Ignore the Emotional, College Football Players Are Not Exploited

Ignore the Emotional, College Football Players Are Not Exploited
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In a 2015 piece for USA Today, Clemson athletic directly Dan Radakovich wrote about the Tiger Trust, “which allows any student-athlete who leaves campus in good academic standing to return on athletic aid to complete his or her degree.” Translated for those capable of seeing beyond all the hype about scholarship athletes being ripped off, Clemson honors scholarships granted to former football players long after the football dream dies.

This, and many truths rate mention as all the nail-biting about allegedly “exploited” college football players continues. Friday Night Lights author Buzz Bissinger is one of the latest. In a recent New York Times piece, Bissinger whined about how big college football programs “make millions” off of players who don’t receive “a dime of revenue” even though they “expose themselves to brain injury and crippling arthritis,” and now, please sit down readers, “the pandemic.” Bissinger should know better.

The reality is that college athletes, and football players in particular, get an amazing deal. This is particularly true for the ones so talented as to rate scholarships at the “big programs" that Bissinger deems exploitative. 

You see, more than most would like to admit, college has little to do with learning. Most go to college to get a job.

“Big programs” are that way generally because they place an impressive number of their recruits in the NFL, or other professional leagues. So while more and more college grads take on enormous debt in order to attain a degree that they flash to employers, college football players get to pursue their dream job while attaining a coveted degree sans the debt.

The benefits don’t end there. Think about it. Where can some of the most accomplished alums of the major schools be found on fall Saturdays? Readers know the answer. Those exploited players who get to pursue their dream job in facilities that make their NFL equivalents appear dumpy by comparison, and who get to attain a degree in return for their pursuit of dream employment, also have access to their school of choice’s richest, most accomplished alums. Even if these allegedly exploited players don’t make it to the NFL, or don’t play long in the NFL, they walk away from the the sport with a rolodex that their civilian classmates would give anything for.

To which some will point out what the previous paragraph glossed over: most players, even at the big programs, won’t make it to the NFL. Precisely. Bissinger gives off the impression of college football players working feverishly to create wealth for their schools, only to get much less than nothing in return. Except that’s not true.

As anyone who follows college football recruiting knows painfully well, a clear majority of recruits who rate attention and scholarships from the “big programs” never live up to the potential they revealed in high school. Basically they cost the school and alums a fortune in return for little performance; that or performance that doesn’t quite attract the attention of the professional leagues. So while they don’t measure up to the high expectations that came with being recruited by the best of the best, they still (per Radakovich) get to finish their degree while on the dime of the school. And it's not just those who played only for it to not work out. 

Consider Frankie Telfort. A star at Miami’s Gulliver Prep who was recruited nationally, Telfort signed with USC and then head coach Pete Carroll in 2009. Telfort matriculated, started to practice, only for doctors to discover a heart condition of the kind that could kill him immediately. Soon enough Telfort was a former USC football player, but his scholarship was honored nonetheless.

The above truths are what Bissinger leaves out in creating the false impression of exploited athletes who are said to produce billions for the NCAA, and millions for their chosen school, only to not receive “a dime of revenue.” No, they don’t receive any revenue, but they do get the chance to walk away with a famous degree that opens all manner of doors regardless of how they perform at the sport that brought them to the attention of the University to begin with. They also get educational security. Does Bissinger truly think that Clemson, USC and others could be so generous to former players absent the revenues that he laughably claims they don’t see “a dime” of?

What about the countless other non-revenue sports teams that exist thanks to the popularity of football with alums? Will Bissinger write opinion pieces calling for the shuttering of all the sports that exist on the backs of football players?

If so, he might pen yet another opinion piece that attacks college professors, their tenure, and all manner of departments that don’t generate any revenue, but that do exist thanks to generous alums in love with the achievements of the football team. If his problem is with players lifting up athletic departments, he might acknowledge how much those same players lift up schools in total. Of course if Bissinger were to write what he never would, he would then have to admit that revenue sharing on college football teams would similarly be exploitative, and not just because it would force the end of scholarships for former players, the end of countless non-revenue sports, and major shrinkage in collegiate academic programs more broadly.

Indeed, more than Bissinger would care to admit, the “vital few” on any one team drive the success of said team, including the subsequent revenue gains. As evidenced by how few players make the NFL, it’s the stars at the big programs whose on-field achievements make football such a great revenue source for the “big programs.” Check out Texas A&M's fundraising pre and post Johnny Manziel, for instance. 

The same is true when it comes to the coaches whose pay Bissinger laments. He writes of Clemson’s Dabo Swinney earning $9.3 million annually, Alabama’s Nick Saban earning $8.9 million, Michigan’s Jim Harbaugh earning $7.5 million, but what he leaves out is how much smaller the endowments of the three schools were before those coaches, not to mention how much less revenue the athletic departments pulled in.

Bissinger’s whiney attempt at “woke” doesn’t stand up to the most basic of scrutiny, and wholly misses when it comes to the “exploited”  In truth, it’s the very few athletes at the major programs and it’s the very few coaches at the major programs whose achievements drive the revenue bonanza. Kind of like 1 percenter earners more broadly who account for the vast majority of federal tax revenues, only to not receive “a dime” from the federal government that claims such a big portion of their income. Wanna bet Bissinger will never write that op-ed? 

John Tamny is editor of RealClearMarkets, Vice President at FreedomWorks, and a senior economic adviser to Toreador Research and Trading (www.trtadvisors.com). His new book is titled They're Both Wrong: A Policy Guide for America's Frustrated Independent Thinkers. Other books by Tamny include The End of Work, about the exciting growth of jobs more and more of us love, Who Needs the Fed? and Popular Economics. He can be reached at jtamny@realclearmarkets.com.  


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