After being married to a lawyer for nearly 21 years, I learned a long time ago that it is fruitless to debate people who argue for a living. You never win.
So when I talked to Jay Bilas, who is a lawyer, a couple of times earlier this year, I didn’t expect that I would alter his view on the pay-for-play issue in college sports. However, I didn’t anticipate that he would change mine.
Below is Bilas’ appearance on the Keith Olbermann show last night to discuss the ruling in the Northwestern union case.
Bilas argued many of the same points in an interview I did with him in February prior to the hearings on the Northwestern case. In wake of what happened yesterday, his comments are worth reviewing.
After covering college sports for nearly a decade at the Chicago Tribune, I had been in the camp that a scholarship was sufficient compensation for playing college sports. Also, like many others, I bought into the notion that the majority of college athletic departments were losing money. There is no additional cash to pay these athletes, or so I thought.
Well, Bilas changed my mind of a couple of fronts:
The money is there. However, Bilas points out how it is allocated: significant seven-figure salaries for coaches and administrators. Heck, even in coordinators in football are making more than $1 million per year.
So now, do they have a lot of salaries and all that? Yeah, but they’re paying themselves. It’s funny how they’ve got the money to pay themselves first, and they go, there’s nothing left over. Why are the athletes at the end?
And then there’s this:
I don’t believe, nor does any reasonable economist believe, that this entire enterprise teeters upon the athletes staying amateur. It doesn’t. They say, well, if we pay the athletes we’ll have to cut other sports. Says who? Nobody says when they say, boy, you give the players more than a scholarship, you have to cut other sports. Nobody has to say if you pay Rick Pitino or Coach K and Bill Self $5 to $10 million, you’re not going to have other sports. Nobody says that. And the money keeps going up. We’re making more money, not less, and there’s not one economic theory that says that if you pay your employees, you’re automatically, it’s a zero sum game, you’re going to have less profit.
Indeed, if you slashed coach’s salaries by 20 percent, that would free up a couple of million bucks at most athletic programs. Then you could give that money to the athletes. Simple. Right? Imagine how that would go down with those coaches.
Bilas advocates for a free market system. When I countered that it would create an uneven playing field, he had a ready reply.
It’s uneven now. They don’t pay all the coaches the same thing, do they? Nobody said, ‘Hey, Oregon, you can’t build that $68 million facility. Kentucky, you can’t build that (basketball) dorm that’s nicer than the Ritz-Carlton, because it’s not fair to everyone else.’ Aren’t those competitive advantages? We’ve never had a level playing field in college sports, and we never will.
They don’t have to give scholarships if they don’t want to. There’s nothing that requires them to give scholarships. They don’t pay all their coaches the same thing. They don’t pay the lacrosse coach the same thing they pay the football coach. How did they make that determination? Why isn’t that too complicated? They come out with these ridiculous questions, are we going to pay the last guy on the wrestling team the same thing we pay the quarterback? Well, do you pay the wrestling coach the same thing you pay Nick Saban? The answer is no. So do what you want. You want to pay everybody the same, go ahead.
Then there’s the notion that it can’t be done simply because nobody has ever offered a workable formula.
It’s a lame excuse. Sometimes I like to take things to the absurd to make a point, but it’s really funny how nobody ever says, like when they started this playoff, this College Football Playoff, nobody said, it’s just too complicated. How are we going to figure it out? How are we going to figure out what venue to use and how are we going to play all the vendors? Do we pay all the vendors the same thing? Do we pay the parking attendants the same thing that we pay the announcers? How do we do it? Do we pay all the teams? How do we pay the coaches? Do we pay the assistants the same way that ‑‑ it’s funny how they can make all these decisions according to the free market, but the athletes, boy, you can’t do that.
Here’s larger point. Thanks to TV, the money has grown exponentially in the last 20 years. Millions have become billions. Big difference.
The money can’t be ignored any longer. There’s simply too much for the players not to get a slice.
I always felt like this was going to happen because the amount of money that’s in the game now, I think this is pro sports, and the only thing that’s not pro about it is the fact that they don’t pay their employees. The tension between the amount of money that’s generated and the amount of money that’s paid to the coaches and the administrators and all that and the amount that’s provided to the players, which is basically just their expenses, that tension is only going to grow. That’s not going to lessen.
I think it’s the beginning of it rather than some sort of ending point, but to me the best news about it isn’t that the players are doing something. It’s that it is starting a conversation where the logic, or lack thereof, of the NCAA is going to be tested and scrutinized, because to me, like they’re always telling us, no, this is a great deal for the players and they get more than they deserve, and they’re not worth it. Well, if that’s true, then the deal should be able to stand on its own, and you should be able to justify your own policies, and I think now they have to do it.
Indeed, when it comes to this issue, I’m listening to Bilas. He is the smartest man in the room.