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Pay-For-Play Sports Can Be Compatible With Universities

Can universities justify running minor league sports operations?

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Brian Spurlock-US PRESSWIRE

The Ed O'Bannon lawsuit against the NCAA has been simmering for a couple of years now. The defense has made some recent statements that bring a whole host of issues to light.

Here is a good primer on the case as a whole. Basically if O'Bannon's side wins, amateurism falls for current players and the NCAA and its members are on the hook for paying ungodly sums of damages to former players for inhibiting their ability to profit off of their likenesses. The plaintiffs filed it in 2009 and it will go to trial in 2014.

Last week, the USA Today reported on what the defense has been telling the court. The full text of the statements made came out today, with Jim Delany's being the headlining exhibit. Basically, they all say that an end to the prohibition of pay-for-play would be the end of college athletics as we know it. Delany suggested that the Big Ten might use Division III as a model in that scenario. Schools would be forced to deemphasize athletics both on philosophical and legal grounds (the latter related to Title IX).

In short, no one on the defense side believes that universities should be running minor league sports operations.

Overwhelming snark seems to be the reaction to all of this, and I totally get that. I think it's worth asking the question every so often, though: should universities run minor league sports operations?

As it is, universities run some pretty major league operations that aren't purely lecture hall-based. Some have major league hospitals, and not everything that goes on in them features students observing and taking notes. They patent things that their research labs develop and make money off of the licensing of said patents. There's a great chance that the computing device you're reading this on has code in it that is copyright The Regents of the University of California (even if it's Windows XP).

It's here that I think we hit a bifurcation.

One track is that of the idealist: that universities should exist purely for the pursuit of knowledge. The other is that of the pragmatist: that universities should exist to prepare people for their occupations.

On the idealist track, no, universities don't have room for running minor league sports operations. Researchers can study the human body's performance without the aid of such leagues. On the pragmatist's track, I do think there is room for it. Such leagues can be the training grounds for future trainers, physical therapists, doctors, medical researchers, nutritionists, businessmen, marketers, PR professionals, accountants, and so on. Oh yeah, and also pro athletes, coaches, and agents. Those are occupations that are as legitimate as any other for which a university might prepare a student.

I don't think the two lines of thought are mutually exclusive. Universities can (and should, and do) promote the pursuit of knowledge for the sake of gaining knowledge as well as prepare people for their future jobs. Philosophy departments shouldn't disappear due to the lack of philosopher jobs out there, and Georgia Tech football shouldn't disappear because the flexbone doesn't have broadly applicable lessons for other industries.

Now, the picture I painted of what college sports can be is not, in my limited knowledge of how programs work, the current reality. I don't think athletic departments are maximizing what they can do to teach as well as win games. As long as we're imagining things from the ground up, though, it's not a waste of time to imagine what programs could be if they truly did serve their universities first.

As for amateurism in its current form, I don't think it's long for this world. Universities already have something with which they can replace it, though.

Athletes are basically performers and entertainers. People buy tickets to see them, and they put on a show for the audience. Sound familiar?

Colleges already train performers and entertainers of other kinds in their colleges of fine arts. Some of them charge non-students for admission to concerts, plays, dance recitals, and so on. The performers, as far as I know, don't get any of that money. However if those students perform outside of the university, there's nothing preventing them from profiting off of it. A drummer won't get paid for the university jazz band concert, but he can earn some scratch playing at a local bar or being a session player for a recording.

I'm not suggesting that athletes should play for their school and then go find a pro league to play for on top of it. Rather, I think a model where the players don't get paid for their playing for the school but do make money in any other way they want to could work. Sure, university theater productions don't rake in the money that football games do, but the viability of a model shouldn't be dependent on the size of the revenue in question.

Frequently, people refer to this kind of setup as the Olympic model because it's basically what Olympic athletes have. What I described, call it the performing arts model, is actually a bit beyond that. College baseball players would be able to sign contracts with minor league teams and get paid for playing the game away from school during the summer. I have no doubt it would cause conflicts between the college and pro teams, but non-athletes must balance their schoolwork, jobs, and extracurriculars. Why should athletes not have to do the same?

Anyway, I have a feeling that neither the Olympic nor the performing arts models would be viable should O'Bannon's side win this lawsuit. Schools would have to pay players. I don't have the time now to go over all of the implications of that happening, but any schools that want to stay in the game would likely need to radically change expense structures. Specifically, they'd need to reduce expenditures in other areas (read: pay coaches a lot less) in order to keep the books balanced.

I'm sure these statements from the defense have some hyperbole in them, but I doubt they'll get too far with their threats of withdrawing from big time sports. It's not the court's job to care about preserving any particular industry or business, particularly if it is indeed an unlawful one. College sports might be able to survive a loss in this case with a few changes, like adopting the Olympic model, but nothing short of a total victory for the defense will allow the current amateurism model to last beyond the trial.