State of Pay

by Casey Barrett

Sports Illustrated and the Plot to Kill College Swimming (And the rest of the NCAA’s Olympic sports…)

The NCAA is broken. No breaking news there, folks have been shouting from the sidelines for decades about this inept institution of American sport. But the chorus is growing, the pitch raising a few octaves of outrage. There are long “important” stories emerging from the bastions of journalism. The sort of stories that make Athletic Directors sweat, make coaches cringe, and eventually, make the athletes themselves stand up and take action. This should be inspiring stuff. An uprising coming, college athletes finally speaking up and demanding an end to an unjust colonial past…

Careful what you wish for. This pay-for-play revolution against the NCAA might finally put a fair share of money into the pockets of the young men who earn so many millions for their schools. Those football players who pack 100,000 seat stadiums every fall Saturday, those basketball players who put the money-gushing Madness into March… It could also put a great many of the NCAA’s non-revenue sports on life support, making men’s college swimming an endangered species, much more so than it already is.

Last month, the Atlantic Monthly published a front page story entitled The Shame of College Sports. When Frank Deford (aka the Greatest Sportswriter in History) called it the “most important article ever written about college sports”, the story quickly circulated through the mainstream media. In this exposé, by Pulitzer Prize winner Taylor Branch, the NCAA was revealed as a “classic cartel” with their concept of amateurism a “cynical hoax.” Most damningly, Branch exposes the utter fraud that surrounds the term “student-athlete.” He points out that this long clung-to term was created with no educational reason whatsoever. It was coined to prevent college athletes from suing their schools for worker’s compensation if they were injured on the field of play.

A damning indictment indeed. After reading it, I forwarded it along with passionate support for Branch’s case. It was time to start paying these kids, time to strip the cartel of its shameful ways. Power to the players! Or something like that… And then, last week, Sports Illustrated picked up the cause. As they frequently do so well, SI decided to go beyond mere reporting and sought to map out a plan. If we could all agree the NCAA was broken, and if you read Branch’s story it’s virtually impossible to disagree, then what are we supposed to do to fix it?

SI’s answer? Follow the money and start treating college sports like a business. Translation: screw any sport that doesn’t make money for the school. Let them figure out how to pay their own way. If they can’t figure out how to break even, then good riddance. Wait, what?

In a tone deaf treatise, the SI plan could fairly be termed the “Anti Olympic Sport Plan.” This Moneyball Lite attempt at valuing collegiate sport across a broad and misunderstood spectrum could inflict deep wounds to a wide range of Olympic sports – ones long perfected at American colleges.  That doesn’t seem to occur to, or at least bother, the sports lovers at SI. Here’s how the usually great George Dohrmann described the loss of such sports and their supporters: “Traditionalists will bemoan the loss of some programs, claiming they provided a meaningful service to the university… (But) for the most part, non-revenue varsity sports serve only the participants and a small cadre of supporters.” He maps out the savings possible in cutting such sports (ie swimming), and goes on to state that budget-less club sports “offer student-athletes an experience that is at least as rewarding.”

Like a hit man who doesn’t wish to know the names and backgrounds of the dead men walking on his hit list, the word “swimming” is never mentioned once in Dohrmann’s article. (There is one swimmer pictured in the double-page collage of college athletes on the title page, but that’s the extent of swimming’s presence here…) Sports like wrestling and water polo, gymnastics and rowing, get name-checked in passing, but they too get dismissed as marginalized pastimes closer in character to Ultimate Frisbee than the Final Four. Perhaps hit man was an overly dramatic analogy. A better comparison: a heartless CEO who blindly fires large swathes of workers, no names please, in the cause of corporate efficiency.

For all of the NCAA’s obvious sins, the uncomfortable fact remains that much of the money earned from the Big Two revenue-generators, football and basketball, helps pay the way for the rest of many athletic departments. Helps pay for your flights to the conference championships, your coaches’ salaries, and most of all, the considerable daily costs of maintaining a 650,000 gallon world class aquatic facility. These things don’t come cheap. And there are many who don’t want to hear about the revenue-free value swimmers might bring to their college campuses as upstanding student-athletes.

