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Cam Newton, Amateurism and the NCAA: How To Fix This

Don't ever take a fence down until you know the reason it was put up.--G.K. Chesterton

Part III of III: Solutions

THE FIRST TALK of paying players came up not in relation to the Cam Newton investigation, but instead because of AgentGate. Again, this probably tells us more about the agenda of those who want to change the system than the uproar that brought these proposals out of the woodworks. Because there's one thing we can say with 100 percent certainty about AgentGate: Most of the wrongdoing would not have been stopped by paying players.

[Editor's Note: The NCAA later announced that it had found no evidence that anyone associated with Auburn offered or gave illegal benefits to Cam Newton, and the case was closed.]

That's because the whole story started with a trip by several football players to Miami to party. The benefits being given to these players were not a few dollars for a bag of groceries, as the self-serving agents who have sprung up to defend themselves often mentioned in the weeks that followed. It's important to remember the basic problem with Marvin Austin, Weslye Saunders, Marcell Dareus and Co.: A party in Miami. It's very easy to forget -- I almost did -- because the agents have spent a long time putting up a smoke screen to cloud our memories as more time passes. They wanted to change the subject to a broader issue because the more narrow story wasn't helping their image or the case of those who want to pay players massive amounts of money.

It doesn't matter how much you pay someone like Marvin Austin to play college football; he's going to take an all-expenses-paid trip to Miami to party from an agent because he wants the all-expenses-paid trip to Miami to party, not because he has to clean out his coin sorter before going to buy lunch.

That's not to say those cases might not exist, or that they shouldn't be addressed if they do. It's simply to say that the AgentGate stories, at least the first version of them, didn't support paying players anything. It certainly didn't support the idea of paying them hundreds of thousands of dollars, since someone making any degree of money who doesn't care about the rules -- in other words, anyone making money who's like Marvin Austin -- would still take the trip to Miami on the agent's dime.

And that also gives us a bit of insight into what these agents really want. They are not all that interested in the wellbeing of the players; they are interested in being the first in line when Marvin Austin has to choose an agent that will get a nice percentage of his signing bonus. Agents aren't paying players so the players can pay rent, if that even happens. Agents are paying players and players are deciding to use the money for rent. The agents could care less if the player takes the money and goes on a trip to Miami over the summer, as long as the athlete still does well on Saturdays and drives the final contract figures higher and higher.

A.J. Green's Jersey

If there's any case that came out of AgentGate that slightly weakens the case for amateurism, at least the take-no-prisoners approach championed by the NCAA, it's the case of A.J. Green.

For those who need a refresher: When an announcement was made that Green was caught up in an investigation possibly concerning agents, we automatically focused on whether or not Green went to the Miami trip. Green, who by all accounts was a relatively trustworthy guy, said he had never been to Miami. What we didn't know was that Green had sold an Independence Bowl jersey to an agent-esque individual for $1,000. Green was suspended for four games, which seemed like an extreme penalty even to a Dawg-hating South Carolina fan like yours truly. But it was probably fair under the letter of the rules.

Because that's what happens with rules sometimes. No matter how many exceptions or caveats you craft, there's going to be one case that doesn't work out just right. That's the nature of having some sort of code, and it's why the cliche is that bad cases make bad law. The advantage to having rules is that we avoid anarchy; the price we pay for that advantage is that we have to follow those rules -- whether they keep college players from being paid for going to a certain school or from selling a jersey from their bowl game. All in all, not a bad deal.

Critics, of course, say that the problem was that what Green did was against the rules in the first place. Why shouldn't Green be able to sell his jersey, which was made valuable by his own work on the football field? Which would work fine as an argument, if it bore the slightest resemblance to the truth of the situation. Green was free to sell that jersey to anyone he wanted to -- as soon as he was no longer eligible to play for an NCAA football team or no longer wanted to play for a football team. No one is requiring him to play college football or to play for an NCAA team; but if he wants to do so, he has to follow the rules that govern the sport -- rules instituted not by the government trampling on the free market, but by a nongovernmental organization that has the right to craft whatever rules it wants to.

