College Sports Improving Rapidly

In the last year or so two major changes have combined to make big time college sports more fair to the players.

First, the NCAA finally caved to the inevitable and allowed players to make money off their own “name, image and likeness” — basically they could make commercials for local car dealerships or whatever, just like their coaches.

And second, also under pressure, the NCAA made it easy for players to transfer between schools for purely athletic reasons. They no longer had to sit out a year or make up some bogus academic excuse for making the switch. They could take their talents to South Beach or wherever a school would let them play.

These two things have combined in predictable ways. It didn’t lake long for boosters to figure out how to game the system. The kind of rich guys (they’re almost all guys) who for over a century have been either paying players under the table or stretching the NCAA’s arcane rules to do so, now can do it above board. Booster groups all over the country are pooling their money and paying players en masse to do phony stuff like being “influencers.” Get the best dozen players together and have them do a video supporting a business. Pay them each $10,000 or whatever. It’s a scam, but a more honest and open sort of scam than what went on before.

Now combine that with the “transfer portal” (which is just the mechanism for players to put themselves on the open market among college programs) and you get a bidding war for the best players. Come play for Alabama and we’ll set you up with $100,000 in NIL opportunities. No, come to Notre Dame and we’ll guarantee you $200,000.

In my view this is just flat out great. It means that players in big time college sports can finally get a piece of the billions of dollars they produce for others. And it just destroys the obnoxious fiction of the “student athlete.” Players can be honest about moving between schools to get the best deal whether that means playing time, media exposure or cash.

The UW has been resistant to all of this all along. Chancellor Rebecca Blank went so far as to testify in favor of the NCAA’s cartel in a lawsuit brought by the players to get some economic justice. But then she cynically promoted a plan to exploit an NCAA loophole that allows schools to pay players $6,000 just for showing up in class under the pretense that being paid to look like a student was somehow noble where as being paid to play was scandalous.

Bucky rejoices now that the Varsity Collective will be playing more of the players.

And now new Athletic Director Chris McIntosh is squirming over the new era. Only two months ago he was saying that the UW would never support deals like the boosters pool described above. Now he’s changed his mind. The Wisconsin State Journal reported over the weekend (complete with the requisite obsequious column from the sports page editor) that McIntosh was now okay with the new Varsity Collective — the name for the booster pool that will do just exactly what McInstosh said should never be done at Wisconsin.

McIntosh found a fig leaf, which is that the VC promises that it won’t use its money to try to lure players off the portal. Trust me folks, that commitment will last about ten minutes. As other schools compete for athletes using their booster money, the UW will have to do the same. And that’s more than fine because it means that bidding wars will drive up what players can demand for their services. Just like the good old free market that made the boosters rich and allows coaches to demand the highest compensation packages that the market will bear.

There’s one more step that needs to be taken. In addition to freedom to transfer for any reason, including money, players need to be paid by their schools just like the employees that they are. That’s going to be the toughest reform of all because it means that players will get a slice of the big pie that is now going only to their coaches and administrators. So, don’t expect that to happen anytime soon. But let’s pause for a moment and celebrate the Varsity Collective. They’re finally doing above the table what was being done under it before and what the schools should have been doing all along: pay the players.

Published by dave cieslewicz

Madison/Upper Peninsula based writer. Mayor of Madison, WI from 2003 to 2011.

5 thoughts on “College Sports Improving Rapidly

  1. This is all terrible, both the way it was and the way it is. Universities should not even be in this business at all – we should get athletics out of universities. Force the NFL and NBA set up a minor league system. Notice how this topic isn’t nearly as relevant for the sport that does have a robust minor league: baseball.

    If students want to play a sport, go ahead and get a pick up game going with your friends or try out for whatever sports leagues exist under a new paradigm where a university is for learning (crazy concept, I know…). Go to college after you give a shot at living your sports dream. “Student Life” at universities is a total distraction from what the core mission of the institutions should be.

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    1. On a theoretical level I agree with you, Rollie. But the reality is that a whole lot of people love college sports. I think that’s okay as long as we’re honest about what this is. For Division 1 football and men’s basketball these guys are athletes first and they may be students as well, but that’s a secondary (if that) consideration. I’m fine with big time college sports as long as the guys who are creating all that wealth for everybody else get their fair share.

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      1. I hear you on the practical level. I wonder if a bridge could be laid where it would move the way I suggested (or maybe the points you made ARE that bridge). Kind of like slowly spinning off the athletic department from the universities. Then they would become a de facto independent league ultimately affiliated with their city rather than the university. The fans would still have their sport in their town, and the university could get out of a business that I suspect most college presidents don’t even want to be in in the first place.

        Do other countries do college sports the way we do? Interesting to think about, thanks.

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  2. What would this look like? Free market like the pro’s? 17 year old millionaires playing on the same team as unpaid walk-ons?

    There is no precedent yet, so we don’t know what the high end of the market could be for D-1 football and basketball. But presumably, higher touted recruits would command higher salaries, and the select few freak-of-nature high school athletes would command whatever the market bears.

    Or would the college market be tempered somewhat with, say, an NCAA approved salary range for 5-star recruits, 4-star, 3-star, etc.?

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    1. Of course nobody knows how this will play out, but I would bet on something like the pros. You could have a players union that sets the basic conditions of employment, minimum salary, etc. Then the best high school athletes would get agents who would negotiate deals within those parameters. The best might go straight to the pros. Colleges would have an incentive to have some kind of salary caps so that they could maintain competition among the power five schools. Nobody wants to see Alabama play Clemson every year for the championship — as in the current situation. From a competitive standpoint the NFL is a whole lot more interesting than college right now.

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