State Of The NCAA, Part II: Interview With James Wolfe

This is part two of my interview with James Wolfe, author of How to Rig the NCAA Basketball Championship For Fun and Profit. The book is currently available on Amazon for only $11.65. It is a work of fiction with very real aspects focused around the current state of college basketball. You can read part one of the interview by clicking here. Enjoy! You’ve talked about the problems facing the game right now. Let’s say you’re put in charge. What’s the first thing you do?

James Wolfe: As I wrote in Part One, “I find the exploitation of the student-athlete the biggest problem facing college basketball. We are talking about big, rich and in most cases government supported institutions, profiting from the talents of legal minors, literally children during the recruiting romance without anything remotely resembling fair compensation.”

The hypocrisy of the current system is hard to comprehend. Estimates of college football and basketball revenue range between $6 and 8 billion annually. The big conferences have lucrative TV deals. The Big 10 and even the University of Texas have their own sports networks! Businesses pay schools millions to sell products with college symbols and to advertise their cars, razor blades and pizzas on televised games. There’s the licensing fees, ticket sales, alumni and booster donations, NCAA and conference distributions and even tuition from the additional students attracted to schools with successful athletic programs.

You don’t hear much about gambling as an indirect source of money for college basketball. Point spreads, which are used exclusively for betting, are printed for almost all games between the major schools’ games. Estimates of total bets on the NCAA Championship exceed three billions dollars making it the second biggest single gambling event right behind the Super Bowl. This may not teach respect for our legal system since much of the gambling is illegal, but it sure keeps bettors watching, the television ratings up and the cash flowing to the NCAA and big universities. One sure bet is that the NCAA is aware that much of the popularity of college basketball is due to wagering. It concerns me that a significant part of college basketball’s success is related to gambling.

The kids know they are being screwed. They see jerseys with their names on them being sold in the bookstores, sporting goods and department stores. They see full basketball halls and hear the screaming students and boosters. They understand the reason the game is cash machine is due to their talent and hard work. Most kids think they deserve some of the spoils and don’t feel a twinge of guilt for breaking or bending the rules.

If I were in charge, the first thing I’d do is start paying the players.

BB: What about the small programs that don’t generate the type of money that the big schools do. What would you do about them? How would they compete?

JW: For the most part, smaller programs can’t compete year after year with the bigger ones now and paying players won’t change that. I wouldn’t recommend separate, different rules to help the small schools compete. If they want to and can afford to pay players like the big programs, fine. Those who choose not to pay may want to assess the importance of basketball and football to their institution.

It might lead some small Division One schools to de-emphasize the revenue sports, equating them with all their other sports and refocusing attention on the school’s primary purpose as an institution of higher learning. No really. I’m not kidding.

BB: This is an issue that’s been focused on a lot lately, but what about the pay-for-play issue? Should college basketball players be paid? How would what they make be different than what athletes would make in other sports?

JW: After accepting the fact that all the TV money and other commercialization has corrupted basketball and football and compromised the integrity of the universities, some answers become obvious.

We must figure out a way to fairly compensate the athletes. While not solving every problem, paying players would greatly decrease illegal payments to top athletes by relieving some of their financial pressures. Contrary to popular opinion, many athletes do not live a luxurious lifestyle. Many jocks come from humble backgrounds and don’t have the resources that non-athlete students have. The NCAA does not accommodate the poor kid who can’t afford a car, to go home for vacations and breaks, rent an apartment and do the things others students routinely do.

How much should basketball players be paid? Needy non-athletes are allowed to earn money with part-time jobs. Why shouldn’t earn athletes a wage competitive with what other students typically make? I’d pay them for the time spent playing, practicing, time in the weight room, etc. Considering the immense amount of time basketball players devote to the game, the pay could add up to more than just pocket change. I know this won’t eliminate all the problems involving athletes but it will relieve the financial pressure on the many under privileged athletes.

I’m not promoting any specific type of payment program and I’m open to suggestions from those with more expertise than I. To me, it’s more important to get started and let the program evolve than to debate the best methods for the next ten years. But I believe the total compensation package should not only include compensation for time spent practicing and competing, but also reflect the athlete’s educational progress and have health benefits related to injuries incurred while playing basketball.

What about lacrosse players and students who play other sports? I don’t believe colleges are exploiting players of non-revenue sports. Cheating in recruitment and academic fraud is not a huge problem in lacrosse. Unlike these other sports, big-time basketball falls outside of the fundamental purpose of a university. The kids who are recruited to play basketball are different from other college athletes since they can significantly influence the financial health of an athletic department and university. They deserve to be treated accordingly.

When asked, “Where’s the money going to come from to pay athletes?” I think, “Are you kidding me? How about out of the pockets of the coaches, the NCAA, the marketeers. All the folks who’ve gotten fat off the talents of college basketball players.” A good coach from a state school can make more than a professional coach and is often the highest paid employee of not only his school and but his state too. Well, except for maybe the football coach. Coaches in the best programs make literally millions from the institution and ancillary sources like public appearances and endorsements. Some of this should go to the athletes. I do not think regulating coaches salaries would decrease the quality of coaching in college sports.

The NCAA, who rakes in an estimated $800 million a year, a great percentage of this from its March Madness TV contracts, can afford to reallocate a larger share to the schools to pay their players. A fixed percentage of the money received from sports equipment and apparel manufacturers and retailers can be tapped for the kids. Any party that gets a slice of college basketball’s lucre should contribute.

BB: Wouldn’t there be a situation where certain athletes would still be underpaid considering their contributions to the school’s revenue?

Relative to the value they present to their school, you bet some jocks would be underpaid, but my recommendation is a good start.

My guess is that college athletic departments will never be able to pay athletes enough to accurately compensate them for the revenue they help generate. And I’m okay with that. It would take a completely new model to align student-athletes compensation with their actual worth. The athletes who generate the greatest return for their schools will be rewarded in the future when they leave school and either become professionals or pursue careers that use the talents they refined playing in college such as coaching, journalism or broadcasting or using their fame to sell insurance.

Paying the players is fair, it reestablishes the integrity of college basketball, it serves to minimize the fraud and cheating and will relieve the financial pressures on many athletes. It seems like a no-brainer to me.

NOTE: A huge thanks to James for taking the time to discuss his book and his thoughts on the current state of the NCAA and college basketball. To check out more books by him, head on over to his website for more information. Also, we will be holding a contest in the near future where you can receive a copy of the book. We are still ironing out the details, but will discuss how it will work once things are finalized. Thanks for reading!

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