McIntosh Needs to Play a New Game

In what will surely be a nominee for “Least Surprising News Story of 2021”, Chris McIntosh is expected to be elevated from Deputy UW Athletic Director to the top job later on today.

The iconic Barry Alvarez, the man with a statue at an entrance to Camp Randall, has expressed his will and now Chancellor Rebecca Blank will comply. It’s not necessarily a bad choice, though. McIntosh is smart, competent and level-headed and he’s learned the ropes from one of the most successful AD’s in the country.

But whatever else McIntosh is, what he really needs to be is understanding of the real world of big time college sports. That world is changing fast into a professional, free-market model. This is a good thing because the old model produced billions of dollars in profits for everyone, except the athletes. And the old model is based on a lie.

It looks like Chris McIntosh will be named the UW’s next Athletic Director later today.

The lie is the “student-athlete.” The young men who play the big revenue producing sports in the biggest programs (that means football and men’s basketball and maybe hockey) are athletes first and students second. They have demanding full-time jobs and their performances are producing $15 billion a year for others, yet they can’t take a dime of it home for themselves. 

But the good news is that those days will soon be over. President Joe Biden’s Justice Department is weighing in on the side of the players in an antitrust suit before the Supreme Court, which could upend the whole rotten system. Meanwhile, a couple dozen states have passed or are working on laws that would allow college athletes to get some income for the use of their image or likeness. 

And, in response to all those potentially uneven laws in different states, Sen. Cory Booker (D-New Jersey), who played football at Stanford, has introduced sweeping legislation to reform college sports at the national level. Booker’s bill would go beyond just allowing athletes to be paid for commercials and the like, to allowing them to be paid a salary, to form unions, to receive lifelong health insurance coverage for lifelong injuries and more. 

Add to that the greater freedom players already have to move at-will between schools, and what we will soon have is something that looks a lot more like professional sports. That’s good because it’s fair. It means that players will be able to leverage their value in the marketplace to be fairly compensated. (In fact, just this morning it was reported that the Badgers picked up a highly touted running back, who is transferring from Clemson.)

For those of you living in the past, who want to cling to the long-discredited notion of the amateur “student-athlete,” well sorry, that myth is busted now. And, no, this doesn’t have to mean that richer schools will dominate. Because it’s in everyone’s best financial interest for the games to be competitive, some sort of revenue-sharing agreement will be worked out over time, just as they’ve evolved in pro leagues. The Packers are by far the smallest market in the NFL and yet they manage to do okay. 

Which brings us back to Alvarez. He was phenomenally successful in the old world, but he was never a leader in recognizing the unfairness of it. For the most part, he was as resistant to change as any leader in the world of college sports. 

Now, McIntosh needs to not only understand the new business rules but embrace them. If he fights the inevitable he’ll turn Wisconsin into a loser and we’ll deserve it. I worry a little because Blank herself has been resistant to change. Up until now at least, it has been clear that she just doesn’t get it. I hope that she didn’t pick McIntosh because he shares her blind spot.

There’s no reason why big time college sports can’t continue to entertain fans and print money while it sends a fair share of the booty to the guys on the field who actually make the product. 

The selection of the new athletic director is important not just to the UW, not just to the players, but also to the city of Madison. UW sports is a big industry here and it’s in everyone’s best interests (whether you like sports or not) that it is successful. 

Alvarez knew how to win at the old game. His successor needs to understand how to play a very different one. 

A version of this column originally appeared in Isthmus.

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