I used to think being a pro athlete was the coolest job in the world. You get to PLAY a GAME! What's more awesome than that? Getting to do it for a lot of money, that's what. Even I, female, aspired to that as a kid. Before it became readily apparent that I have absolutely no discernible athletic skills.
Being a pro athlete still seemed so awesome though. The weekly glory on the gridiron or the diamond or the court. The travel, which, while grinding, is still impressive. ("Brass spittoons in the lobbies, brass beds in the rooms.") The seemingly impossible feats of athletic strength. Access to places and people the rest of us can only dream of. Unending adoration by legions of fans. The cars and money and women.
In college I saw a small slice of this. Guys were suddenly driving the newest, fanciest cars the day the college season ended. Even while in school, and being a mediocre football team at the start of my college career, they were treated like gods. Women threw themselves at them and they rarely said no. (A kicker of ours once called a girl for notes for a class he missed. She came over in the afternoon and suddenly he appears in the living room, where my roommate is studying with his roommate, asking for a condom. He later said, "Seriously, I just wanted the notes." The KICKER.) They had access to whatever bar they wanted to go to and never paid for drinks because having the athletes there meant having other people follow; it was good for business. And that was just the tiny visible stuff. They were golden football gods.
As I've grown up and become more and more interested in, and aware of, the business side of sports, I've come to the conclusion that being a pro athlete might not be the best deal out there. There are easier, less punishing ways, to make the same amount of money. I thought I'd explore a little bit why. Since the clearest path is football, we'll use that as our case study.
In what is part one of two, I first explore the college aspect of the path to being a pro athlete.
First off, the big money doesn't come until years later. If ever. You spend from 8-22 playing, essentially, for free. Not including what your parents spend in equipment and what you spend in time, effort, and energy, which there is no offsetting income for. You're really operating at a loss for most of your early life.
It gets harder and harder to just have natural talent and hope that sees you through to a pro career, playing only the required football season, when there are football camps for the elite and/or wealthy, where the best teenagers spend weeks in the summer getting intense training from pro athletes and coaches. Just like real life, the wealthy have a leg up on their less wealthy competition. Even if you aren't headed to elite camps, your high school is holding work outs throughout the summer and if you really want to maintain an edge, you better be doing something on your own when not in team practices.
There are high schools that are essentially football factories, churning out players to big time college programs and collecting state titles like pocket change. While a lot of these schools have state mandates for academics, it's no joke to say that they are essentially in the business of football and a coach, fearing for his job and own security, may push his kids a little bit harder than necessary to get them to perform. This could lead to increased skill on the part of an athlete. This could also lead to early fatigue with the sport, injury, or even death.
Even then, if a naturally talented kid from an inner city school wants to go play division 1 football and does everything physically right, he needs to have taken 16 core requirement classes which include four years of English and 3 years of math that must include algebra. He then needs to have his GPA/SAT or ACT score match the NCAA requirements on a sliding scale. The lower the GPA, the higher the SAT/ACT score needs to be. If a student has a 2.0 GPA, he needs to score 1010 on the SAT, 86 on the ACT. For someone with a low GPA, scoring that high on a standardized test seems like quite the barrier to being able to play a sport. A sport for which you were born and bred, for which you likely gave up academic prowess to be really good at playing. Or you weren't even lucky enough to have the support system in place to help you be able to do well academically, either by being from a less advantaged home or at an inferior public school. The likelihood that a superstar athlete is from a broken home is pretty high. That is of course not an absolute and it's nice to think that with a lot of high school programs there is community support, but the reality is, that's not always the case.
If for some reason you don't meet minimum NCAA requirements to go to a D1 school (which there are ways to fudge), there is the junior college to 4 year route. This seems to work a good percentage of the time, you get the help available in a college environment, continued help on your skills, and eventually turn it into to a scholarship offer. But what if that's not an option? What if you're just an incredibly talented athlete and a really awful student? Truth is, if you're THAT good of an athlete, someone out there is going to see the value in your skill and do whatever they possibly can to get you to a big time football program. You are a commodity and people want in on it. You, superstar athlete, can help school X win, school X knows it and by god they will have some booster pay some tutor to make sure you qualify.
But the truth is this: you can't just take your incredible talent and test the free market. If someone was a computer genius, we don't require them to go to college. They will likely choose to, as they can expand their knowledge base and have access to labs and such, but if Google or Microsoft came knocking and offered them a job out of high school, they'd be free to take it. This whole system of capitalism and free market enterprise we value so much is wide open to them. Not so with the college football player. We have limited a talented young person's earning potential by requiring, within the depths of the NFL's collective bargaining agreement, that a player be three years removed from his senior year of high school before entering the NFL draft. That doesn't leave a lot of options.
