Delany’s pay-for-play comments hit the mark

As you might expect if you’ve been here before, I am on board with Jim Delany’s thoughts on compensation for college athletes.

(If you need a refresher, please see here.)

Since the time I wrote that entry, Delany has come out strongly in favor of covering full cost of attendance for athletes, and I see that as an essential change in the way the NCAA does business regardless of what else happens.

But yesterday he unloaded both barrels on those who want athletes to receive salaries above and beyond the considerable compensation they already receiver in the form of scholarships, hitting on a lot of points that NCAA officials, conference commissioners, coaches and others have left out in previous discussions about this issue, many of which left them open for more criticism of the system than I believe is due.

Via the ESPN Big Ten Blog, here are a few choice selections from Delany:

  • “Maybe in football and basketball, it would work better if more kids had a chance to go directly into the professional ranks. If they’re not comfortable and want to monetize, let the minor leagues flourish. Train at IMG, get agents to invest in your body, get agents to invest in your likeness, and establish it on your own. But don’t come here and say, ‘We want to be paid $25,000 or $50,000.’ Go to the D-League and get it, go to the NBA and get it, go to the NFL and get it.”

To me this is Delany getting at the major point that pay-for-play proponents miss – the alternative to what we have  is almost certainly not better for most players. A vast majority of players, I would argue, stand to get less from a minor league experience than from playing college football or basketball.

Let’s put it this way – how many all-time great minor league players who never made it in the majors have you heard of? What about all-time great college players whose success stopped at graduation? Now which of those groups do you think has more members still making money of their likeness today?

When status quo defenders (for lack of a better term for the sake of brevity) answer they want to protect amateurism and, ‘Hey those athletes get a free education, what more do they want?’ the response is generally that A) Amateurism is a sham (which is true), and B.) The athletes don’t value the education (which is barely relevant if at all).

And then an impasse or shouting and name-calling generally ensues. But too often overlooked are the many other benefits of being a scholarship athlete, those Delany references above such as training and promotion.

  • “Let the minor leagues flourish…”

Delany might sound like he’s inviting competition, but he knows full well that would not happen. The market to watch athletes below the top level pro leagues is nothing compared to the top level pro leagues themselves or colleges, and there is a very simple explanation for that. One is the top of the line, and the other offers an emotional connection.

Remove the feelings for old alma mater and you’d have a much different picture of fandom for teams that now represent colleges, and I would also suggest that the passion of those with a true connection to the school works to attract others who might not otherwise care. They are the source of the pageantry and traditions many of us cherish at universities across the country, those things that set college sports apart from pro teams and make both viable entities rather than just one.

  • “We’ve been training kids for professional sports… I argue it’s the institution… These brands have been built over 100 years.”

And yet we have people who cite studies trying to attribute Johnny Manziel’s value to Texas A&M last year. What was Texas A&M’s value to Johnny Manziel, a relatively anonymous figure about 13 months ago? It’s a two-way street, and Manziel represents a major extreme.

Some players come out of high school with ready-made reputations – very few – but I think those of us engulfed in the world of hard-core fans and 24/7 recruiting coverage overestimate how much the average fan notices before those guys do things on the field. Many more players develop their name via the platform provided by the university, and that that platform would not be as visible for a minor league.

Should guys like Manziel have an opportunity to make more money where it is possible? I would argue yes, but that can be done without promising a salary to everyone on the team. Here’s one idea.

  • “Would you rather be in the D-League in the Dakotas or would you rather be playing here? I think some kids would rather be in the D-League, where that’s all they’d focus on. We’d be better off in a lot of cases. We would have less tension about kids who are in school who maybe don’t want to be there.”

Here it might be instructive to consider the baseball and perhaps hockey models, which are similar but not quite the same.

In both sports, players can be drafted but maintain the option to go to school. I don’t know the percentage, but a significant number of those kids pick school even though they might not get a full ride and they almost certainly won’t enjoy a lot of the benefits of publicity afforded their counterparts in football and basketball.

Why do you think that is? Could it be they see value in the dual experience of getting training and an education? Might the lifestyle of a college student – albeit a very busy one, though that’s a label that applies to many non-athletes as well – be more appealing than riding buses from small town to small town? Come to think of it, a lot of the minor league towns probably aren’t that different than the towns that house some of our greatest college football programs. But college football programs provide better travel, better training facilities and better exposure in many cases. And that is putting aside the education aspect altogether. Hmmm….

What do you think, Mr. Delany?

  • “I’m willing to give up the benefit. If there’s so much value here, let them handle that value. Let them extract it. I think I can be very successful because I think what we offer, for most kids, is superior to what the minor-league experience would be.”

Well said.

This system is far from perfect, and it is probably not what I would advocate if we were starting from scratch, but the results have benefitted and continue to benefit a great number of people.

Let’s face it – colleges basically fell ass-backwards into a cash cow they can’t seem to kill no matter how hard they try. Fortunately, the system happens to create valuable opportunities not only for players, coaches, administrators, TV networks and media companies but also countless local economies in ways likely not possible without the lure of the college brand.

Mess with that at the potential peril of many, not the least of which is the athletes themselves.

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