Pay Your Way

by Casey Barrett

The movement to pay college football and basketball players… and what it means for college swimming. A righteous debate rumbles into deep water…

Last Sunday, the latest media missile was fired into the mess of big time college sports. It hit its mark with precision, making the overwhelming and by now obvious case that NCAA football and men’s basketball players deserve to be paid. This latest treatise was published in the New York Times magazine by Joe Nocera. Its unambiguous headline: Let’s Start Paying College Athletes.

Agreed. But then what…

Nocera quickly clarifies his editor’s headline; he doesn’t mean just any athletes. And certainly not swimmers or other sportsmen and women in the shadows who generate exactly zero dollars for their schools. No, the journalist cum reformer makes the clear case that the only ones entitled to a share of the income are the ones who actually earn the income. In other quarters, this would be known as the Law. As opposed to a cartel or a plantation — the two entities that the NCAA most closely resembles these days. (How do you feel about Colombian drug lords and slave driving 19th century Southern landowners? Maybe consider these two conscience-free classes next time you’re singing your college fight song…)

Two months back, I posted a piece called State of Pay, which picked apart the tone-deaf ideas in a Sports Illustrated story that argued for similar reform. Under SI’s plan, paying football and basketball players would mean slashing sports like swimming from scores of athletic departments. Fortunately, Nocera’s plan in the New York Times refrains from such destructive half-bright suggestions. In fact, no other sport is mentioned once in the piece except football and basketball. He rightly points out that these athletes are employees of the schools — workers who earn often substantial revenue for their employers. As opposed to the athletes in “non-revenue” sports who earn nothing for the university, and thus can fairly be called amateur. (Setting aside the sponsorship debate for the moment…)

I was nodding right along with the story until I came to one rather halting paragraph. Under Nocera’s plan, not all universities will be able to afford the new required cost to compete. If each school has a set budget with a salary cap (to prevent Yankees-like monopolizing at schools like Texas and Florida…), some will not be able to afford that budget, even with a cap. Can’t afford to pay, can’t compete, goodbye program. Nocera doesn’t seem particularly bothered by this. He estimates that the number of so-called “major” football programs will shrink from 120 to 72, and the number of “major” men’s basketball programs will shrink even further, from 338 to around 100. Now, this would not affect the top 25 rankings in either sport, and you wouldn’t even notice it during March Madness. It would merely eliminate those teams who are already kidding themselves about competing in the big time…

Except that’s not what would happen at all. Under this plan, about 25,000 scholarships would disappear: 28 football programs with 85 scholarships each, and 228 basketball programs with 13 scholarships each. (Feel free to do the math.) Meaning thousands of ballplayers who might have gone to college for free now aren’t going to college at all. We’re not talking about high-income resourceful backgrounds here. If the scholarship ticket goes away, that means a great many would never even set foot on a college campus. As poor as the “education” is for so many of these football and basketball players, no college education whatsoever is not exactly preferable.

This won’t fly. We know this. These football and basketball programs aren’t going anywhere, even if they’re also-ran schools with no hope of really competing at a high level. They still have a critical mass of fans and alumni who will absolutely howl at even the hint of cutting them. Guess what will happen? C’mon, take half a second to think about it… Football and basketball players suddenly start earning a rightful wage as proud income-producing workers of a university. Athletic Directors suddenly have to get financially literate in a hurry. They know they can’t touch their sacred big ticket sports, even if they can’t afford to compete. So, they start looking somewhere else to cut costs…

Looking at sports like… you guessed it. Swimming is in trouble any way you cut it. The financial model of the NCAA is so unsustainable and flat out busted that anyone not pulling their financial weight better start scrambling for their very existence. And that means everyone in the sport of college swimming.

Here’s what it comes down to: If you earn nothing and yet consider yourself entitled to all the spoils — scholarships, travel, private locker rooms, and the rest of those intangibles that so many swimmers consider birthrights — if you feel you’re entitled to all this and generate nothing in return, at some point, someone is going to come looking for you. With a knife.

So, how to avoid the assassin? There is a way. It’s not too complicated either. It comes down to the simple wisdom learned (the hard way or not) by anyone who’s ever held a job, didn’t want to lose it, and hoped to be promoted… Three words: Make Yourself Indispensable. Make the people who pay your way actually give a shit about you. Make them think, no, truly believe, that they cannot do without you.

With all due respect, coaches and swimmers, your college swim team is dispensable. When it comes down to dollars and cents, you aren’t worth keeping. That’s a hard pill to swallow, but it’s true. Competitive swimming is a bad business – for this basic reason: it requires a lot of time and space in the pool in order to thrive. Space and time, these are two expensive items, especially in a high maintenance tub of water.

But these teams are worth keeping, regardless of the unblinking bottom line. Anyone reading this surely believes that. So, the question is – how do you convince the two parties that matter most to embrace your existence and make sure you continue forevermore. These two parties? The university itself and your alumni. You need them both. They need to have your back and be willing to fight for your survival as much as you’re willing to fight when the ax is raised…

If that’s going to happen, it’s time to wise up. The financial blindness of so many swimmers and coaches is astonishing. They can’t, can’t possibly!, grasp how a school could be so cruel as to cut a sacred institution like a men’s swimming program. Yet, when asked what they’ve given back, what will the answer be? Deafening silence… Those football and basketball players have an answer when they’re asked that question. They can point to full stadiums and TV cameras and ask how much their own coaches earn thanks to them.

Now, the answer will never be the same when it is put to swimmers or other ‘non-revenue’ athletes. (‘Non-revenue’, such a seemingly harmless word that’s tossed around but says so much…) Money-generated clearly will never be the answer. Ok, then what about clinics and swimming lesson programs for kids in and around the college community? What about taking an active role in fundraising, with seniors picking up the phone once in awhile and calling alumni and wooing them as much as they try to woo star recruits? What about figuring out how to set up an endowment for your team? How about teams stepping forward to help the university as a whole, integrating itself as an essential how-can-we-help part of your college town? Something like that tends to bring grant money for young men and women who actually grasp their place in the wider community…

These are the sort of things that make one indispensable. They put you on the radar – in the right way – long before the Athletic Director / Assassin comes searching for ways that he can cut costs and afford to pay for sports deemed more important than your own.

I’m ashamed to admit that as a college swimmer myself, many years ago, none of these things ever occurred to me. I was a financial illiterate, an utterly entitled take-take-take swimmer. I was outraged when they cut the UCLA men’s program across town when I was a freshman at USC. Yet, it never once occurred to me how it might have been prevented. It was Title IX’s fault, it was unfair, and the mean old penny counters at the college just didn’t get it. Maybe it couldn’t have been prevented, no matter what was done. Many programs have been cut since, and many more will be in the future. But most of these teams are unwittingly putting themselves in harm’s way by being so willfully blind to how they might help themselves.

Ground-shaking change is coming to the NCAA. College football and basketball players are going to be paid soon. Sooner than you think. The system is broken and the cries for reform are only getting louder. And the changes are going to hit swimming, hard.

If the sport wants to stick around on the college level, it’s time to get creative. And it’s time to start making yourself indispensable.