That shouldn't be a hard concept for most of us to grasp. We all watch sports, and all sports have some sort of rulebook. If you want to think that a rule is bad for the sport or the players and try to change it, that's one thing. But if you want to complain about a player who faces punishment for breaking the rules -- or celebrate when a player gets off on a technicality or for lack of evidence -- you might as well never complain about the other team getting away with holding, or pass interference or a bad call at first base. Because the only values rules have is an agreement to follow all of them; you can't have people deciding which rules are important or enforceable enough to pay attention to, because different people are going to have different sets of rules that they would like to ignore.

The thing is, A.J. Green might have needed the money. And with a better system in place, A.J. Green -- who is not known as the kind of guy who goes around breaking rules -- might have been able to avoid the incident. That is a case for tweaking the system, not a wholesale revision of what college football has always been.

Fixing the rules

Because it's an easier shorthand than writing out the full version of the problem, I've had to adopt "those who would pay players" or something like it as the other side in this debate. That's a bit inaccurate. I don't oppose paying players something. What I oppose is paying players tens of thousands of dollars, both for the effect it would have on sports and the effect it would have on higher education. But even I can see there are some issues in the system.

We need to pay players something, a stipend that would hopefully make it easier for those who want to play by the rules to do so and something that would acknowledge their value to the university, even if not the gauzy notion of "fair market value."

But first, let's set out a few principles for the system, or at least the system I would prefer.

  • No player on any team will be paid more or less than any other player. This is, to me, in keeping with the current idea of college sports: Everyone gets roughly the same level of financial support. It's also not too far from how things are handled for students who take part in another extracurricular activity or grad students.
  • Players one one team will not be paid more or less than players on another. This is a pretty one to see, I would think, from a competitive standpoint. Otherwise, the schools who can pay the most are going to be able to essentially select the best players for themselves just because their alumni or television partners have deeper pockets.
  • The payments must not further bankrupt athletics department. You can argue that many athletics departments would be insolvent if the larger institutions didn't prop them up. And while I don't think that is a problem in and of itself, it probably isn't something we want to encourage.

So how do you set up a mechanism for paying players that would do all that? The first two are relatively easy: The NCAA or its members set a reasonable level for the stipend. I'm thinking $2,500-$5,000 a year is probably in the right neighborhood, but there will probably be others that would set it higher or lower. As long as we're not talking anything more than reasonable living expenses, I think most people should be able to agree. Except those who want to make Cam Newton a millionaire before he graduates.

The last one is harder, but I think the easiest solution comes from one of the many ways that the NCAA and schools profit from athletes that does seem unfair: Royalties. While A.J. Green can't sell his jersey, the University of Georgia can as long as his name doesn't appear on it. (Usually, they do this by simply putting the number on there.) And if you play the NCAA Football games from EA Sports, you're familiar with having "QB #15" on your team. Oddly enough, players added after the current roster moves through have names.

So the NCAA should either divert a share of its royalties from products tied to a specific to a payment fund or, if that would affect the financial standing of colleges, add a player payment tax. Add another dollar to the per-game royalties in the next negotiations with EA. Slap another buck or two onto the price of jerseys. People are paying $50 or more for the game and about the same for some of these jerseys. I doubt a couple of dollars is going to move the price point too dramatically for the average fan to take the hit, particularly if they know that the money is going to their favorite players.

If there's still a need for more money, I'm sure that the there are other funding sources out there that could be found. And if need be, the NCAA or someone better at doing such things could write an "ability to pay" formula that would divide the funds based on how much a school can afford to pay, as long as it follows some sort of respectable business model.

That's how you can pay players while still making college football a uniquely collegiate institution. It doesn't bankrupt athletics departments, it allows other sports to contine to flourish, and it rewards players in some way for the contributions they make to a school and to its community. And it does all that by simply revising our understanding of amateurism, not discarding it. That won't please those who simply want to create a free-market system because they want to create a free-market system. But it should address most of the concerns the rest of us have with a sport that has otherwise done pretty well for more than a century -- at least partially because of the very tradition that critics would be so quick to throw out.