Wednesday, September 27, 2017

The end of my Louisville fandom, and what comes next

I write this today as my final contribution to collegiate athletic fandom for the foreseeable future.
I'm a University of Louisville fan, primarily of men's basketball, and being a fan of Cardinal basketball has been miserable work for years now. (I've posted a few things on Card Chronicle before, mostly about conference realignment and reorganization, but I've been absent from the site for a long time. It's been too hard to be a fan.)
The Cards have been mired in recruiting scandals -- and appear near the center of the biggest corruption sting in NCAA history -- and I simply can't stand to invest myself in this anymore.
But I don't think the NCAA can withstand this, either.
Everything Louisville fans have been through, and every sin the Cardinals program has inexcusably committed, has derived from a single, inescapable cause.
The NCAA is a price-fixing cartel. (For classical economists, the NCAA is pretty clearly a monopsony buyer of collegiate-age basketball and football labor.) When you fix prices, you create a black market for the goods you're regulating, and the Cards have been busted twice now for some inarguably awful black-market participation.
That the NCAA is an indefensible institution (economically or, perhaps, even morally) is not an excuse for what the Cards have done. But if you think this will be the last time such black-market activity happens under the current NCAA system -- even after the Justice Department sends coaches, agents, and shoe company executives to federal prison -- you're beyond naive. You're just wrong.
Where there's money to be made, a market will appear -- whether that market is legal or not. And while governments with law enforcement power may be able to stifle illegal trade, private institutions like the NCAA clearly can't, and never have. The NCAA isn't just a price-fixing cartel, it's an inept one. It's time for that cartel to end.

The NCAA isn't just a price-fixing cartel, it's an inept one.

Louisville basketball, and maybe a large swath of Louisville athletics, may be decimated by the current scandal -- but it's the NCAA that needs to be burned fully to the ground and made over. That, or it should be left behind. The myth of the "student-athlete," the idea that players should play for "free," or at least below their true market value, is simply unsustainable and creates exactly the sort of evils that Louisville indefensibly committed. If we want to prevent other teams from doing what Louisville (and, for certain, others) have done, the NCAA cannot go on like this.
Here's what I'd propose to replace the NCAA: An Intercollegiate Professional Athletics Association, the IPAA.
Drop the pretense. College players are professional employees, paid for their labor. This is a pro league, with all the usual artifacts of such a corporation. Universities operate franchise teams, and lend their brand and their fans to the franchises. Players perform under contract. There's a salary cap and draft process to manage talent distribution. Recruiting as we know it is over.

Recruiting as we know it is over.

Participation in IPAA sports requires membership in an IPAA Player's Union, which collectively bargains for player compensation and rights. Those rights would include a salary compliant with a team salary cap, a full cost-of-attendance scholarship to the host school, and the right to profit from the sale of their likeness (i.e. publicity and endorsement rights). This means more-popular players from more-popular schools can earn more money -- legitimately -- from the sale of their jerseys and images. It also means video games like EA's NCAA Basketball and Football can legitimately include players again, just like they do for conventional pro teams.
If the player appears in uniform, or is identified as a member of an IPAA team, that team also is guaranteed a say and share in the likeness fees. If being a Louisville Cardinal or Kentucky Wildcat makes you a more valuable commodity, UK and UofL share in those profits. Also, those schools can prevent you from endorsing unseemly products or services while wearing their colors and invoking their names.
Collective bargaining of rights would allow for players to manage their own amount of practice and instruction. In many cases, the "20-hour rule" limiting practice and playing time also limits how much a player can progress in his sport. The balance of athletic, academic, and personal opportunities should be governed at least as much by the players as by the coaches and schools.
As to school attendance: it is an option, not an obligation. "Student-athletes" is a euphemism for undercompensated labor. Players are mascots of a marketing operation and shouldn't be required to pretend toward scholarship as part of that marketing exercise. They can attend school and obtain a degree if they wish, but compelling attendance leads to scandals like we saw at North Carolina. The goal of the IPAA is to avoid the hypocrisies that plague the NCAA, and forcing athletes to be students is utterly hypocritical. Maintaining the facade of the student athlete is what created many of the NCAA's issues in the first place. That facade should be abandoned -- permanently.

"Student-athletes" is a euphemism for undercompensated labor.

Membership in the IPAA Players Union requires exposure to an IPAA draft, which a player is eligible for in the June following his month of high school graduation, and obtaining his high school diploma or equivalent. (You can't bail on high school to get a head start on the IPAA.) Teams will draft players, rather than recruit them, forever ending the rotten recruiting black market that led to all our current NCAA woes and grievances.
Moreover, exposure to the NBA or NFL drafts will not preclude exposure to the IPAA drafts. If you are undrafted (or too young to be drafted) by a major professional league, you're free to apply to the IPAA. Also gone are notions of age limitations or exhausted eligibility. Plenty of "non-traditional" students attend college some time beyond the four years after high school; why make IPAA athletes play by different rules? Why end a fruitful playing career because an athlete can't convincingly pretend to be a college student anymore?
IPAA player contracts will have a term of one year, after which players are free agents and can pursue contracts with another IPAA team, or a team in any other league (NBA, NFL, or otherwise). Yes, this does mean perhaps more one-and-dones, and a constant exodus of players unhappy on their current teams. So be it. A properly managed salary cap can prevent teams from stockpiling excess talent and poaching players, just as it does in the major leagues.
Moreover, if a "freshman" player has a breakout season and can earn more money playing for a different IPAA team, why should they be limited in where they can play? Restraining player labor and compensation is what created the NCAA cesspool. The IPAA should go out of its way to avoid those issues.

