Are we having fun still? Is anybody?
The flag that Washington State quarterback Jayden de Laura planted into the Husky Stadium turf after ending a decade of futility against Washington might as well have read “farewell.”
De Laura announced last week that next season he will play for somewhere-other-than-WSU, which has become an almost predictable outcome these days when a player has enough success to be coveted by other programs. On Monday night, de Laura pledged his talents to conference rival Arizona.
A deluge of transfers is shaking college football and tearing the threads between the fans and the players who represent their alma maters or adopted teams. This new situation has been created by the half measures meant to diminish but not solve the issue that college football players are adult workers who should share in the immense profits generated by their labor.
Instead of half measures, just pay the players. Let them collectively bargain their revenue percentage, just like the pros do. And with that pay, agree upon a buy-out clause for a player who wants to transfer. Such stipulations and restrictions would make college sports fun to follow again and in a way that benefits the players who get a piece of that growing pie.
Another benefit is that paying players a salary will diminish the impact of the Name, Image, Likeness (NIL) money that has somehow widened the chasm between college football’s wealthy elites and all the other teams.
Allowing players to benefit from the fruits of their labor is the right thing to do. It also gives them a stake in major college football remaining a good, entertaining product. Rules enhancing competitiveness and restricting transfers suddenly are a benefit to the players, rather than a detriment.
The way schools protect themselves from losing their oh-so-valuable coaches is through buy-out clauses. Even if the prospect of having to pay the former school is not sufficient to dissuade the coach or his new employer from making the move, at least the former school will have some extra money to spend on the replacement. Do the same with players. Same thing if a coach wants to clear a roster spot.
Stopping the transfer churn should be the No. 1 priority of everyone who wants college football to remain relevant entertainment in the coming years. Most athletic departments are already losing the battle with TV to get fans into stadiums.
That will only be exacerbated as fans begin to feel they don’t know who they are watching. The transfer portal won’t just stop competitiveness, it will kill the atmosphere that drew fans to college games in the first place.
A common refrain when the subject of player compensation arises is that what makes college football unique is its amateurism, that there is something special about watching students compete for the glory of their school.
That was true in the 1920s. It was probably true in the 1960s, even. But college football has been a professional sport for decades.
College football did not become a business when players gained the right to be paid for their image and likeness, nor was it the freedom of movement (and attendant bidding of one’s services) that took the amateurism out of football played under college banners.
No, college football became a professional sport when Washington made Rick Neuheisel a million-dollar head coach, a figure that would not make him one of the best-paid assistant coaches today.
College football became a professional sport when the Southeastern Conference (SEC) schools popularized the practice of “oversigning” players, offering far more scholarships than the team is allowed to carry and creating a necessity of purging the roster of the same number of players.
As coaching salaries have skyrocketed to six, seven, now eight figures, the player piece of the soaring revenue growth remains tuition, room and board.
In this context, “amateurism” is a friendly face on the reality of mostly white men (roughly 90% of coaches) becoming wealthy off the undercompensated labor of a majority of Black men (53% of players).
The median Black household in the United States has 12.7% of the accumulated wealth as the median white household. I am certain players would love to loyally represent their schools, form lifelong bond and participate in rivalries as more than mercenaries. But if the choice is school colors or financial stability for players and their families, it is an easy choice. Let the players have both.
The physical toll that manual labor takes on bodies – and the risks of lifelong injury the players assume – must be fully compensated.
A real fix will require an entirely new way of doing things. There are many issues with my proposal, I’m sure. There is a long, important conversation to be had about the Title IX implications and how to distribute resources equitably to women’s sports.
But there are many issues with college football now, and there always have been. There has never been competitive balance. Some schools have always paid players under the table. Talent flows upward and either Alabama or Clemson have played in every national championship game since 2015-16. Three of those years they played each other.
And remember, professional sports leagues have already worked through most of them. Contracts. Salary caps (and floors). Competition becomes a boon for all schools and players, rather than an annoyance for the biggest programs and the TV execs who support them.
Big-market teams and their owners control the professional leagues. Yet the professional leagues use draft lotteries and other tools to lift up underperforming franchises. The reason the Lakers are willing to redistribute roughly 50% of their earnings each year to small-market teams is because they realize a competitive product is more valuable.
And by recognizing that college football players are adults working a demanding job in a lucrative industry and paying them accordingly, fans will again be able to root for their favorite players without the fear of them leaving for greener pastures after every season.
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