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Analyzing the Big Ten presidents' thoughts on paying players

On Tuesday, the Big Ten presidents released a letter outlining their collective view of the current state of college sports, and what needs fixing. That includes Northwestern president Morty Shapiro, who signed the letter and has had his fair share of athlete welfare issues to deal with this year due to the potential unionization of his football team.

But here's the thing about university presidents: they're supposedly extremely intelligent people who have a knack for saying extremely stupid things, many of which are flat-out lies — please see exhibits one, two, three, four and five from the past few months.

As you might imagine, the Big Ten presidents' letter — which you can read in full here — contained a lot of misleading threats, a lot of self-righteous irony and a lot of nonsense. Let's break down all of the problems:

Football and men’s basketball are at issue. Compensating the student-athletes who compete in these sports will skew the overall academic endeavor – for all students, not just those wearing a school’s colors.

The Big Ten presidents think that if athletes are allowed to market themselves — or if they're paid 10 percent of the television money the school gets from their games — that my education as a journalism student at Northwestern will be threatened.

There is no link between students getting paid and it hurting their academic performance. This is why universities offer work study as an option. And throughout the duration of the O'Bannon lawsuit, the NCAA has failed to show how athletes receiving money like those work-study students would hurt their education. It's an even bigger (somewhat insane) leap to say that it would somehow affect my education.

The athletic budget is separate from the university budget, and soon, Big Ten schools will be brining in $20 million more per year than they are right now from the conference. Under the likely plan to compensate athletes if the O'Bannon plaintiffs win, athletes would only be guaranteed, at most, $4 million of that — nobody knows what the injunction would look like, but most assume it would be around 10 percent of the TV money.

The university's academic budget is not going to be hit by NCAA changes, and athletes' compensation is not going to negatively affect their educations, much less mine.

The best solutions rest not with the courts, but with us – presidents of the very universities that promote and respect the values of intercollegiate competition.

The college presidents, who currently have all the power in determining what is fair and what is not in college sports, think that it's inappropriate for the courts to be involved. What are the courts for if not to solve disputes over fairness? The college presidents literally don't think they should have to answer for anyone. They know they're in danger of losing their business model, so instead of working to fix it to make it less of a blatant antitrust violation, they're choosing to blame the institution of the court system.

The tradition and spirit of intercollegiate athletics is unique to our nation. Students play as part of their overall academic experience, not for a paycheck or end-of-season bonus.

"It's always been this way so we shouldn't have to change it." Except that isn't true at all.

Many also compete in hopes of a professional career, just as our biology majors serve internships and musical theater students perform in summer stock. These opportunities – sports, marching band, campus newspaper, and more – are facets of the larger college experience and prepare students for life. And that, in its purest form, is the mission of higher education.

The Big Ten presidents are arguing that college athletes shouldn't get paid because they should be the same as regular students, except regular students are allowed to get paid for what they do well. If someone wants to pay me to write for them, they're allowed to do that. But if someone wants to pay an athlete to endorse something because of who they are, that athlete is declared ineligible.

The NCAA's issue is that it is defending conflicting arguments — that the school owes athletes nothing, but that those athletes shouldn't be able to get what the market says their worth without any cost to the school. Are the athletes worth nothing or are they worth too much for it to be fair? You can't have both, and you certainly can't claim athletes are regular students if they have to abide by different rules.

The reality of intercollegiate athletics is that only a miniscule number of students go on to professional sports careers. In the sports that generate the greatest revenue and attention, football sees 13 percent of Big Ten players drafted by the NFL and basketball sees six percent from our conference drafted for NBA play.

This is true, so why not let them earn money when they're on the biggest stage of their lives?

For those student-athletes who are drafted, their professional careers average fewer than five years. They still have several decades and, potentially, several careers ahead of them in which to succeed. And their college experience – their overall academic experience – should be what carries them forward.

Again, then why not let them maximize their earnings potential and sign marketing deals while they're at the most marketable points of their lives? Also, nobody has suggested having athletes not be students. As I went over with the work-study example, there are plenty of students who also hold down jobs.