Restraining player labor and compensation is what created the NCAA cesspool.

The league would only field teams in men's football and basketball, at least at the beginning, as these are the only consistently revenue-positive sports for the majority of schools. (Men's baseball is basically a competitor to the MLB minor leagues, and MLB probably won't tolerate a true rival pro league. Women's basketball and men's soccer may be some more likely follow-ons, but it's unclear the revenues exist to support them yet.) Schools could continue to field NCAA teams in those and all other sports, as much as they are willing and able. It's likely, however, that the number of NCAA sports will decline as revenues that formerly went to supporting unprofitable teams instead go to basketball and football player salaries.
There are, in all likelihood, only a fraction of universities with the fan support and financial wherewithal to actually pay players what they are worth. All 351 Division-I basketball schools certainly can't. All 129 FBS football school can't, either. It's not even clear Power Five conference teams like Wake Forest or Washington State have the budgetary resources to continue, though larger Group of Five schools like Connecticut and Central Florida probably can.

Only a fraction of universities [have] the fan support and financial wherewithal to actually pay players what they are worth.

I'd suggest the IPAA consist of 72 schools, organized into eight divisions of nine teams. Most if not all the 64 Power Five schools would be able to muster up a franchise commitment, and some eight or 10 Group of Five schools could also make the cut. Nine-team divisions would work like conferences do today. That allows for an eight-game "conference" football schedule -- four home and four away games -- where you play your entire division every year, with four "non-conference" games on the side. It also allows for a true round-robin 16-game basketball schedule where you play every "conference" team at home and away, with 14 "non-conference" games on the side.
As all games will be scheduled within the 72-team field, and all 72 teams will be "name brand" high-budget athletic programs, this will be an "all thriller, no-filler" lineup that will present highly valuable television inventory and high-dollar rights fees. We may miss tilts against Murray State or Western, but the New York Yankees never play regular season games against the Louisville Bats -- neither TV networks nor fans would want to pay good money for that product -- and a true collegiate pro league can't offer this inferior inventory, either. With better inventory comes better television rights agreements, which will help pay for these new expenses.
The real money, of course, comes from the postseason championships. In the football postseason, simply stage an eight-team, three-round tournament featuring all eight division winners. There is no longer any need for conference championship games, as every division will create a true champion. Freeing up that "week" of games makes room for the extra round of playoffs -- and the games will be more meaningful, competitive, and valuable.
In the basketball postseason, the beloved low-major schools playing David to Power Five Goliaths may be the only lamentable casualty here. But, as TV ratings bear out, fans only want to see those Cinderella teams for a round or two, and -- past the Sweet Sixteen -- both fans and television execs only want name brands. Under our new scheme, we can keep the 64-team format by simply excluding the last-place team from each division and literally inviting everyone else. Imagine a tournament that includes basically the entirety of the Power Five. While the Cinderellas are gone, the "all name-brands all the time" tourney would be unique in all of sports, both in quality and in scale. Admit it; you would still watch.
Will schools field fewer teams, and will fewer schools field teams at all, with the advent of the IPAA? More than likely. But if those non-revenue teams only existed because of a distorted market that led to felonious under-the-table labor agreements, those teams probably shouldn't exist in the first place. And while I'm sympathetic to the notion that women's rowing and men's soccer athletes work just as hard as men's football and basketball players, I'm not sure we can justify multimillion-dollar stadiums and coaching salaries for those sports just because they work hard, too. Their free ride is over.
Giving "non-revenue" athletes scholarships is a worthwhile investment; giving their teams millions of dollars that should have otherwise gone to pay the fair-market salaries of football and basketball players isn't. The NBA and NFL aren't obligated to underwrite Major League Soccer or Lacrosse. Pretending this is somehow different in college is what creates the cesspool that is AAU basketball and 7-on-7 football tournaments, of street agents and middlemen, of envelopes of cash and dorm-room prostitution.

The NBA and NFL aren't obligated to underwrite Major League Soccer or Lacrosse.

Louisville basketball ruined itself by cheating under NCAA rules. Clearly, several other programs have done the same, and done so for decades in both basketball and football. As such, I can no longer bring myself to support the Cardinals as a team, or the NCAA as an institution. At least not as they are currently composed.
Above, I propose a means of ending the hypocrisy and creating a collegiate athletic system that's fair, equitable, and morally defensible. Until something like this comes to pass, I'm not sure I can be a fan of college sports -- Cardinal or otherwise -- ever again.

1 comment:

  1. Jay, I have to give you props for thinking this through. I'm sold. Let's do it. :-)