We couch this in being in the athlete's best interest. That he hasn't, at 18, fully developed the physicality necessary to compete at an advanced level. That he has so much more to learn about the game and the speed at which it is played at the college level before daring to go pro. "He'd get killed!" they reason. The legal arguments have more to do with being bound by the NFL's CBA, but, it's basically, you can't until that three year time period has elapsed. Per an agreement our young footballer had no say in. (For the long version of this argument, you can read the SDNY ruling in Clarett v. NFL.)
So fine, you can't go pro out of high school. You do, however, if you overcome the barricades put in front of you as a superstar athlete, manage to make it to shiny academic halls with fancy world class weight rooms and indoor practice facilities of a Division I NCAA school. This is the big time. You get handed all sorts of free gear to suit up for games. You get a dorm assignment and meet 85 other like scholarshiped individuals.
Surely, in these hallowed academic halls, you can inject some money into your family while in college, right? It's not like you're a McElroy, you're just an average middle class kid whose parents can barely afford to send him to school, even with scholarship help. Let alone one of your teammates who is the first in his family to ever make it to college from a blue collar (or worse) family. You need some pocket change. That should be easy enough to come by, right? Hahaha. No. You can't collect money in college, in any way shape or form while under scholarship. The NCAA has a stranglehold on that. "We want our amateur athletes to remain amateurs!" they shout, while cashing the checks for billion dollar media deals. Your school can sell your jersey, without the name on the back. But you look in the stands and everyone is wearing a number 7. You know they wear it in honor of you. You get not a single dime.
Your image even, which there are laws in most states to protect the use of, you've signed over as an 18 year old, without the benefit of a lawyer to protect your rights because such help would go against amateurism and the NCAA packet is basically an adhesion contract, to the NCAA to use however they like, which is mostly in video games that sell for $60 a pop. You know how much of all this income you see from your sweat and blood every Saturday? As some kid adds in your name on an already looking like you videogame? None. Zip, zero, zilch. If you dare to take a free pizza and the NCAA finds out about it, you're in trouble. Don't even think about selling YOUR jersey or shoes or highly coveted player tickets to cover your cell phone bill that your tuition doesn't cover or the pocket money you'd like to have to go to the occasional movie. Any other average college kid can throw up their used Nikes on ebay and get paid by the highest bidder, but not you, college athlete, because the NCAA says you're an amateur!
(I can't get into every topic here but the hypocrisy of people cheering when a school does get sanctioned for violations caused by student athletes, such as getting tattoos for merchandise, while never once griping about, or even discussing, the sheer idiocy of the NCAA's rules, and draconinan application of them, in the face of a changing marketplace is beyond frustrating. Monty Python may have taught us that you're never expecting the Spanish Inquisition, but the NCAA enforcement of issues, and the fear they inspire in athletic departments across the country, seems like a close runner up. Save for the lack of witch burning.)
You can take a crappy summer job, so long as it is a crappy summer job wherein you are not using your athletic ability in any way, shape, or form to make money. And you have to show up and actually DO the job. Which your coach is gonna love, you, giant D1 football player, flipping burgers all summer. Or working construction. Which, really, considering your "optional" summer work outs and your 2 a-days that start well before the semester really gives you, what, a month of summer to work? Considering you aren't making good money that's hardly much relief. So even now that you have this amazing and unique skill set, you can only use it in limited instances. (The minor exception to this, having perused the D1 NCAA manual (trust me, don't...though it's 18.104.22.168 if you must) is the ability to work football camps as a counselor. If you are elite enough and possess enough skills, you can teach other kids how to do what you do while getting paid for it.)
But just think! For your hard work you're getting a free education! That's right! Free! Other than all those pesky expenses your scholarship doesn't cover, like non-dining hall food. A scholarship that can be yanked out from underneath you if you don't perform or there's some kid in Stillwater, OK that your school wants/needs/likes more after one year. The renewable one year at a time scholarship. Be proud of yourself, major universities, for screwing over 19 year olds! (Yes, mine is guilty of oversigning. Yes, I linked to the ESPN report on the topic.) And what's the rationale there? If it's that this is a business and they need the best players under the limits of 85 scholarships per season, well, you just failed the NCAA's "but they're amateurs!" test. This is a conundrum. The schools are making money hand over fist on the major sports (we won't account for the offset of non-money making sports/zomg title IX/girls want to play too! Or the way books are cooked so everyone looks like they are operating at a loss, but there are those arguments) and yet the kids get...education and more football skills to eventually someday maybe make money at playing football. Exasperated yet? I am.
