Zion Williamson doesn’t play basketball for the University of Northern Colorado. His freedom to play basketball has been limited by the rules laid down by two organizations worth billions of dollars, but it hasn’t been limited that much.
Yet Cody McDavis, a former player whose career peaked with scoring 5.9 points per game for Northern Colorado, used the New York Times opinion page to argue that athletes like him are entitled to the benefits of Williamson’s unpaid labor. If players like Williamson—who injured his knee last week because of the on-court breakup of one of the shoes he’s required to wear under Nike’s multimillion-dollar deal with Duke—were to collect a share of the money other people make off them, McDavis wrote, it “would distort the economics of college sports in a way that would hurt the broader community of student-athletes, universities, fans and alumni.”
The only reason Zion Williamson is a part of the community of student-athletes is that he was forced to be one, thanks to the mutual interests of the National College Athletic Association and the National Basketball Association, which led the NBA to bar 18-year-olds from the pros in 2005. With high schoolers blocked from going straight to the NBA, the NCAA got to market the spectacle of NBA-level talent playing a mandatory year of college ball, and the NBA got to reduce its risk of overpaying for teenagers who hadn’t been tested against older and more talented players. And Williamson got to risk blowing out his knee while playing for free.
McDavis did not dwell on Williamson’s situation, or on the fact that even the NBA has gotten tired of the current system and is trying to lower the draft age back from 19 to 18. His argument existed outside of history, like someone arguing that the reason to overthrow Venezuela is to stop more dominoes from falling to Communism in Latin America. Williamson was just a peg for the timeless argument in favor of the status quo in college sports: paying the players would cost too much money.
“A handful of big sports programs would pay top dollar for a select few athletes,” McDavis wrote, “while almost every other college would get caught up in a bidding war it couldn’t afford.” This would be a real mess, to see colleges caught up in a frenzy of overspending on college athletics. Here, then, is how McDavis described the status quo that would be so tragically disrupted:
The 30 largest universities in the country each routinely generate annual revenues exceeding $100 million from sports, but according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, most of those revenues are spent covering operating expenses for the school’s athletic programs and paying tuition for their student-athletes. The majority of Division I colleges in the N.C.A.A. operate at a loss. In fact, among the roughly 350 athletic departments in the N.C.A.A.’s Division I, only about 24 schools have generated more revenue than expenses in recent years. The nation’s top five conferences made over $6 billion in 2015, billions more than all other schools combined, according to an ESPN analysis of N.C.A.A. data.
The ban on paying wages to athletes has done nothing to stop schools from ruining their budgets to pour money into athletic facilities and making coaches their states’ highest-paid employees, in what is already a hopeless winner-take-all competition. Here’s how the Denver Post described the financial situation at McDavis’ own alma mater last year, a decade after it jumped to Division I:
UNC will end this fiscal year with a $10 million deficit and faces a similar shortfall next year, officials said, although the board of regents was told recently that deficit is now down to $4 million. Still, faculty members were told earlier this spring that the school’s reserves will be exhausted by 2021.
According to a spreadsheet of staff salaries on the university’s website, the athletic department at the University of Northern Colorado currently employs more than 70 full-time coaches and administrators, including a Senior Associate Athletic Director at $91,304, an Assistant Athletic Director at $53,070, a Director of Administration at $50,000, a Director of Sports Performance at $51,000, a Director of Marketing and Fan Experience at $50,000, and a Director of Strategic Communications at $50,000.
And none of this spending has made anyone care about the University of Northern Colorado’s sports program! The only real national attention the athletic department ever got came in 2007, when football team’s backup punter was convicted of stabbing the starting punter in the leg, in an apparent attempt to take over the job.
How would paying athletes make Northern Colorado’s situation any worse than it already is? McDavis warned that if an ongoing lawsuit ends up with a judge ruling in favor of college athletes getting paid, it will ruin the current system:
The top 25 or so schools will pay because they can afford to. The remaining 325 or so will be forced to make a decision: not pay their athletes (and risk losing top talent to schools that do) or find a way to pay.
But there aren’t 325 schools’ worth of Zion Williamsons to be paid for. Northern Colorado isn’t at risk of losing high-priced talent to Duke under some new set of rules; it has never been competitive with Duke for talent and never will be. What McDavis presented as a threat to college athletic programs is more likely to be their salvation. As long as athletes are off the budget, athletic departments can claim to be competing by proxy, spending recklessly on administrators and facilities to try to show they’re in the big time. If the payroll is set by the talent level, it will be obvious where the money belongs, and where it doesn’t.