We must guarantee the four-year scholarships that we offer. If a student-athlete is no longer able to compete, for whatever reason, there should be zero impact on our commitment as universities to deliver an undergraduate education. We want our students to graduate.

Great idea! But you're already allowed to do it under NCAA rules, so why don't you?

If a student-athlete leaves for a pro career before graduating, the guarantee of a scholarship remains firm. Whether a professional career materializes, and regardless of its length, we will honor a student’s scholarship when his or her playing days are over. Again, we want students to graduate.


We must review our rules and provide improved, consistent medical insurance for student-athletes. We have an obligation to protect their health and well-being in return for the physical demands placed upon them.

Ditto again!

We must do whatever it takes to ensure that student-athlete scholarships cover the full cost of a college education, as defined by the federal government. That definition is intended to cover what it actually costs to attend college.

This is a great idea, and something that is being discussed by the Power Five conferences. However, a lot of people are skeptical that the proposal will pass. Plus, this is just another instance of the NCAA and the university presidents changing its "sacred" amateurism rules and trying to control the money going into the system.

If universities are mandated to instead use those dollars to pay football and basketball players, it will be at the expense of all other teams. We would be forced to eliminate or reduce (non-revenue) programs.

This is a common NCAA defense, and it's simply not true. I've covered this topic a lot over at SB Nation a number of times, detailing how the argument makes absolutely no economic sense. You can read my latest piece for a longer explanation of another president making this claim, but here's the gist of it:

Right now, Big Ten schools are getting roughly $25 million per year from the conference. Starting in 2017-18, they'll be getting $45 million per year from the conference. As I explained above, if O'Bannon wins, they'll likely only be forced to share about $4 million of that money, so they'll still be making more per year than they are right now.

Schools would still not cut sports even if the market opens up and they can pay athletes more than their broadcast (NIL) rights. There's this idea that schools would immediately cut all sports to pay football players, but the fact is, schools currently don't put everything they have into football, because they like being able to brag about having balance. Ohio State, for example, has a rifle team. It could easily choose not to fund that and many of its other sports to instead build even more impressive football facilities, but instead it chooses to fund rifle.

The current system is an example of inefficient replacement — the rules don't allow schools to pay athletes, so instead they attract recruits by building de facto recruiting palaces for facilities pay absurd amounts of money to hire head coaches. In an efficient system, like the one the presidents are fighting, that's where the money to pay players would come from, not from other sports.

Paying only some athletes will create inequities that are intolerable and potentially illegal in the face of Title IX.

First and foremost, athletes marketing themselves does nothing to invoke Title IX. The school has no control over whether Kain Colter wants to sign a deal with a local car dealer, and thus, it will not be punished for simply allowing him to market himself.

There's also a very good argument against Title IX being applicable here, because the compensation from universities would be for the use of athletes' images. Title IX likely won't force the university to pay a field hockey player for the money a football player generates from the use of his own image. Furthermore, compensation (even beyond NIL compensation) probably isn't an issue under Title IX, because athletes are already compensated with scholarships of different values.

But in a post-O'Bannon world, compensation limits would likely be up to the individual conferences, so the Big Ten could force its members to also pay women's athletes. The presidents would rather just keep that money for themselves, though, so they use women's sports as a scapegoat instead of choosing to compensate them.

The amateur model is not broken, but it does require adjusting for the 21st century. Whether we pay student-athletes is not the true issue here. Rather, it is how we as universities provide a safe, rewarding and equitable environment for our student-athletes as they pursue their education.

Well, a federal court seems to think paying players is a pretty big issue. And all indications are that the court thinks it's such a big issue, the players are going to win the right to some sort of compensation.

Higher education provides young people with options in life to thrive in the future. For a tiny minority, that future will be a professional sports career and all of its rewards. For all graduates – athletes and non-athletes – it is the overall academic experience that is a lifetime source of compensation in the form of a well-rounded education.

This is all very true. It's also entirely irrelevant to whether athletes are allowed to (or deserve to) earn money while they are in college.