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If Only Marx Were Not Dead: Why Paying Players Will Not Clean Up College Football

July 2, 2011, 5:29 pm

In the wake of the Jim Tressel scandal (in which we were shocked, shocked! to learn thata high school QB phenom was paid to play at Ohio State via several subterfuges and money laundering scams) Omar Kelly, a Florida radio personality writing for The Orlando Sentinalproposes something “novel”:  that athletes in big money sports be paid above the table.

While emphasizing that football amateurism is a “sham” (true), Kelly notes that illegal payments and gifts are an open secret among college football cognoscenti.  ”The only mistake by Tressel and Pryor was getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar,” he writes, presumably referring to the shrieks of horror emanating from the NCAA.  Kelly continues:

Down payments and rims for cars are often bought by agents. Flat screen televisions and living room sets are occasionally paid for by boosters through money-filled handshakes, or receipts placed in a player, family member or associates names.

That’s the game within the game, and the NCAA and each school — from the Ohio States to Morgan States — knows all about it. Why else would there be a compliance staff at each university, which is supposed to routinely check what car Mr. Quarterback is driving?

The only time the nation hears about a player with their hand out is when schools get sloppy, or when there’s a whistle blower. As long as there’s no paper trail everyone’s safe. Coaches look the other way and deniability protects the program, which annually raises millions.

Kelly ends his piece with a peculiar story about a star player at Miami borrowing money to buy Pampers for his baby as the program he plays for at the University of Miami clears millions of dollars in revenue.  So why shouldn’t this poor man be paid a salary so that he doesn’t have to sell his flatscreen TV for diapers?

If this doesn’t seem like a great example of misapplied surplus value theory, I don’t know what would.  Kelly’s argument for paying players rests on the notion that the time an athlete spends practicing, lifting weights, watching film —> victories —> massive victories for the school.

Not so fast, pal.  First of all, paying workers is no guarantee that they, or that the industry that employs them, will be honest.  If it were, Countrywide Financial, Enron, evangelical mega-churches and numerous political machines and dictatorships around the world would be paying their taxes and keeping their noses clean.  Second, college football does not generate profits for more than a very few schools:  only 14 of 120 Football Bowl Series (FBS) schools made more money than they spent last year.  So in the vast majority of cases, putting players on salary would mean diverting more education dollars to sports programs whose actual function is to generate revenue for major media conglomerates.

But third:  players are paid, even though their labor produces a product that has to be written off as a loss at all but 14 universities in the entire United States, a money draining enterprise that can only be kept afloat at all by compulsory “student activities fees” that are also driving up the cost of a college education.  They are paid with tuition dollars, housing, books, food that are erroneously called “scholarships.”  More properly, Kelly should be arguing that the salary in kind they are receiving in exchange for playing major sports (which, in many cases, does not result in well over half of these players even taking a degree, much less having a skill that will get them a job)  is too low.

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