TGS SPECIAL REPORT...INTO THE WEEDS OF COLLEGE SPORTS
by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor
Funny business, this college sports thing. We have always though it interesting the reaction from foreigners who might have no idea how big-time college sports operate in this country. We’ve seen incredulous looks from those types as they try to contemplate how schools and universities in the states can build stadiums for up to (and is some cases beyond) 100,000 fans and conduct themselves as might a pro sports league.
Indeed, big-time college sports do behave much like pro sports leagues, except that the stars of the show are not officially compensated (ahem!) for their work. That, too, often draws a curious reaction from overseas sorts, some of whom also unable to wrap their heads around that the ones responsible for creating the show (or games, if you will) that generate billions in revenue can’t officially get something of the pie?
Things, however, are a changin’ on the college sports scene. The new buzz phrase in college athletics is “Fair Pay to Play,” the recent California Senate Bill 206, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsome, which will make it illegal for the NCAA to punish college athletes who profit off their name, image and likeness. Due to take effect in 2023, the act would ensure that marketable college athletes could sign endorsement deals and licensing agreements—including for inclusion in video games, advertising campaigns and trading cards—without the risk of punishment from their schools or the NCAA, and with the counsel and advice of seasoned agents. Reaction across the college landscape has, not surprisingly, included much indignation from those very sorts this law was intended to minimize.
We’ll try to get into the weeds of “Fair Pay to Play” in just a moment. In the meantime, however, we can’t help but reflect upon what should be a somewhat-related story, or, better said, a reality of college sports that flies mostly under the radar and continues to be overlooked by the national sports media.
Over five years ago, we reviewed a devilish SB Nation piece penned by Steven Godfrey that was entitled “Meet the Bag Man.” In its original form, it was a highly-detailed editorial that attempted to uncover the layers of the shady college sports underworld and the well-known, but little publicized, practice of compensating players under the table. While the review focused almost solely upon the SEC football, Godfrey would suggest that his expose’ would likely be just as applicable to varying degrees elsewhere in the country, especially within the “Power 5" conferences.
Godfrey wasn’t necessarily breaking any new ground with his story; cheating has been going on in big-time college sports for almost as long as the games themselves have been played. Godfrey went the extra mile, however, as he effectively went undercover to gather much of his info and witness countless transactions over an extended period of time. What always fascinated most about the Godfrey story is that it didn’t focus upon the end result of cheating, rather serving as a treatise of sorts on the complicated mechanics of the college football underworld...and how the rule-breakers discreetly operate away from public view.
At the time, we applauded Godfrey, who asserted that similar under-the-table “networks” existed for almost all of the major schools, not just the those in the SEC, as they mostly function away from the purview of the major donors. As we have long believed, and Godfrey suggested, fanaticism among the base of supporters is so over the top at many locales that there is never any shortage of alums or “friends” of the program who are more than willing to provide cash and other “gifts” not just to players, but to recruits...as well as those who can influence recruits. Which also accounts for a substantial amount of waste in the entire process, as money and gifts can be lavished upon recruits just to merely make official visits to schools, with no guarantee of eventual signatures. That’s why most of the schools probably have no idea of the exact amounts of money that is flowing in the hinterlands to not only aid their recruiting efforts but also to keep many of the players happy within their programs.
Godfrey noted that these various underground “networks” evolved over decades and use cold cash as their currency. And when one of these operations goes awry and gets spotted by the NCAA, it is not an isolated incident, rather exposed only by carelessness within a specific network.
More than five years on, however, the Godfrey story, which was one of the most-explosive college sports reports we had read in years, has been mostly forgotten, just as it curiously was by much of the sporting media after it was first published. Among national sports media personalities, Paul Finebaum was the only one we directly recall who addressed the Godfrey story on his syndicated radio show. Moreover, as far as we can tell, no one else in the sports media picked up the baton from Godfrey and conducted their own research for a storyline that should have enough angles to keep countless investigative reporters busy for several years.
Our end conclusion, one shared by Godfrey, was that the college sports “underground” would continue to exist on the recruiting trail and likely continue to a large degree in its current form, and would not abate even when provisions were made to legally compensate players...such as “Fair Pay to Play” (which does not specifically create a right for college athletes to be paid by their schools, instead addressing how various businesses use athletes’ identities).