There’s the irony. Swimmers, as much as any other athlete, embody the term “student-athlete.” It might have been coined with ulterior cynical motives way back when. And the phrase still might be a sham when it comes to so many college football and basketball players. But it remains an accurate and honorable way to describe collegiate aquatic athletes. Nonetheless, they produce zero revenue for a school. No one is paying to come watch your meets. Or at least, seldom and insignificant amounts. No TV networks are clamoring to air your exploits to a wider audience. (Even in the Age of Phelps, TV money for swimming continues to be negligible outside of the Olympics…) But you take a lot. Often into the millions a year for top teams. Yet, financially speaking, you give nothing back. This puts a bulls eye on swimmers’ sculpted backs.

Through no fault of their own, the risk to college swimming remains a uniquely men’s problem. Due to Title IX, women’s sports remain well protected. This reverse gender inequity has led to some misguided resentment among many male swimmers. Don’t blame your female teammates. They’ve earned – and deserve – those scholarships and security. If you want a villain, gentlemen, take aim at your school’s football programs. The imbalance created by Title IX’s gender equity requirements remains largely due to the fact that there will never be a comparable women’s sport that swallows up so many scholarships and forever tips the balance.

But that brings it all back home. The paradox that leaves men’s swimming gasping for air in uncertain seas… Your college swim team’s very existence could be largely due to the money generated by your school’s football and basketball teams. Your football and basketball teams’ existence is founded on a dark colonial past (and present) that uses its players without regard for their off-the-field well-being or academic standing – and does not share with them the spoils that they earned.

As you can see, this could get ugly very quickly. The component of race becomes unavoidable. The perception could become one of non-revenue teams of predominantly white athletes being carried along by money-making teams of predominantly African American athletes. Even without that level of dare-to-tread discomfort, it is a situation of Haves and Haves Nots. With the added twist that the Haves don’t really get to have what should fairly be coming to them.

Then of course, there’s the looming question of that “free education.” That scholarship that’s worth, in some cases, in excess of $200,000, all told. The long favored argument of the never-pay-college-athletes camp… Much more on that in weeks to come, but suffice to say, it’s neither “free” nor, in plenty of cases, an “education” at all.

Like most issues that matter, there is no clear path here, only complexity. A dose of Herman Cain cluelessness would be nice right now. If only we could reduce it to an easy-to-remember three digit solution… But the reality is that the NCAA has become a deeply flawed and corrupted institution with no idea how to repair itself. It is not doing right by its athletes. After reading Taylor Branch’s piece in the Atlantic, I am convinced these athletes deserve a share of the money they generate for their schools. After reading SI’s so-called solution, I’m worried that this eventuality could lead to a mass cutting of programs across college swimming, along with the rest of NCAA Olympic sports that do not generate a penny for their schools.

There must be a better way, some solution that rewards the young men who bring heaps of money and prestige to their schools, without punishing their fellow athletes who happen to compete in unmonetized contests. What about allowing the free market to do its thing? Open the door to endorsements for all. If you can make money from a third party, like say Gatorade or your local car dealership, more power to you. This would allow for the likes of Michael Phelps to have competed for the University of Michigan; it would eliminate that ridiculous threshold of fake professionalism that locks out some of the all-time best from competing on the NCAA stage. Just because they were fast enough, young enough, to be valued by companies eager to associate themselves with greatness…

SI published a side bar on this consideration as well. They call it the Free Market Plan, and count me as one of its advocates. I look forward to the day when a phenom like Missy Franklin does not have to make that absurd choice between taking money from a sponsor and swimming in college. Yet, before we all breath a sigh of relief and pour our faith in the invisible hand of the market, consider for a moment how college football might look if agents and boosters and the rest of the sport’s slippery remora were actually allowed to put money in their players’ pockets. You think things are corrupt now? Just wait until Auburn’s next transfer Heisman quarterback can sell his services out in the open to every SEC school…

As the debate continues, in national magazines and athletic departments across the country, safe to say swimming won’t be a priority on too many agendas. That is, until every fourth year, when the world decides to perk up and pay attention to the Olympic Games’ most popular sport. And when that happens, I wonder how many will take the time to count how many of those world class aquatic specimens were produced in NCAA pools now earmarked for elimination?