The recent controversy surrounding Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel and his alleged autograph-signing “business” has sparked a few interesting discussions. The first, and most obvious, concerns the redshirt freshman’s eligibility heading into the season. We are roughly two weeks away from the Aggies’ season opener and yet we still don’t have an answer from the NCAA. If nothing changes between now and August 31, it will be the Texas A&M coaching staff with the toughest decision to make: to play or not to play Johnny Football.
In theory, the NCAA could carry their investigation into the season and perhaps beyond and still, down the road, find Manziel guilty of breaking the rules. In this case, A&M would be forced to retroactively forfeit every game in which Manziel participated. In playing Manziel before a decision has been made, this is the risk coach Kevin Sumlin and company must take.
Whether Manziel signed autographs or not, I don’t think the NCAA will get anything to stick in the end. But if the aforementioned scenario does play out, and the NCAA fails to conclude its investigation before the start of the season, I’m playing Johnny Manziel anyway. Without Manziel, the Aggies are roughly a 6-6 football team. With him, they are title contenders. If I’m Sumlin, I’m playing Manziel and keeping my fingers crossed. If we have a great season and nothing comes of the investigation, that’s awesome. If we play our star, win an SEC title, and then discover he’s guilty and every win must be forfeited, I still have the memories of a historic championship run, which I find preferable to an average, bowl-less season that saw Johnny Football ride the bench.
Of course, the autograph-signing issue surrounding Manziel has also reignited the pay-for-play issue, specifically as it relates to college football. I’ll start by briefly admitting I don’t think the average college football player deserves compensation. If you have hopes of playing in the NFL – and most players worthy of compensation do – college football is your farm system, the method by which you get ready for the league. With that in mind, name me a farm system that takes better care of its athletes. From the college experience, to free education, boarding, food and clothes…the college athlete’s life is better than most. Not to mention very few players actually create revenue; sure, Tim Tebow and Johnny Manziel were/are moneymakers, but for the most part it’s the college football structure that makes money, not the individual players. When one man goes down or moves on, another one takes his place. Again, it’s the structure, not the player that brings in the bills.
More importantly, though, people are asking themselves the wrong question. It’s not as much about whether college athletes deserve to get paid, as it as about whether doing so is even close to feasible. And, then, if it is in fact feasible, you must ask yourself if the ramifications of doing so hurt the game to an acceptable extent.
First, you should know that from 2006-2011, only 79 college athletic programs made a profit, according to USAToday Sports. Of course, some of these programs made WAY more than others. For example, Florida and Alabama made roughly $24 million during said period. In contrast, Georgia made considerably less at just about $12 million, while Auburn was in the green by less than $4 million. Worse yet, traditional football schools like Arizona State, FSU, Georgia Tech and West Virginia actually lost money during the same stretch.
So, knowing what we do now, it’s obvious that some schools would be able to afford athlete compensation while others wouldn’t. From a feasibility standpoint, schools like Tech and FSU just wouldn’t be able to cut it, at least not without cutting other sports. As a result, college football would have to again reformat, this time with a BCS Classification that would only include roughly 40 to 50 teams. And say goodbye to the Seminoles, Yellow Jackets and Mountaineers.
After that, we’d have to determine exactly how we want to compensate the players at the top 40 or 50 schools. Would schools be allowed to pay according to what they can afford, or would every school pay its players the same amount? To me, it’s obvious that, under this model, there would have to be a uniform pay rate. If, instead, you allowed schools to pay according to what they make, schools like Florida, Alabama, Texas and Michigan would land every top player seeking to make a profit. Parity in the sport would be gone. Of course, if all schools paid their players the same amount, the schools that make less will then be forced to spend a much larger percentage of their budget when compared to those which make more. The arms race would become even more lopsided than it already is. But even after you arrive at a number, a salary cap if you will, you must then determine how each team goes about compensating their own players. For example, would the Texas A&M center (Mike Matthews) make as much as Johnny Manziel?
The entire pay-for-play issue stems from the notion that college football players create revenue and therefore should be justly compensated. From that premise, then, can you honestly rationalize paying a guy you’ve never heard of the same amount as the Heisman Trophy winner? And what would the third-string left tackle make? Of course, if you start paying players based on performance, you open up a completely different can of worms. Would you pay recruits, or perhaps just those who are currently active? You can’t really pay recruits, and for a number of reasons. Doing so would turn high school athletes into virtual free agents, commodities searching for the highest bidder, while regulating under-the-table compensation would become increasingly difficult. Wit that said, if you pay only active players, you’d then have to decide if contracts are binding, negotiated yearly, subject to change according to health and so on? If a school has three top receivers, would the coaches pay all three according to production, or choose to give WR No. 3’s money to the offensive line? Would schools be forced to promise recruits money down the line? And do you really want 18-year-old kids making college declarations and life decisions based solely on money?
What’s clear, no matter how you do it, is that college football would suddenly have more in common with pro sports than any other college sport. No matter how compensation would go down, a new class structure would develop, the distance between the haves and the have-nots would only grow, and numerous top programs would fall by the wayside. The college game as we know and love it would cease to exist. Cap management and keeping entitled and “underpaid” players happy would suddenly become paramount. Is that really what you want? Is that really better than what we have?
The truth is, the NFL is preventing the most worthy athletes from making money, not the NCAA. It’s the NFL that dictates kids must be at least three years removed from high school before entering the league. As a result, college football has taken on the task of grooming the country’s top football players, getting the best ready for the next level, and providing a free education as simply a throw in. And until there’s an alternative to college ball, another and more lucrative route to the NFL, the NCAA and its teams will continue pocketing any and all revenue. To them, and to me, it simply isn’t worth ruining the product just to make Mike Mathews happy.
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