As noted earlier, several higher-ups in college sport, from NCAA President Mark Emmert to Big Ten Commissioner Jim Delany and others, have taken exception to the California Senate Bill 206. Yet they all preside over a vast enterprise that at its core operates with a shady underworld that is part of the steam engine for the entire enterprise. You’d think they should be applauding legislation that’s out in the sunlight and at least creating a rule-abiding template. Sorts such as Emmert and Delany and other administrators should be more concerned with creating uniform standards, not just those open to different interpretations in different states.
It’s called getting ahead of the curve. Uniquely, however, in college sports, at least in its hierarchy, such concepts don’t exist. It’s time to call out these administrators for their hypocrisy.
We have often in the past cited copy from Dan Wetzel of Yahoo Sports, whose excellent book, Death to the BCS, was reviewed on these pages several years and might have had a little something to do with college football finally instituting a mini-playoff to determine its national champion. In a recent editorial, Wetzel pulled no punches in regard to the Emmerts and Delanys of the college sports world, and the relation to the California Bill 206.
“College administrators such as Jim Delany view all money coming into college athletics as something he, and people like him, should control.” said Wetzel. “Jim Delany, after all, recently had a bonus clause in his contract kick in that should exceed $20 million, which comes on top of his multimillion-dollar base salary.
“If you are looking for a slippery slope, it came whenever so-called amateur sports became such a big, unapologetic business that a guy like Jim Delany could reap $20 million bonuses. That was the real point of no return. That’s when SB 206, in some form, became reality.
“College athletics is flat-footed and in a panic right now because guys such as Delany — not to mention fellow multimillionaires Mark Emmert from the NCAA or Bob Bowlsby from the Big 12 or Larry Scott from the Pac-12 — did nothing to prevent, let alone plan for, this day.
“As the drum beat for NIL (name, image, and likeness) rights has grown through the years via federal trials, public opinion and slow-moving legislatures, college sports’ leadership mostly just regurgitated whiny statements, obstructed progress and lawyered up. Well, that and negotiated new bonus deals for themselves (of course).
“As the current gold rush of revenue has flooded into college athletics, they could have made moves toward the middle here. Better compensation for athletes. A limited NIL package. Some kind of revenue sharing. More scholarships for non-revenue sports.
“Instead, they did almost nothing. They even had to get dragged, kicking and screaming, just to dole out a few hundred bucks in cost-of-living stipends. It wasn’t until 2015 that they’d even allowed that … and it came with similar predictions of doom.
"So Delany, et al, failed miserably running the business they were paid handsomely to run, leaving Gavin Newsome, LeBron James and a lot of politicians to upend everything.”
And politicians from everywhere are rushing to get involved. According to ESPN, Congressman Anthony Gonzalez plans to propose a national law that would allow college athletes to make money from endorsement deals, much like the California law. Gonzalez is a former Ohio State wide receiver who now represents Ohio’s 16th district. Meanwhile, House Rep. Mark Walker of North Carolina has introduced his own federal bill related to college athletes’s name, image and likeness rights. Walker proposed amending the tax code to force schools to allow student athletes to make money from endorsements or lose their non-profit tax exemptions. Walker’s bill is currently with the House Ways and Means Committee.
California has simply beaten other states to the punch. By our count, within the past two weeks, 13 other states have already begun processes which would allow student-athletes to be compensated for the use of their name, image and likeness (NIL), allowing them to profit from marketing and promotional opportunities. That’s a bigger, and quicker, rush from states looking to hop on board than we saw when the Supreme Court struck down PAPSA last year. More states are likely on the way, perhaps making some sort of federal overview a necessity. We’ll see.
(TGS will continue to monitor “Fair Pay to Play” developments as we tentatively plan to have Part II to this story later in the autumn. In the meantime, check back in next week’s issue when we highlight our annual preferred NBA "Season Win" predictions in front of the tip-off of our unique TGS Hoops publication, which will commence as the NBA season begins next week.)
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