So let's say that the value of your scholarship, for all four years, at a major D1 state university is $80,000. Or: $20k a year. Times 85 scholarship players (amount allowed by the NCAA per season). That's $1.7 million a year in scholarships. That's IT. That's what it costs the school to educate you and all of your teammates for a year. Not factoring in what it costs to pay the coaching staff and operate facilities, the out of pocket cost simply for talent is $1.7 million a year. Nothing to sneeze at though, that's money I certainly wouldn't mind having. Though: that's for tuition AND room/board. $20k is not going into anyone's pocket. You're walking around money is far less than minimum wage. For your 4 months of playing football and even more time spent in practices and work outs.
However, if your school wins a BCS title in your tenure, that's an $18 million payout. For their $1.7 million a year investment. Nicely done. The other BCS bowls pay out a little less. And mostly that money goes to the conference to dole out as it sees fit, but it's still a lot of money. Of which, I doubt I need to say this, you, student athlete, see none. Except for your "free" education. WHEEE!
We still trying to say this isn't a business? Really? You sure about that? Let alone all the merchandise emblazoned with college logos sold at mark up because there is no loyalty like college loyalty. (I am a shining example of this, sitting in a room surrounded by college insignia.) We won't get into shared revenue from football television and media rights contracts, but that exists as well. For a mere $1.7 million a year. It sounds like a Nigerian Prince scam. "You give me $1.7 million and I will give you $20 million!" Yes, these are the upper echelon programs. The top 25s. But, the other 100 schools wouldn't want in on this, recruiting and expanding and building new facilities, as is de rigeur of most programs to stay competitive, if they didn't see the dollar signs dangling in front of them too. The formula is simple: elite program = cash.
But let's say you get your scholarship and life isn't all roses at Big State U. If you want to transfer because you discover that the pomp and circumstance that was rolled out to you, and the promises made by your esteemed head coach or position coach during the recruiting process amount to a ton of bullshit. Or even that you're just homesick and the school 2,000 miles away from home wasn't a good idea. There are very few circumstances under which you can do this without having to first sit out a year, hurting your skill set and visibility (NCAA 14.5.1). On top of that, your current school can restrict the schools to which you can transfer. They can block out entire swaths of the country if they are feeling mean and vindictive. Or just aware that having a good player go to their rival puts them at a competitive disadvantage and they like winning, because after all winning = money, in this non-business. Want to move back to your home state to be closer to your family? Sure, but only if you go to the tiny, uncompetitive D1 school and not the conference rival power house. You can't even test the free market within the NCAA, while your school can cut your scholarship after a year. Fun times!
And there are costs even on what your college experience is. While the rest of us are drinking to excess in undergrad, making horrible decisions, skipping class, doing illegal drugs, spending our (and our parents) money how and when and where we want, and choosing the roommates we want with abandon, you are stuck in mandatory study sessions, have strict curfews and need to be up for 6 a.m. strength training which calling in hungover to, like the rest of our college jobs, is not an option. In fact, the receiver at my beloved alma mater just got in trouble for moving in with his girlfriend. Due to some insane NCAA rule, which he didn't get cleared first beause as far as this kid knew he was simply just moving in with the girl he likes a lot, he got in trouble. Because the NCAA prohibits living with athletic department staff as a benefit. His girlfriend works for the athletic department. Geezus, seriously? Are the restrictions on your freedoms and ability to enjoy life really worth the tradeoff of a scholarship? Even if factoring in the above stories about being lionized while in college? I'm not so sure.
There are perks, to be fair. You get first crack at scheduling classes, and can skip it altogether if you want, having someone in the administrators office hand you a customized schedule of "easy" football classes. But here's the danger in that: who's watching out for your future? Who is making sure you actually get an education and have some discernible skills should this football thing not work out? And trust me, the likelihood of it not working out is far greater than it working out. Don't believe me? The numbers work like this: 120 D1 schools with 85 scholarshipped athletes each is 10,200 football players. There are 32 pro football teams with 53 roster spots or: 1,569 guys playing NFL football. Now those are straight numbers, obviously not 85 guys graduate from each school at a time. Still, even a quarter of that (2,550), does not take into account that not all those roster spots are empty and that you are competing against DII and DIII guys for those spots as well. You damn well better take control of your education and make sure you are qualified for something other than football playing. Unless you really like poutine, because there's always Canada! (Sorry, had to).
