Johnny Manziel's Autograph Isn't the Problem — College Sports Are


Where does one start when broaching the subject of the NCAA’s rule(s) regarding student-athletes getting paid? The recent Time magazine cover story, replete with Johnny Manziel in a Heisman pose, goes right to the economics of it all with writer Sean Gregory stating early on,  “Each of the 85 scholarship football players on the Aggies squad could see a paycheck of about $225,000 per year.” Yahoo Sports’ Tony Manfred opts to highlight the absurdity of punishing players coming from lesser means, citing Alabama’s DJ Fluker who, after Hurricane Katrina, was sleeping in a car with four others and, ultimately, used “dirty” money on things like a bedroom set. And then there’s Jemele Hill on Sports Reporters listing past players punished for receiving illegal financial benefits — Dez Bryant, Terrelle Pryor, AJ Green, or Michigan’s Fab Five — and then asking why now, a white quarterback, sparks this national conversation on paying athletes.

With so many angles, and so many nuanced stories set against the backdrop of the NCAA’s futile quest to maintain the notion of amateurism, it’s becoming clear that just about everyone is tired of making examples out of athletes who are clearly being exploited by big-name programs. That’s not to say student-athletes don’t receive benefits in the form of athletic scholarships, because in this day and age that’s worth a lot, but to think it’s fair compensation for their services is delusional.

Let’s revisit Johnny Manziel for a moment, the first freshman Heisman winner in NCAA history who received a half-game suspension after allegations surfaced he’d participated in mass autograph sessions and received money for the efforts. I’m sure the NCAA did its due diligence in its investigation of these claims, but I’m more certain the NCAA didn’t want to ruin the pending Alabama-Texas A&M rematch, which just so happened to be the highest-rated regular-season college football game in seven years. No firm value has been provided regarding how much money Manziel’s autograph sessions are worth, but it pales in comparison to a 9.0 rating on CBS on a Saturday afternoon. Can’t he, and the rest of the players battling it out on the field, get a few drops from that bucket of cash? Or should we just let the coaches, Nick Saban and Kevin Sumlin, make a combined $8 million this year and leave it at that?

And how can an institution of higher education like the University of Oregon build facilities — for athletes only, mind you — featuring luxurious amenities even professional athletes would find impressive? Doesn’t an exclusive facility conservatively estimated to cost $68 million with hair-cutting equipment from Italy (for the barbershop in the locker room), or custom green PlayStation consoles and pool tables made by the same Portland company that designed two for Michael Jackson, inherently reveal the value of student-athletes to big name programs? What’s the difference between a student-athlete receiving an athletic, NCAA-approved stipend, and having access to a facility like Oregon’s?

Again, student-athletes aren’t necessarily victims here. They do receive benefits in the form of scholarships and access to facilities like Oregon’s while getting to play a sport they love. Hell, I wanted to be a student-athlete. But the NCAA, which now stands for Not Capable of Acting Accountable, has turned college sports into a business worth roughly $2.8 billion (that’s just accounting for the 50 richest college football and basketball teams, according to Time magazine), and the notion that players responsible for those kinds of numbers aren’t eligible for any type of compensation seems unfair.

The NCAA committees have created a culture/machine that reaps huge financial windfalls for universities while ignoring the actual athletes involved. Is it so much to ask that a system resembling that of the Olympics, wherein athletes with national recognition can cash in on their name through outside endorsements, be instituted? We’ll still have our Cinderellas in March, and the SEC will continue its dominance in football, but we’ll know the players we’re watching, who are vulnerable to career-ending injuries like any other athlete, are being at least compensated fairly for their talents.

Universities across the country erect massive stadiums and pedal players’ jerseys, selling fans on the idea that their team from their university is top-tier entertainment and talent. Universities across the country pay coaches millions and legally provide athletes oftentimes outlandish luxuries, like at aforementioned Oregon, selling players on the idea that their program is the best. Yet universities across the country refuse to acknowledge that the product they’re ultimately selling and selling to (in the case of recruiting), the players themselves, aren’t eligible for anything. We elevate these athletes to stratospheric heights, then lose them in the shadows of our even-higher stadiums and statues falsely celebrating the sanctity of college sports.