Saying Sooth: College Athletics

This is an installment in a very occasional series called Saying Sooth, wherein we make a prediction about future events based on something that is happening, probably happening or appears to be happening. Please bear in mind that predicting the future is extremely easy, as long as you don’t care whether you turn out to be right or not.

In 10 years, college athletics will be very different and mostly much better. It will certainly be more honest. Here’s what I think will happen.

The recent unionization move on the part of a college football team is the result of the NCAA and its supporters ignoring the complaints and dissatisfaction of many over the last several years. The union movement won’t get big-time traction in college sports because it doesn’t make sense, but it’s a wake-up call to everyone involved.

What it will do is cause all the big schools and conferences to realize that college sports, even the two money makers (men’s football and men’s basketball), could become major liabilities very rapidly if things aren’t changed. They will then realize that they don’t actually NEED or BENEFIT much from the NCAA.

(For those of you who don’t know, the NCAA is the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which governs the sports programs at more than 1,200 colleges around the country. This is a totally voluntary thing, but the schools haven’t been complaining for the last 30 years or so because college sports has gotten more and more popular and more and more lucrative. That happy era is about to end.)

So, like the Wizard of Oz, the NCAA will appear to the people of the kingdom for what it really is: a pointless and mostly powerless figurehead, whose threats only work because people listen. (And when a college golfer gets in trouble for using a campus water hose to wash her car while employees, consultants and others associated with the NCAA itself make millions, these threats are hard to take seriously.)

So the conferences will demand reform from the NCAA, and they will try to make it as superficial as possible. This will not be enough, and at some point a major conference (probably the Southeastern Conference) will say that while its schools will still be affiliated with the NCAA, it will establish its own code of athlete conduct and its own process for discipline.

Within a few months, all major conferences will follow suit.

Over the course of a few years, athletes will be allowed some freedoms they are currently denied, such as the ability to receive a reasonable stipend along with tuition and room and board. Right now, athletes, unlike any other scholarship recipient, may NOT receive financial support above and beyond tuition, room and board. This is done in the spirit of protecting “amateurism,” while those in charge of the protection of that amateurism have become extraordinarily good at enriching themselves.

Athletes will also be allowed to take jobs for pay that are currently unavailable to them, and they’ll have their constitutional right to sell their property again. “Scandals” that involve getting a free tattoo from a tattoo parlor run by a fan will come to an end because there will no longer be any money or job security in it for the NCAA.

Money earned on the likeness or names of athletes by the schools or the NCAA will in part accrue to the player’s benefit and put in trust until successful completion of a degree.

College basketball will change dramatically. The phony system we have now where the very best players are forced to play for one year in college before going to the pros will be done away with, as Mark Cuban or someone else develops a better, more attractive minor league system.  As a result, players will stay for three to four years, making the college men’s game better.

Men’s college football will be less scandal prone because the rules won’t generally make outlaws of the players and coaches. Schools will have a maximum stipend they can give to a student-athlete, and men’s football players will likely be the recipient of most of the “max” stipends, since football is the biggest earning sport for most schools. This won’t amount to professionalism any more than academic scholarships with stipends make someone a professional student.

Some conferences, probably led by the Pac-12, will create stipend pools for successful completion of a degree that will apply equally to all college athletes, including women and participants in non-revenue bearing sports.

There will be those who complain that the “purity” of college athletics is gone, but in general the system will work, create good incentives for most situations and remove most of the fundamental hypocrisy and opportunity for corruption that we currently have.

And frankly, we don’t have “purity” in college sports, but that’s not generally the athletes’ faults. It’s a system created by a lot of adults angling to make themselves a lot of money on intercollegiate athletics, and this system is almost designed to make you break the rules, especially if you come from an economically disadvantaged background. I don’t think that what will happen is that these contests will be professionalized — again, what’s the point of doing that as opposed to making your own minor league? — but the pointless, forced sacrifice on the part of the weakest and youngest people in the system, who also happen to be the ones who make it all worth watching in the first place, will end.

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