Now you need to learn some stuff in those fancy free classes that you can barely stay awake for between meetings and practices and trying to maintain a social life. And if you ARE really smart, that's admirable that you want to go the pre-med track at football U but know that you're gonna have to do that on your own time, between all those aforementioned activities. You try and keep that med school level 4.0, taking O-chem, among all of that. I have a horrible GPA and all I had to do in college was show up. I can't imagine the full time side career of college athlete and a stellar academic record. So long as your play doesn't slide, son, because then you lose your scholarship and are on your own. No pressure. (And it's not that this isn't possible. Plenty of college football players go on to have amazing careers in not football. Just the degree of difficulty under which it is done as compared to the rest of us playing beer pong at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday is definitely high.)
We didn't even discuss the toll this entire college process has taken on your body. The players got bigger on the opposing team, the game got faster, the coaches expected even more out of you than they did in high school. You hurt. You're young and you can shake it off and likely aren't considering what having your bell rung by a 320 lb lineman is going to do to you long term but you definitely know there are days when you just hurt. Me? I'm gonna go to another lady's night. Or even just enjoy Thanksgiving with my family. And Christmas. Which you can't because of regular season games and bowl season. SO MUCH FUN!
Let's say you manage to survive four years of college. Hell, you even manage to get that free degree out of your school. Even if it's in something totally useless. An amazing friend of mine went to college at big time school in Texas after being raised in the Bronx and going to JC in San Francisco. He was the first in his family to go to college and had little to no guidance in the whole insane process, but he managed to be captain of his team and get his degree. In agriculture. Because he took whatever classes they handed him. Not that he didn't excell and do well and gain knowledge, but what kind of ridiculous disservice did they do to my urban dwelling friend by getting him an undergrad degree in AGRICULTURE? And this is where you learn to look out for yourself. This is why it is completely understandable that when an athlete does make money and start having some say he becomes an insufferable prig. For 22 years he was beholden to everyone else who was, in the best case, worried about their own job and future, or, worst case, only out to make sure they succeeded. Coaches need to win to keep their jobs, trainers and tutors and staff as well. You are their commodity. You need to perform exemplary on the field and good enough elsewhere. Sure, the NCAA has graduation rates and success rates and other metrics. But they would much rather stick you in easy agriculture classes than have you studying ancient greek philosophy. (I'm not picking on you ag people, I'm sure there are hard classes there too, just, we gotta start somewhere, okay?)
That same friend, by the way, left early in his senior spring semester to go to the NFL combine. Ya know, where you are evaluated professionally for your skill to determine if that job in the NFL you've been training for is really gonna happen? And do you know what his school did? Sent him a bill. Because he withdrew early and was no longer under the auspices of the athletic department. Your free education, if you want to make a career out of your skill set, isn't so free.
So we have being taken advantage of by a system, punishing your body, giving up the normal college experience, maybe getting out of it with a degree and if you're extra lucky/skilled, a pro career (the punishment of difficulty of which I'll explore later) in exchange for a free education and a certain level of college glory. While I used to think that if I ever had children I couldn't wait to mold them in to athletic gods, I've since changed my mind. The cost/benefit analysis just doesn't stack up. As the NCAA continues to shout "Amateurism!" at us, the price paid by the average college athlete in exchange for that education, and in fairness further athletic training, just doesn't seem worth it.
As someone who worships at the altar of college football, the price paid by those young men is a hard thing to reconcile. I don't have a solution (besides the implosion of the NCAA, which I would love to see), but am more than willing to hear thoughts on the topic. Got any?
Update: I forgot to mention (because I write and edit myself, scared to death of other's criticism) that the NCAA is considering many changes to the rule book but how effective they will be, and when they will actually come, is still undecided. Considering the only body slower at reform than the NCAA is the Catholic church, I don't hold much hope.
Additionally: I left out all the latest Baton Rouge bar fight news. My humble opinion is that bar fights are usually precipitated by all parties and that being a star athlete in a college town makes for an easy target. I'm going to imbue some of my law/growing up in a cop family knowledge and say that the end result should be that ALL parties walk away with their bumps and bruises and that's it. Filing of assault and battery charges is the highest level of ridiculousness. The hiring of attorneys by BOTH sides and media fervor complicates any investigation into what is the usual scene at the end of the night in a college town. I have seen, broken up, and watched many a guy friend break his hand in a 2:30 a.m. bar fight, both in SF and in BR. I'm not saying that makes it okay, but I am saying that once again, being a college athlete escalates what would be a regular occurrence for your average frat boy. Additionally, I hate to point out that Deadspin was the first to point out that just because you're a marine (who was involved in the fight), doesn't mean you can't also be a headstrong ass. Yes, I realize we live in the land of all out patriotism, but that doesn't make him any more right than the football players.