Beyda: No one wins in a free-market NCAA

Two rebuttals in, Cameron Miller and I are finally starting to get somewhere.

I’ve realized that, to a large degree, I agree with my runner-turned-rabble-rouser colleague. It is unfair that Shabazz Napier helps UConn and the NCAA generate millions of dollars in revenue, but that he doesn’t have enough to eat at night. It is unfair that a computer science student can take part in a sponsorship deal from a software company — though as an electrical engineering major, I’d like to cast doubt on the implication that this happens, like, ever — but that Johnny Manziel has to wait until he leaves college to make money the same way.

And, yes, it is unfair that my fellow columnist wasn’t able to work as an extra in a movie about running because of his student-athlete status. That’s a true shame; if there’s a character at The Daily, it’s Cameron.

But even though I agree with Cameron that all of these things are problems, I think that his solution, a free-market system under which NCAA student-athletes could be paid without restrictions just like any other employee, would essentially destroy college athletics.

I hinted at this point a couple columns ago, noting that the resultant bidding war for top athletes would crowd out all but the richest programs. According to Cameron, this is just “the inevitable result of laissez-faire, free-market capitalism: some win and some lose.” I’m afraid the outlook is not that rosy.

Let’s focus on football, the NCAA’s crown jewel and one of only two college sports that are generally profitable. This is where the money lives in college athletics — FBS schools generated a median $3.5 million in net revenue from their football teams in 2011 — and chances are, programs would do whatever they could to stay relevant and retain that revenue.

So let’s say that, conservatively, an FBS team decided to pay each of its 85 scholarship football players an average of $15,000 a year to keep its program competitive. Where does the school get that $1,275,000? It can’t just cut into its football profits, which are being used to fund other programs — all of which, other than men’s basketball, are likely to finish in the red each and every year.

The obvious answer would be to reduce the athletic department’s expenses by cutting some of those unprofitable programs. How about men’s and women’s track and field and cross country? Those sports, together, lost $1,123,000 in 2011 at the median FBS school, so cutting them should cover most of the costs needed to keep the football team going.

That is, until next year’s football recruits start demanding a higher salary.

Before long, the NCAA would become essentially an NFL minor league, devoid of the Olympic sports and the 400,000 non-football athletes (compared to 70,000 football players) that the NCAA supports today.

That’s 400,000 people who would likely “lose” in Cameron’s ideal world, and he’s one of them.

Of course, under a free-market system without restrictions on paying student-athletes, Cameron would indeed be allowed to work as an extra in a movie about running. And while he’s at it, he might as well sign on for a few more movies — he’ll have a lot of time, now that his school has canceled its track program.

But at least the football program would still be going strong, right? Not so fast. When certain schools run out of programs to cut and boosters to hound for more money, they would be forced to limit the salaries they dole out to players, putting themselves at a major recruiting disadvantage.

There’s another loser in this: Cardinal football. Even though Stanford is one of the best-funded universities in the world, I don’t think it would play along with the rising tide of player salaries by dumping exorbitant amounts of money into its football program. For years, the unwritten rule around here was that the head football coach couldn’t make more than the University president. Who knows if that has held up in the Harbaugh-Shaw era, but given Stanford’s (arguably valiant) culture of keeping athletic spending in check, it’s doubtful that the Cardinal would remain competitive as the bidding war raged on.

So over time, a free-market system would only cause more and more teams to drop out of the proverbial arms race, for reasons practical and philosophical alike. The parity that makes college football exciting would be replaced by a growing concentration of elite players in the hands of the few schools that were still willing to play along.

And that, really, is how a free-market NCAA would implode on itself — how even those schools that had continued raising player salaries would lose out in the end. College GameDay would rotate between the same five or six sites with top-tier football teams, and everything else would look like high school. The dozens of games on TV each week — not to mention the 35 bowls — would lose any shred of national intrigue.

TV revenues would dry up; with them would go advertising revenues. The die-hard support of lifelong fans would remain, but that’s not what has funded this explosive era of NCAA sports.

And so, without enough revenue to sustain their behemoth, schools across the country would be forced to make one final cut: football. With it, they would cut the NCAA’s 70,000 football players — 70,000 extras just waiting to be had by a sports movie industry already invigorated by the influx of 400,000 former collegiate student-athletes who no longer had any real sports to play, either.

Welcome to the free-market NCAA. Tell me, exactly, who wins?

In the free-market NCAA, Joseph Beyda would also be out of a job once the collegiate athletic programs of the United States dropped all of their sports. That would not sit well with him. Send Joey a tribute to appease his righteous anger at jbeyda ‘at’ stanford.edu.

About Joseph Beyda

Joseph Beyda is the executive editor of The Stanford Daily. Previously he has worked as the football editor, a sports desk editor, the paper's summer managing editor and a beat reporter for football, baseball and women's soccer. He co-authored The Daily's recent football book, "Rags to Roses," and covered the soccer team's national title run for the New York Times. Joseph is a junior from Cupertino, Calif. majoring in Electrical Engineering. To contact him, please email jbeyda "at" stanford.edu.