Anger, denial, bargaining, depression, acceptance.
Those whose oxen will be gored by the inevitable sea change regarding college sports currently reside in one or both of the first two phases of grief, advancing flimsy arguments aimed at avoiding or at least delaying the dawn of a long overdue day of reckoning.
Texas A.D. Steve Patterson got the ball rolling with his “if you don’t like playing for free, then go get play pro ball routine,” ignoring the barriers that currently existing to, for example, a high school player going straight to the NFL. Now, the Commissioner of Patterson’s conference has chimed in with an argument that uses populism as a human shield for the fat cats making millions off the labor of others.
“I don’t think student-athletes are employees,” Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby said during a lecture at Kansas State University, per the Wichita Eagle. “I don’t think they should be characterized that way. I don’t think that is what higher education is about. I think it would forever change what Americans have come to love.”
Over the years, a lot of things that “Americans have come to love” have changed. For a variety of reasons. Americans had come to love vinyl records. Americans had come to love 8-track tapes. (Actually, I doubt that many Americans actually loved those things.) Americans had come to love free downloads of music via ultimately illegal Internet file-sharing services.
Some changes, like the LP and the 8-track, to things Americans have come to love happen via innovation. Other changes, like the elimination of free music downloads, to things Americans have come to love happen due to the rule of law. Regardless, the things Americans have come to love routinely change — and the folks who lament it the most are those who lose the most money because of it.
Just ask anyone who used to make money from the purchase of camera film.
The colleges in the conference Bowlsby runs will lose money if they have to pay players. That’s why he hates the prospect of losing this specific thing Americans have come to love.
ESPN president John Skipper, who also spoke against paying college athletes at the same lecture, will see his company lose money if college athletes are paid. No broadcasting entity has deeper and more extensive ties to college football and basketball than ESPN. If it suddenly becomes more expensive for those schools to do business because players must be paid for their labor, those costs can in turn be passed on in part to those who televise the games. And only so much of those costs will be passed along to the consumer via higher monthly rates for the various ESPN networks.
“I’ve never seen a system that works for paying players,” Skipper said. “Who are you going to pay? You really want a system where Johnny Manziel makes $8 million and his teammates don’t make anything?”
Smart point, for obvious reasons and for those that don’t meet the eye. By shifting the focus to the challenges inherent to coming up with paying college athletes anything, the colleges can continue to pay nothing. And ESPN can continue to not have to subsidize the eventual new reality of college sports.
Eventually, that’s going to end. Whether through unionization or antitrust litigation or some other legal tactic, winter is coming. The goal now seems to be simply delaying change for as long as possible.