By Ken Reed
The Huffington Post
December 22, 2016
I get the arguments of those people blasting Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and LSU’s Leonard Fournette for skipping their bowl games to prepare for the NFL draft.
I really do.
Being on a sports team is about being part of a band of brothers (or sisters) with a common cause. And McCaffrey and Fournette were also team captains. To voluntarily leave one’s team before the last game is played is undoubtedly a tough decision to make. Part of the sense of camaraderie that results from being on a team comes from a “we’re all in this together, for better or worse” mindset.
Also, from a selfish fan’s perspective, I’d like to see these guys play in their bowl games. When you sit down to watch a game, you prefer both teams have their best players on the field.
All that said, this isn’t an old-time Frank Merriwell or Chip Hilton sports novel, in which the hero gives his body, mind and soul for the honor of Ol’ State U!
Let’s start here first: The reality is that every postseason bowl game, besides the Final Four playoff games, is an exhibition game. These games are kept alive to pad the revenues of ESPN and to give gamblers something to do between NFL games. Most of these bowl games will draw fewer fans than the team’s early season contests featuring Division II opponents.
Secondly, and more importantly, there’s long been economic injustice in college athletics. Multi-million-dollar-a-year coaches can leave universities whenever they determine pastures are greener elsewhere. (See Tom Herman’s recent move from Houston to Texas – a day after he denied he was leaving — for but the latest example.) This after the coach preaches for months, and often years, about the importance of loyalty, dedication, leadership, a team-first attitude, and other BS.
Here’s the truth about big-time college sports: Division I football and basketball players are stuck on a billion-dollar plantation. They have no rights. Unlike their NFL brethren, they lack union representation. The scholarships they get pale in comparison to their true economic value to the universities they play for.
According to a study that came out of the Drexel University Sport Management Department a couple years ago, football and men’s basketball players at top sports schools were denied at least $6.2 billion between 2011 and 2015 under NCAA rules that prohibit them from being paid. According to professor Ellen Staurowsky, the fair market value of a football player at the University of Texas for the 2011-12 school year was $567,922 annually. Now, full-ride scholarships can be worth $50-60K a year, definitely not chump change, but that falls well short of true market value.
“America’s economic system is supposed to operate on free markets,” said former UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley, an economics major.
“This is a lesson on how damaging it can be when a cartel stifles a free market and, unfortunately, college athletes are the ones on the losing end. It’s not right.”
No, it isn’t right. And Fournette and McCaffrey, after giving their bodies and souls to their schools for several years have decided to look out for their long-term financial interests instead of playing in meaningless post-season bowl games.
Here’s the current situation for college football players: If they blow out a knee, colleges can – and too often do — pull their scholarships and stop paying their medical bills. If they decide they want to transfer to other schools after a couple years (like a coach leaving for a better situation), they are penalized by having to sit out a year. Moreover, their first school can ban them from transferring to rival schools, or any other schools they choose to put on the “no-transfer” list.
It’s also important to remember that football players don’t have the option to sign a pro contract when coming out of high school like baseball players do. There is no minor league option for high school football players.
Following the boycott by Missouri football players last year, college athletes are realizing that they do wield some power and they’re starting to use it.
I say, it’s about time. The NCAA pulls in billions from TV contracts. Yet, they don’t have to pay their biggest labor force, the players who create the product!
It’s actually fun and satisfying to see high profile college football players push back against an unfair system in order to protect their bodies and take control of their economic rights.
McCaffrey and Fournette are due to make millions of dollars in the NFL. Why risk that by playing in silly exhibition games?
A few years ago, a Notre Dame linebacker named Jaylon Smith was expected to go early in the first round of the NFL draft. Unfortunately, he blew out his knee in a bowl game and his stock plummeted. He ended up losing upwards of $15 million.
McCaffrey and Fournette are simply smart young men making rational business decisions.
Would you have left college a year early if someone offered you … ah, let’s say $250,000 as a starting salary?
I support the decisions these two outstanding athletes made.
The NCAA runs a glorified athletic plantation. Nobody should be pressured to stay on the plantation, or shamed for trying to get off. If top players, like McCaffrey and Fournette choose to use their economic leverage against an unjust system in order to focus on their future careers, I say more power to them.
Ken Reed is Sports Policy Director for League of Fans.
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League of Fans is a sports reform project founded by Ralph Nader to fight for the higher principles of justice, fair play, equal opportunity and civil rights in sports; and to encourage safety and civic responsibility in sports industry and culture.
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