Should college presidents get out of the big-time football business?

What happens to the University of Maryland football program if a federal judge in California rules that the whole system of restricting compensation for athletes violates the nation’s antitrust law? What happens if colleges are allowed to pay athletes what they’re actually worth to a team’s success? Some court observers believe such a thing could happen.

The last thing the state’s flagship university in College Park needs is another worry about the future of its football program. But who knows? Maybe it’s not a worry. Maybe, if the judge rules against the NCAA — and if college football teams become part of the free market, wholly commercialized, even structurally separated from the academy — that might not be such a bad thing.

I’m glad there’s a University of Maryland team. I root for the Terps. But, should it come to pass that the program ends up operating under an independent governing body fully empowered to recruit players, pay them what they’re worth, build teams and market them, while compensating the university for its brand, most fans are not going to care. Many will think it’s a more honest system than the one we have now.

I’m sure many college presidents might agree, if not publicly, and Wallace Loh, the College Park president who just announced his retirement in the midst of a football scandal, would probably be among them. Imagine if university presidents could simply focus on academics and schmoozing donors, leaving the football program to some other entity associated with the university but not part of it.

It’s possible the pay-for-play class action, NCAA Grant-in-Aid Cap Antitrust Litigation v. NCAA, could be the start of that trend. The lead plaintiff in the case, Shawne Alston, was a running back at West Virginia University. He argues that, by limiting compensation to the value of scholarships, NCAA rules stifle competition for athletes among the country’s 11 conferences and deprive the players of their full reward for bringing fame and fortune to colleges.

The Alston case challenges the college sports model that has been around forever, and we all know what that looks like: Multimillion-dollar salaries for Division I coaches, fancy athletic complexes, big stadiums, merchandise, concessions, and gobs of television and sponsor revenue for the major programs, particularly football and men’s basketball. The athletes, meanwhile, are not paid. Their compensation is capped at the value of their scholarships.

Some of the nation’s sharpest minds, Pulitzer Prize-winning civil rights historian Taylor Branch among them, have been arguing that the system is corrupt and needs to change, but not for the reasons usually cited when scandal erupts — violations of player recruitment rules, under-the-table payoffs to sought-after athletes and their families.

Seven years ago, Branch, who lives in Baltimore, wrote convincingly, in a long essay published in The Atlantic, about how the billion-dollar college sports industry was wholly unfair to athletes. He argued that players should be paid.

“Two of the noble principles on which the NCAA justifies its existence — ‘amateurism’ and the ‘student-athlete — are cynical hoaxes, legalistic confections propagated by the universities so they can exploit the skills and fame of young athletes,” Branch wrote. “The tragedy at the heart of college sports is not that some college athletes are getting paid, but that more of them are not.”

Branch spent a lot of time examining this subject and, against the argument for maintaining amateurism, concluded: “Big-time college sports are fully commercialized. Billions of dollars flow through them each year. The NCAA makes money, and enables universities and corporations to make money, from the unpaid labor of young athletes.”

The Alston case challenges the rules that force all colleges to offer essentially the same compensation package to student-athletes, denying them the opportunity to have colleges compete for their talents.

Michael McCann, Sports Illustrated’s legal analyst, described the NCAA’s defense of amateurism as the Alston trial got underway in September:

“The NCAA and the 11 major conferences dismiss this assertion as not only baseless under the law but potentially damaging to college sports: If athletic scholarships become de facto employment contracts, then college sports would morph into minor league sports, college athletes would become disassociated from their classmates and college fans would tune out.”

Not so, argues Steven Salzburg, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University, formerly at Maryland. “Get football out of the universities,” Salzburg wrote for Forbes, “and make it a privately-run minor league for the NFL (which it already is, in effect). Let each team pay fees for use of the university's name, the stadium, practice fields. Then the football club can pay its coaches whatever it wants, and it will have to pay the athletes . ... Universities won't have to pretend that they are providing a first-class education to the players, while padding their coffers at the players' expense.”

And college presidents, regents, deans and faculty can focus on what’s really important: the education of their students.

drodricks@baltsun.com

twitter.com/DanRodricks

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