Boise State will never win a college football national championship, and we’re completely at peace with this. In fact, fine Idaho inhabitants—even the extreme blue-blooders—have grown to accept this very notion, despite the handful of close calls that nearly debunked this logic in the past decade.
This is not meant to be a jab at one of the more exciting and successful little giants of our lifetime. It’s also not a Boise problem. In fact, it’s quite the contrary.
It’s simply acknowledging the truth: College athletics aren’t fair to all of their members—they've never been fair—and the idea that paying players beyond cost of attendance would somehow compromise the competitive fairness of the sport ignores the fact that it was never fair to begin with.
NCAA president Mark Emmert took the stand at the Ed O’Bannon trial on Thursday with the intention of convincing U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken otherwise. It’s her opinion that matters; not ours, the public’s, the jury’s (there isn't one) or the endless stream of Twitter jokes that poured in with each and every response.
It’s up to Wilken to rule in favor of the NCAA and its current model, or the plaintiffs, a decision that could rock the foundation of collegiate athletics as we know it.
While Emmert’s hours on the stand brought up a wealth of fascinating talking points, from the definition of amateurism to a trip down NCAA-history lane to his own salary, his position regarding the current competitive state of collegiate athletics—and what it could become—certainly stood out.
His stance is pretty clear and predictable, as outlined by ESPN’s Mark Schlabach: If you allow schools to pay the players, the rich (aka the schools with seemingly unlimited resources) will get richer and separate themselves from the masses.
Emmert says paying players would destroy competitive balance, another pro-competitive benefit— Mark Schlabach (@Mark_Schlabach) June 19, 2014
He continued, according to Sports Illustrated’s Andy Staples, by saying that paying players would drastically alter the recruiting process.
Emmert says if payment is allowed, players would choose colleges based on amount of payment.— Andy Staples (@Andy_Staples) June 19, 2014
Although this is a deep dive down the doomsday rabbit hole, it’s also a distinct possibility that this could become a reality. After all, there’s a rather significant trial taking place that could prompt this movement. (There will also be other trials to come regardless of this ruling, but the process has begun.)
It is extreme, but it also makes some sense on the surface. For further proof of what a free market can generate, look no further than professional free agency. Perhaps if all barriers were removed, this is what we’d be left with.
It’s not this part of Emmert’s claim that is necessarily incorrect, as assumption-driven as it may be. It’s assuming that collegiate athletics—with a strong focus on college football—were somehow fair to begin with.
There are various ways to convey what you already know: that certain teams with certain means will be more attractive to players, coaches, fans and success than other places. Nothing conveys this more than tangible results.
Over the past 77 years—stretching back to the leather-helmeted 1930s—only 27 schools have finished No. 1 in the final AP Poll. The lack of representation at the top is both startling and somehow not the least bit surprising.
This top-heavy trend was around well before television contracts changed the sport entirely, although the gap has widened exponentially thanks to networks and other media endeavors with a focus on major teams and conferences.
Texas and Alabama combined to generate nearly $310 million in revenue in 2013, according to USA Today. For comparison’s sake, Iowa State and Cincinnati—No. 50 and 51 on this list—generated less than $125 million in revenue.
Alabama has certainly put this money to good use. The Tide only recently put the finishing touches on their new $9 million weight room. They even added a waterfall to their training area, in case you weren’t already aware.
Oregon has parlayed its football success and connections with Nike (and more specifically, Nike co-founder Phil Knight) into a gorgeous, $68 million, 145,000-foot football operations building.
Clemson has strategically decided to funnel its football profits back into coaching salaries. After giving Dabo Swinney a much-deserved raise, the Tigers also reworked the contracts of the staff. Payroll for Clemson assistants will now total more than $4 million per season, while Swinney will take home more than $3 million himself.
Staffs at major programs are larger, recruiting budgets have grown exponentially, and the money generated by the sport is poured back into the machines to produce more. This is not only standard procedure at Alabama, Oregon and Clemson; it’s common practice for the select revenue-rich teams elsewhere with similar track records.
While these tactics aren’t as direct as handing over a check to a “student-athlete” based on his/her physical worth, they’re still a byproduct of a system that is built on money and resources. The more you have, the more things you can do to improve your football program—and your athletic program in general—to further increase the gap between those with the means and those without.
And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with this. It’s business.
Programs are choosing to spend their fortunes, which is both admirable and intelligent. The fact that there are vast differences between teams is both accepted and acknowledged when you sign up for this.
Well, at least for most.
Emmert’s stance on paying players comes as no surprise given his current predicament. It's what his bosses (the schools) pay him to do. At the most critical hour, with fortunes in the balance, he is simply doing his job.
In his defense, there is likely an intelligent argument to be made—a checklist to be crafted—as to why paying players is ultimately not the answer. Or, at the very least, why the slow destruction of amateurism should come with guidelines.
Basing this argument on a competitive balance that simply does not exist in this world, however, is a fool's errand. There is no argument, really.
That ship sailed long ago.
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