon--in
fact I'm a deep pessimist. Simply put, the presidents and the athletic
directors, the ones who wield the power, aren't ever going to get serious
about reforming college athletics. Walter Byers himself said it best in his
terrific memoir "Unsportsmanlike Conduct:" Reform movements in college
sports never reformed much of anything.

But that does not mean that people who care about college sports should not
continue to express normative visions of how college sports should
look--even if that vision is at odds with the current structure. To get
anything like what I'm talking about, some kind of exogenous shock to the
system will be needed. Such a shock would almost certainly need to take the
form of new federal legislation which would mandate that college sports be
treated as a public good and require the NCAA to maintain basic principles
of academic integrity, justice in treating players, gender equity, limited
commercialism, and overall public trustworthiness as a condition for being
allowed to make piles of money off the sports, while at the same time
giving the NCAA protections against certain kinds of antitrust-type
lawsuits (such as lawsuits regarding freshmen ineligibility.) In other
words, treat big-time college sports as a federally-regulated public utility.

That's difficult to imagine happening, but the basic principle of what I'm
talking about is not unheard of. In my original piece, for instance, I
suggested skimming 10% off the top of NCAA tournament revenue to fund
stipends for graduating players; just two weeks ago, the English Parliament
cut a deal with the Premier League (soccer) in which 5% of the league's
television revenue will go to fund government-sponsored recreation and
physical education programs for youth in English cities.

To be sure, precedent in other countries does not equate to a magic wand
for changing the structure of college sports in the United States. I would
understand if even lawmakers sympathetic to my approach decided they had
higher priorities at the present time.

But for the present, I think simply trying to get clear about how college
sports could be run, and how the resources it brings in could be spent, is
an important step in itself. Pointing out the disparity between what is and
what could be is always a useful step, and my essay was a stab in that
direction. And while I'm not sure when or if serious restructuring could
ever happen, I am sure that so long as we maintain a system in which
schools ask athletes to train like professional athletes while telling the
public they are in fact students, all the while keeping the money generated
by the athletes to themselves, the public will continue--rightly--to
perceive the universities as traffickers in hypocrisy.