My Chicago Tribune column on Jay Bilas and his stance on the pay-for-play issue in college sports generated quite a reaction yesterday. Many sides to the debate. Bilas himself even engaged with a few of my followers on Twitter.
Since the ESPN college basketball analyst had much more to say on the subject, it seems appropriate to share the entire interview. Definitely worth the read.
I can’t say I agree with all of Bilas’ points. However, being married to one, I know there was smarter things to do than get in argument with a lawyer. Yes, Bilas also practices law.
Regardless of where you stand on the issue, Bilas makes some compelling arguments. It is interesting to note that he doesn’t advocate paying all student-athletes. Rather, he wants a free market system to let the schools decide for themselves what they want to do.
You’ve kind of become almost the go‑to guy, the face of the pay-for-play issue. How do you feel about that?
Bilas: I’m a little torn about it because I’m not stupid. I realize I’d be better off if I just kept my mouth shut and I took the money that’s coming to me and I was a cheerleader for the sport, and I am a cheerleader for college basketball. College basketball is the best sport in my opinion. But it doesn’t mean that everything is right with it, and when you love something, you say when it’s wrong. I say what I think. That’s what I’m paid to do.
Why are you torn then?
Bilas: Well, because I would rather come to these games and just worry about the games. I don’t like the fact that the NCAA is screwed up. I don’t like that. I think they can and should do better. I don’t want them to be forced to do something by the courts or by the O’Bannon case or all that stuff. I don’t want that to happen. I want them to do it because it’s the right thing. But the truth is they’re unwilling to do the right thing.
Now, reasonable minds can differ. You can say, hey, you know what, I don’t think it’s the right thing, so my school, I don’t want to pay at my school or I don’t want to do this at my school. That’s fine. Don’t tell me I can’t do it. Because somebody doesn’t want to do it, don’t tell everybody they can’t do it. I think that’s wrong.
The conventional wisdom is that paying athletes can’t be done. The money isn’t there. Why do you think otherwise?
Bilas: 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.
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.
But isn’t it true most of these athletic programs are losing money?
Bilas: No, it’s not true. It’s a lie. What do they say their biggest expense is?
Bilas: Who do they pay it to?
Bilas: No, they pay it to themselves. So the athletic department pays the school, and they say, look, we don’t have any money. Look, we had to pay for scholarships. They pay the school. That’s like my wife saying, well, look, geez, we had a bunch of expenditures, we have no money because I gave all my money to you. It’s still in the house. It’s still within the University. It’s all the same. It’s all out of the same pot.
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?
So you would pay all the athletes?
Bilas: I would let the schools do what they want.
Wouldn’t that create an uneven playing field?
Bilas: How? It’s uneven now. 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.
So it’s an open market then?
What about a player like Johnny Manziel, who was worth millions to Texas A&M. How much would you pay him
Bilas: What I would start with is the free market, which seems to work really well for the rest of us. It’s funny how the rest of us can operate pretty cleanly within the free market. What would happen is, in my judgment, if you could do whatever you wanted, you’d insist on a contract. You’d say to a kid, we’ll give you a three‑year deal for X amount, pay for your expenses for school and everything, but we’re going to insist on a non-compete clause. You can’t go any other school, you can’t go pro, we’ll enforce the non-compete, and we’re going to have a behavior clause and a clause for ‑‑ you can terminate for cause if you get in trouble or if you don’t do your homework, whatever the heck you want. And that way everybody protects their own interests.
It’s really not that hard. Everybody else seems to do it and do it in pretty decent fashion.
But now if there are legitimate concerns where we say, okay, we need to think about reasonable regulation of this for competitive balance reasons, we can do that. But you don’t start at zero and say, all right, well, we’re not going to do anything because we don’t know how it would look or how
Do you think a system like that would cause a restructuring of conferences?
Bilas: Maybe. They’re restructuring anyway. They restructure for their own benefit. What difference would it make if they did it for another reason?
How do you feel about what is happening at Northwestern where the players are looking to form a union?
Bilas: I think it’s inevitable. Some people think that this kind of thing was never going to happen because the players are transient, and by the time they realize that they’re getting the short end of the stick, they’re going to be out of school anyway so what’s the point and that kind of thing.
But 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.
How do players react to you now? Do they say, ‘Hey, thanks for standing up for us?’
Bilas: That happens a lot, yeah, they do. But I’m not doing this for them. I say it because I think it’s the right thing.
What about the other side, administrators, coaching staffs?
Bilas: You know what, I have never had anybody that has said, hey, you shouldn’t be saying this. You get some administrations saying I agree but not to this point, or I think we can do it this way. So you have a number of people that agree with you. You have some that don’t, but I’ve never been around any administrator that has been anything but respectful of my opinion, and I hope I come across as being respectful of theirs.
They may dislike the ideas I put out, but nobody has ever made it about me, and I may disagree with the ideas they put out, but the NCAA thing, I don’t like the policies, some of the policies. The people are great. I mean, they’re great. I have never had a problem with a person at the NCAA. They are phenomenal. I just don’t agree with the policies.
Do you think you’re changing any minds?
Bilas: I don’t know. Look, I’m not out to change minds as long as people think about it and they approach it in a reasonable fashion, whatever they ‑‑ reasonable minds can differ on stuff, and I respect the opposing view, I just don’t agree with it.