By B. David Ridpath at Forbes
A couple of nights ago two prominent and influential voices in intercollegiate athletics faced off in an informative debate to discuss the long running and oft debated question: Should College Athletes be Paid? Newly hired Vice President of Regulatory Affairs for the NCAA, Oliver Luck squared off against former NCAA basketball star and ESPN analyst Jay Bilas in a spirited exchange between two very knowledgeable and passionate people on the subject. I can think of no two better and more qualified people to discuss what is a very controversial topic. It is also a topic that will continue to be addressed as the courts, government and athletes rights movements continue to pressure the system to change. Predictably Luck took the stance that college athletes should not be paid while Bilas was pro-pay and has consistently been public about his desire to allow college athletes to compete for salaries and benefits on the open market.
The debate was held at Texas A & M University and was sponsored by an organization I greatly admire called FIRE. FIRE is an acronym for the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and according to their website the mission of FIRE is to defend and sustain individual rights at America’s colleges and universities. These rights include freedom of speech, legal equality, due process, religious liberty, and sanctity of conscience—the essential qualities of individual liberty and dignity. FIRE’s core mission is to protect the unprotected and to educate the public and communities of concerned Americans about the threats to these rights on our campuses and about the means to preserve them.
One issue that is often challenged with regard to free speech on campuses across the country, is intercollegiate athletics. I cannot tell you how many times I have been warned, encouraged or flat out told not to negatively or even objectively discuss college sports and its role in higher education at the many institutions I worked at. Of course as a tenured faculty member, I simply do not care what others think about my opinions or empirical research and I will continue to state my opinion on matters of public concern. In turn others are free to express their opinion on anything I say. It is part of the deal and debate on issues can happen with out being disagreeable. The most important part of the what we stand for as a country when you talk about college campuses is the ability to express one’s thoughts and opinions freely. I agree with FIRE that our free speech is under attack in many venues, but it certainly is under direct attack on our campuses of higher learning and that is frightening to me. I commend FIRE for sponsoring this important debate on this subject.
Both men are accomplished, extremely intelligent, and made fantastic points regardless of where you may fall on the issue. At times I felt I was watching a heavyweight fight with both sides landing good and effective shots. It was clear that both were willing to disagree without being disagreeable. It made for a very effective and informative exchange. While Luck as an NCAA representative did take the no pay stance, it should be noted that he is one of the most forward thinkers the NCAA national office has ever had. Thankfully he is not just another talking head repeating the long standing company (albeit somewhat flawed) line of amateurism, education, and that athletes are receiving enough benefits already. Luck is at least willing to consider other options and benefits for college athletes that do not include straight pay as an employee and that fact alone makes me think we might make some headway and progress on this important issue before it is decided by the courts or the government.
Bilas believes that college athletes should be declared employees and allow them to compete on the open market for their services. In this scenario he states that the schools should determine what they want to pay for an athlete or what they don’t want to pay based on what they can afford as is done with all other employees at the institution. Essentially free market economics and that is hard to argue with. Where Bilas made strong points was stating that we need to start the argument of “pay for play” with reality and not what we hope college athletics are or should be. He said that the reality is college sports are a multi-billion dollar business where everyone shares in free market revenue except the athlete. Bilas noted that no other student is limited in what they can earn or being able to capitalize on their marketing utility.
This was a very effective strategy by Bilas. One great point was that he said there are professional athletes on campus now making money and that has not damaged the game and fans are still showing up. Some football players are earning big money playing minor league baseball for example and many parts of college sports are indistinguishable from its professional counterparts. Former college athletes like John Elway, Kirk Gibson and Danny Ainge made hundreds of thousands of dollars playing professional sports while being amateur in another college sport. Bilas’ point here was education and money are not mutually exclusive and since the institutions have decided to pay coaches top dollar, build expensive facilities, and spend exorbitant amounts of money on recruiting while using athletics as a vehicle for institutional advancement-they can treat their athletes like other students and pay them fair market value. He did not diminish the role of education or its value, just that one making money does not make that education any less valuable nor would players being paid decrease fan interest as had been claimed in the Ed O’Bannon case.