Time's cover photo of Johnny Manziel contradicts the story attached to it. He strikes the Heisman pose, high-stepping in open space and stiff-arming the world. While the magazine calls for colleges to set wages for their athletes, the quarterback's body language delivers a more sensible message to the NCAA: Get out of my way.
Manziel might want a salary from Texas A&M; he surely would accept one. But his offseason pursuits suggested a more entrepreneurial bent, a desire to trade on his name rather than have the Aggies put it on a paycheck.
There is no reason, other than warped ideology, that Manziel shouldn't be able to sign autographs for money, that Reggie Bush shouldn't have accepted cash from a prospective marketing rep or that Terrelle Pryor should have forfeited his senior year because he sold bowl-game swag and accepted contraband tattoos. Jettisoning amateurism and allowing outside payments or gifts would be the simplest, fairest way to fix college sports. Any reforms in the NCAA need to go down this path, not the pay-for-play rabbit hole.
The Time story, like so many predecessors, does not offer a pragmatic solution for setting college athletic wages, probably because there is none. Attempts to quantify the value of athletes in some of the richest programs have produced numbers such as $1 million per Duke men's basketball player, $500,000 per Texas football player and, according to Time, $285,000 per A&M football player, though the magazine concedes that Manziel would be worth more than that average.
But how does a school compensate the last man on the Duke bench, who lacked even one-tenth the market value of a Mason Plumlee, Carlos Boozer, Elton Brand or Grant Hill? Should the second-string Texas A&M punter receive a higher salary than the fastest runner on the non-revenue track team, which tied for the national title this spring?
At Cal, would any football or men's basketball player be worth more than freshman swimmer Missy Franklin in an open marketplace? Sponsors lined up to sign the teenager after the London Olympics. She declined, and now lives in the simulated cloister of the NCAA, which designates her as a "non-rev" athlete.
Most calls for NCAA reform, including Time's late entry, concede that a salary scale would have to reward female athletes to keep the enforcers of Title IX at bay. They're never specific about how that would happen, and every suggestion implies that football players will be carrying the women, as if they're welfare recipients. If the scale gives everyone the same paycheck, that would be superficially true.
At the same time, it's ridiculous to presume that football teams are innately cash cows, in spite of evidence that almost half the Football Bowl Subdivision teams lose money. That evidence invites dispute, given the extravagant spending on coaches' salaries and huge traveling parties, plus common accounting practices designed to hide profits. But the calculations that peg a Duke basketball player's value at $1 million should carry an asterisk, as well. The math uses revenue distributions in pro sports as its model, even though professional franchises do not co-exist with physics departments or nursing schools.
Last weekend, the University of North Carolina at Charlotte introduced a new football program, en route to the swanky FBS by 2015. The team is currently milking ordinary students. Their fees have increased by as much as $320 to cover start-up costs.
Imagine UNC-Charlotte as a football superpower in 30 years, and one of today' female students, who now constitute a slight majority at UNC-Charlotte, sending an athletic daughter to the school. Will the mother who underwrote UNC-Charlotte football have to hear her daughter's team dismissed as a bunch of parasites, relying on football profits for funding?
The only decent remedy for the indecency of college sports would require nothing more than the NCAA getting over its priggishness about allowing "improper benefits." Remove limits on outside income for athletes, and watch the redistribution begin.
Time's story suggested permitting sponsorships, but only as a secondary consideration to pay-for-play. The piece quotes an academic who says that the beauty in allowing external compensation is that it wouldn't cost schools anything. That isn't necessarily true.
Allowing Nike and boosters to pay athletes directly would probably divert checks currently written to athletic directors. If sponsors wanted to attach themselves to a Jadeveon Clowney, a Brittney Griner or a Missy Franklin, they wouldn't have to pay for a package that includes field-goal kickers and backstrokers who can't break a minute in the 100 meters. They could also pay Clowney, or even the field-goal kicker, substantially more than the women without inviting the Justice Department in for an audit of an athletic department's books.
Agents could sign players years in advance, in junior high if they wanted. Autograph signings for cash could take place in the open, to the advantage of everyone, including the IRS. The NCAA's enforcement crew could whittle its work down to one task: Keeping gamblers out of the mix.
Gymnast Gabby Douglas, Franklin's fellow breakout star from the London Games, went pro because she couldn't afford to defer her income opportunities after the Olympics. Reforms that wipe out amateurism would permit Douglas to compete in college if she wished. Pay-for-play, on the other hand, could kill off gymnastics teams.
In the absence of amateurism, a Richmond basketball player wouldn't have lost his eligibility because he established and marketed his own clothing company. A Minnesota wrestler wouldn't have run into trouble for becoming a successful musician.
College sports originated on the belief that athletics mixed with academics created rounded, Renaissance men. That's exactly what Richmond's Jonathan Benjamin and Minnesota's Joel Bauman became, and the NCAA slammed them for it.
On a smaller scale, Matt Leinart's father would have been allowed to pay for his son to share a downtown L.A. apartment with a teammate, receiver Dwayne Jarrett. The NCAA ruled in 2006 that Jarrett violated the "extra benefits" rule by allowing Mr. Leinart to pick up most of his share of the rent.
Would an open marketplace do more damage to competitive balance than some form of pay-for-play, especially if wages ended up fairly uniform? There's no way to know now, and there's also no reason to care. Under the current system, the gulf between haves and have-nots is not shrinking. Charlotte gambled extravagantly on establishing a football team because it feared forever being left behind in college sports. That is far more disturbing than the idea that certain schools can tap rich boosters to buy up the best athletes.
The old guard of athletic directors will yelp over anything more than piecemeal reform. The status quo has simplified their work and enriched them. Bring in pay-for-play, and they will oversee it. External compensation would put them at more of a distance, which unequivocally makes it the superior option and places every NCAA athlete in the Heisman pose. Just get out of their way.