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The NCAA Up In Smoke

Would you mind if I took this moment to compare Johnny Manziel to a joint, a spliff, or even a dime bag of marijuana? And would you stay with me as I attempt to explain that this is not a derogatory comparison, to relate the charismatic Heisman Trophy winner to a (currently) illegal substance?

Cannabis, alias weed, pot, grass, etc., is currently illegal as a recreational drug in 48 of the 50 states (Colorado and Washington are the outliers). Strict enforcement of marijuana laws has done absolutely nothing to curtail its widespread use, or the immense profitability of the industry. In fact, marijuana vendors, also known as drug dealers, may be some of the most enterprising capitalists out there.

In New York City, for example, you can dial a number for “Hazy Cab.” The taxi picks you up at a specified location, the sale is done in the back seat as the driver — an oblivious party to the crime – takes both the dealer and the buyer on their trip, and then the latter party is dropped off, often at the very same address where he was picked up a few minutes earlier. Brilliant. Illegal, but brilliant.

Why do marijuana sales continue to generate hundreds of millions, if not more, in sales domestically each year even though the substance itself is federally banned? Because there is a demand for it. In terms of capitalism, demand is that low-lying area that water will eventually find. The greater the demand, the lower the area and the more water that will settle there.

College football is not illegal, but the demand for it is immense. Or have you not seen the size of the television contracts that individual conferences have signed with networks such as ABC/ESPN, FOX and CBS in the past couple of years? The Pac-12 earns roughly $225 million per year, for example, through its deals with Disney (i.e. ABC/ESPN) and FOX. The SEC, Manziel’s conference, is in the midst of a 15-year, $2.25 billion-with-a-B contract with ESPN and a 15-year, $825 million deal with CBS.

That’s a lot of pork for your pigskin.

And just how entertaining would any of those SEC games be if nobody suited up to play them? Manziel and South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney are probably the SEC’s, and college football’s, two most recognizable players, nay, commodities, heading into the 2013 season. And while a free college education is not an insubstantial sum (for the record, Manziel’s family could easily afford to send him to college; Clowney’s could not) for a young man, the value of Manziel and Clowney to the SEC, when you analyze those numbers, is almost incalculably greater than what they are receiving in return for their services.

Which brings us back to weed. Just because the government declares that marijuana is illegal does not meant that millions of Americans will not purchase it through whatever means possible. Similarly, just because the NCAA declares that every student-athlete is entitled to no more than a full-ride (and a few other amenities) does not mean that this is the extent of their marketability. Where there is demand, there is a market. And when the market artificially attempts to constrict the value of a product, be it a blunt or an All-American, there is an intense temptation to obviate the rules that constrict that commodity.

Enter Claudia Wilken, a federal court judge who on Tuesday
dismissed a motion by the NCAA to prevent football and men’s basketball players from legally pursuing a cut of live broadcast revenues. Now, there is a lot of legalese – and tens of millions of dollars in legal fees– involved in the skirmish between the NCAA and the class-action suit being brought by former UCLA star Ed O’Bannon and other former Division I athletes. This site has writers more suited to tackle those issues (Hello, John Infante) than I am.

However, I do like to think in terms of analogies, because by comparing two seemingly unrelated issues or items (e.g. Mary Jane and Johnny Football) we are able to locate underlying common principles, principles that allow us to examine an issue with greater clarity.

Should student-athletes be paid? That answer probably depends on your perspective, not unlike your reply to “Should marijuana be legalized?”

The fact of the matter, though, is that college football and basketball players are commodities, and that different players have different values. Manziel, who went from nobody to Johnny Football, nationally, in just one month, appeared on “The Late Show” to deliver a Top Ten list in December. And yet he was ineligible to receive even the SAG minimum – I believe it is $500 – for appearing on the program. Letterman, on the other hand, earns north of $30 million per year.

My modest proposal, and one that in a few years’ time the NCAA may just wish it had taken: let the schools keep the television money and forbid them from paying players outright. However, open the market for players, or as the NCAA calls them, “student-athletes.” If Chik-Fil-A wants to pay Clowney a six-figure sum to be its national spokesperson, let it. They’re not going to pay every player that figure. If Chik-Fil-A wants to provide the starting offensive line at Georgia Tech with ten free chicken sandwiches per week, let that happen, too. Let each commodity, i.e. player, find his market value.

This would lead to, what, corruption? Have you followed college sports in the past five –make that fifty—years? It already exists. You might say, If we allowed players to earn money on the free market, you’d create bidding wars for their services between wealthy boosters of schools.

So what?

As long as you still mandate that a student-athlete attend class, earn a certain grade-point average and conform to such rules, who cares what he drives or what money he banks? For at least 90% of the players in college football and basketball, life would not change at all. And for the Johnny Footballs of the world, who are very few and far in between, well, they’re already existing in a rarefied world of privilege that has been acquired through deeds. It may not yet be material privilege, but keeping their heads on straight at this moment has less to do with what is in their bank accounts than it does with their character.

And, here’s an idea: if the NCAA, or you, truly has a problem with the consequences of a college athlete suddenly being exposed to tens, or hundreds, of thousands of dollars, why not allow him or her to earn it but put it in a trust? Money that cannot be touched until after that athlete exhausts his or her eligibility?

We’ve seen enough bowl scandals. We already know that there are men two and three decades older than Johnny Manziel who cannot be trusted to use money responsibly. In fact, some even use the money fraudulently (I’m looking at you, former Fiesta Bowl CEO John Junker, and your lavish 50th birthday party that was financed by Fiesta Bowl funds; oh, and the bowl is registered as a “non-profit”). To argue against a player earning money due to their youth or their status as a college athlete is either age discrimination or troglodytic.

Let the market determine value. Where there is demand, there is a price. Be it for weed or players who run the read-option. The NCAA and conferences, who are literally earning billions off the performances of student-athletes, might be wise to recognize that as their profits increase, the folly of constricting the market for student-athletes is a potentially calamitous strategy. Their own little war on drugs may soon go up in smoke.

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