As Ohio State takes on Florida in tonight's BCS Championship Game, there's reason to chew on the economics of college sports. Michael Lewis's excellent new book The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game provides some tasty food for thought.
The Blind Side is a worthy successor to Lewis's 2003 bestseller Moneyball, if not a direct one (a 2005 book called Coach: Lessons of the Game of Life, dedicated to his high school baseball coach, intervened). Moneyball explored the world of the the Oakland Athletics' general manager Billy Beane and his unique approach to baseball finances and personnel.
In The Blind Side, Lewis applies his discerning eye to trends in professional football - in particular along the offensive line - through the lens of Michael Oher (pronounced "oar"), a Memphis teenager destined to become the NFL's next great left tackle.
The book skillfully stitches together the quietly increasing importance of the left tackle - incredibly, now trailing only the quarterback as the highest-paid position on the field - with Oher's remarkable story. Lewis recounts Oher's migration from the slums of West Memphis to an elite, white, Evangelical private school where he literally learns to learn - and to play football.
As Oher begins to receive the fawning attention of college football recruiters, he asks his adoptive father a simple, poignant question: "They're making all this money off football...Why shouldn't they pay the players?"
There's no question that top college athletes are highly-valued commodities who work for free. Elsewhere in The Blind Side, Lewis muses that "the going black market rate for a Memphis high school superstar...appeared to have been around $150,000" - the amount a University of Alabama booster paid to the student's high school coaches in exchange for pushing him to play for (now Nick Saban's) Crimson Tide.
In these pages, Skip Sauer wrote a fascinating pre-season article extolling the virtues of Cal's Marshawn Lynch, whose value the San Jose Mercury News placed at $800,000 annually - namely, the amount he brings in to the school's coffers in the form of ticket sales, alumni donations, corporate sponsorships, and television revenue. (Incidentally, Cal - another of my hometown teams - crushed Texas A & M in the Holiday Bowl here in late December; Lynch scampered for 111 yards and two touchdowns.)
One especially crabby Ithaca College professor, and founder of a "college sports watchdog" groused to the Mercury News that "the contributions of the kids surpass their scholarship. The success of the system is built on their labor. . . . It's not a game for amateurs. The stakes are all corporate."
But Sauer's point was an interesting one: the money that would otherwise go to the athletes instead filters to recruiting budgets, state-of-the-art athletic facilities, and, perhaps most significantly, coaches' salaries.
So we return to Michael Oher's question: why shouldn't he and others like him be remunerated for their efforts?
There are many answers to this question.
First, there's some value in the idealistic response, namely that college provides players with an education, an asset that can't be valued solely on the basis of tuition. While some economic worth attaches to a degree (college graduates generally out-earn non-grads), a quality education confers significant non-pecuniary benefits.
Of course, evidence abounds that college athletes find themselves in an alternate academic universe from their fellow classmates, enrolling in "sports management" and "communications" courses that they, their non-athlete counterparts, and their professors alike consider a joke. (Tom Wolfe's I Am Charlotte Simmons offers an excellent fictional account). But we shouldn't give up on the ideal of the student-athlete just yet.
Still, I'm more interested in an alternative explanation, for which Marshawn Lynch - who just announced he would enter the NFL and forego his senior year in college - provides an excellent example: college as a de facto minor league for sports without "farm systems."
Of the four major sports, only baseball and hockey have minor leagues where young athletes train, earn minimal salaries, and prepare themselves for entry into the majors or the NHL. Entrants into these leagues can be as young as their mid-teens, although most enter around 17 or 18. And for this reason, college baseball and hockey, while entertaining to watch, pale in comparison to football and basketball, upon which attention and dollars are lavished.
By contrast, neither the NFL nor the NBA has a proper minor league and both instead use school as a de facto training ground. College provides up to four years of preparation in a controlled, competitive atmosphere. Some promising high school athletes wilt under the arena lights while some walk-ons flourish and find themselves drafted into the pros. Either way, the NCAA provides an entry-level league where talent can be honed and displayed in a restrained environment.
This worked well for Marshawn Lynch: he emerged from a Heisman-caliber season with three years of high-level training that enhanced and publicized his ability. This opportunity will easily pay for itself over and above the $800,000 he ostensibly jettisoned by going to college.
But this system doesn't necessarily work for everyone. In the NBA, teams can also opt for the riskier path of grabbing 18-year-olds straight out of high school. Such standouts include Kobe Bryant, Shawn Kemp, and, more recently, Tyson Chandler.
This system provides flexibility and freedom to the athletes and the teams that draft them. If a ballplayer wants to forego the training he would receive in college in exchange for immediately cashing in on his talent, he can do so - even if his value would have increased through four years of competing in the NCAA.
Likewise, if the team believes in the player strongly enough that it's willing to train him on the job, so to speak, it can take a chance on an unproven athlete. More conservative teams can wait to draft more refined talent out of college.
The NFL, on the other hand, has imposed a rule whereby only athletes three years removed from high school can join the league. Thus, would-be pros have every incentive to play in college, rather than languishing in obscurity for three years following their high school heroics, since they cannot be drafted right out of high school.
The much-publicized case of Maurice Clarett, who now finds himself in prison, illustrates the unfairness of the current system. Clarett is no paragon of virtue but he, like every high school graduate over the age of 18, deserved the opportunity to enter a major sports league - with all the risks such a course entails.
Yet when he sought to legally challenge the NFL's three-year-rule, despite winning in district court, the appellate court awarded the NFL limited antitrust immunity without ruling on the rule's reasonableness (the league says it enhances competitiveness).
This was a shame, not just for Clarett but for all young athletes. Why not let them - mature adults old enough to vote and serve in the military - choose to join the NFL at a young age and let the teams in the league take their chances on young, unproven talent?
The next installment of this series will take up the professional football aspect of Lewis's book.
Michael M. Rosen, TCS Daily's Intellectual Property columnist, is an attorney in San Diego.