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Op-Ed: Bernard Muir, fatalist

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Since arriving at Stanford in 2012, Director of Athletics Bernard Muir has been busy defending the NCAA and its crumbling notion of amateurism. Amongst other engagements, Muir spoke to a Congressional committee in May 2014 to argue against unionization efforts by college athletes. He then testified on behalf of the NCAA at the O’Bannon trial, wherein the NCAA claimed that college players were not entitled to compensation exceeding the then-current limits (and lost). Then, this spring, Muir had a recorded conversation with NCAA President Mark Emmert and others to discuss the fallout of the FBI’s investigation into recruiting practices in men’s college basketball.

In this latest forum, Muir was asked what would happen if his school began to pay its football and basketball players.

“We would have to whittle down the list (of sports offered),” Muir responded. “We would have to concentrate to a small number…” (Stanford currently sponsors 36 varsity sports programs).

Of all the misleading and possibly illegal comments made by Muir in his NCAA defense tour – including an empty threat to remove Stanford from Division I if athletes gained employee rights (potentially in violation of the National Labor Relations Act) – this most recent statement is perhaps the most revealing, and easily refutable.

It’s important to first understand the economics undergirding Muir’s comment. What he says, essentially, is that if Stanford paid its football and basketball players an increased wage, those extra funds would be siphoned from other athletic programs, decreasing the number of teams sponsored by the school.

Interesting here is Muir’s use of the word “have”: “We would have to whittle down the list… We would have to concentrate to a small number…”.

That sounds good as an NCAA talking point, but Muir’s fatalist fear-mongering is simply untrue. The money required to pay Stanford football and basketball players a wage commensurate with their market value would not be required to come from the budgets of other sports. There are numerous other expense categories throughout the athletic department that could be reduced to cover the increased labor costs. These include the $19.1 million in salaries Stanford paid its coaching staffs in the 2016-17 fiscal year, the $21M spent to expand the football offices, and the costs of a recent upgrade to the school’s “Home of Champions” display. Then there’s the $1.45 million Stanford spent on athletic recruiting in 2016-17 and the (likely) millions in administrative salaries.

So, contrary to Muir’s claim, Stanford would not be forced to eliminate its non-revenue sport programs in order to pay additional labor costs in football and basketball. Spending on coaching and administrative salaries, facility upgrades and recruiting could all be cut to free up funds. Other than obfuscate the financial reality, Muir’s statement serves only to stoke fear that any increase in athlete pay would spell the end of Olympic (non-revenue) sports.

What should truly concern the non-revenue sport athletes is that Muir went right for their programs when asked what the impact of increased wages for football and basketball players would be. Indeed, Muir could have said that coaches’ salaries would have to be reduced or facility spending would need to be slashed. That his immediate response was that sport programs would be eliminated is telling. It reveals that, even at Stanford where Olympic sports are wildly successful, they’re still subservient to the sacred cows of football and basketball.

Even more troubling is that Muir’s response contradicts his stated desire, in the same breath, for a broad-based athletic program that provides “an excellent experience, regardless of your sport…” His prioritization of expenses like salaries over sport programs tells Stanford’s Olympic sport athletes: “We want to provide you with an excellent experience — but only so long as our administrators and coaches don’t have to take a cut.”

The NCAA loves to lionize Stanford for its embrace of the “student-athlete” ideal, but make no mistake: Muir’s comments on the potential consequences of paying football and basketball players are pure propaganda. Non-revenue sport programs would not have to be eliminated in a world where college players were paid a market wage, but they could be if Muir and Stanford chose the money and exposure of football and basketball the over the experience and opportunity provided to Olympic sport athletes.

 

Cameron Miller ’16 is a former athlete on Stanford’s cross country and track teams.

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