ESPN & the SEC: The Official End of Amateur Athletics

ESPN & the SEC: The Official End of Amateur Athletics

I have tried as hard as I could for years to defend the ideal of college athletics as “amateur.”

But I can’t any longer. I waive the white flag today and call bullshit on myself and anyone else that remains in the belief that college athletes at the top levels of the NCAA are amateur any longer.

[note: I want to make that clarification clear; it is only at the top levels, or within what used to be known as the BCS conferences, that my following bitch-and-moan session applies. Everywhere else in the country, universities and athletes alike are desperately trying to afford going to school]

secOn Thursday, ESPN and the Southeastern Conference (SEC) announced a ridiculous 20-year agreement to operate an SEC network, which is scheduled to debut in August of next year.

20 years.

Let’s put that idea into a little context, shall we?

The last time the NFL signed television contracts with their partners in 2011, the deals were for nine years (and, according to Forbes, $27 billion).

The NHL last negotiated their television rights in 2011 as well, and signed a 10-year deal with NBC that’s reportedly worth around $2 billion.

The last time the NBA negotiated television rights, in 2007, they agreed on an eight-year contract. When the NFL deal was being negotiated last year, TrueHoop asked how much the NBA deal could be worth when it expires in 2016.

Most recently, NBC acquired the rights to broadcast the English Premier League in the United States. That deal is for $250 million over only three years.

Professional sports have their own networks now, but they’re still selling their rights to the highest bidder as well. Of course there’s the Golf Channel, NHL Network, MLB Network, the NFL has it’s own network, NFL Sunday Ticket and RedZone, the best thing to happen to man since… well, we won’t mention the only comparable to keep this a family-friendly blog, but the Blackhawks reportedly had a lot of it during the season.

Those are professional sports, where there are player unions and collective bargaining agreements and owners of teams. The events are as much entertainment as they are a game… and, as we’re reminded every time a favorite player puts on a different jersey, it’s a business.

As Sports Illustrated pointed out recently, the NCAA governing body continues to be arguably the biggest gong show in athletics at any level.

Today’s article on makes a brilliant point:

Conferences can make their own rules.  And the several times the NCAA has been sued for alleged antitrust violations, the NCAA makes clear they are just a voluntary association of its member institutions. Which means those institutions could volunteer to withdraw.  And such a withdrawal is not greatly inhibited for fear of financial ruin.  Simply put, the SEC could survive financially without the NCAA.

And they should; at this point, the SEC allowing the NCAA to dictate anything for them financially amounts to the same level of stupidity that led to Macauley Culkin being broke.

Some college conferences already have their own television network, so this isn’t a ground-breaking concept. There’s a Big Ten Network and the Pac-12 has regional networks. Hell, the University of Texas has been blamed for the demise of the Big 12 Conference because the university has their own network.

It was made clear during the NFL Draft in April that the SEC owns college football. For the [we’ve-lost-count] year in a row, the SEC had the most players drafted, boasts the defending national champion, and has most of the highest paid coaches in the country patrolling the sidelines.

Now, the SEC has a television deal with “the world-wide leader” that is longer than the current/most-recent contracts of the NBA and NFL combined. My concerns about the “amateur” athletes currently being pimped by the NCAA run deep, so saying I have two problems with this SEC deal is unfair to the SEC in some regards.

This is different, though. And I do have two specific concerns.

The first is minor, but still relevant. By putting pen to paper on a 20-year television deal, the SEC just started recruiting kids that won’t be born for two more years. Certainly other media outlets will develop over the next couple decades and other conferences will find ways to carve their niche, but ESPN (owned by Disney) is still the biggest player in the space(s).

Whether you like them or not, ESPN drives the sports narrative in this country. And now they’re financially tied to the SEC. This is a huge recruiting advantage for a conference that’s already dominating the college football landscape.

My second problem is more serious than how universities sell themselves to 17 and 18-year old kids.

Money questionIt’s how they’re selling 18 to 23-year-old kids to the rest of us… and how the universities are keeping all the money.

There is no “free agency” in college. A student commits to play for a school for four (or five) years, but the contract is one-way; the university can take away that scholarship whenever they want. And if a kid wants to transfer they have to sit out a year, but coaches can come and go as they please.

Meanwhile, big universities are making a truckload of money off these kids. If you’re bored, love spreadsheets, or just want to see exactly how much money the NCAA is making off these kids, you can read a detailed report for fiscal years 2006-2012 on the NCAA’s website.

As I pointed out at the the beginning of this article, my concerns are targeted at the biggest of universities. I played NAIA football and took my fair share of shots to the head. Smaller universities give kids a chance to continue their love for a game at the risk of putting their bodies through hell, and the exchange for some tuition being paid for is often enough. Taylor University never sold a Bamford #16 jersey in the bookstore.

But you can find University of Florida Tebow jerseys (still). And if you go to a store around USC’s campus, you can buy a Matt Barkley jersey. And, if you go anywhere within 100 miles of Texas A&M, there are people fighting for the copyright to Johnny Football’s nickname.

Big schools are pimping the name, likeness, jersey number and success of kids for millions of dollars each year while these “student” athletes put their bodies on the line for the infinitely-small chance they’ll get paid by an NFL team some day.

Ed O’Bannon, who was the college basketball player of the year at UCLA in the 1990s, is now suing the NCAA over the use of his likeness nearly two decades later.

According to the NCAA itself, the probability of a high school athlete playing football at the NCAA level is 6.7 percent. The probability of a college football player going pro is 1.6 percent. The overwhelming majority – over 98 percent – will never see the millions that top NFL picks Andrew Luck, RGIII or Luke Joeckel will take home. But many of them will struggle through the same physical and mental issues as their millionaire former teammates.

Research into Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) has shown that repeated brain trauma and concussions can seriously impact an individuals way of life. However, CTE doesn’t wait for a kid to “go pro” before destroying a brain; brain trauma doesn’t begin in the NFL. There are kids getting their “bell rung” every day on college campuses all over the country, and the long-term impact can cost them their life, much less the ability to make a good, consistent living.

If you still believe the idea of paying college kids would destroy equality on campuses, you need to visit a college campus. At these big time universities, football and basketball players are treated like gods already. And there is no equality between universities, either. In the NCAA-produced report I link to earlier, you’ll see that the top earning schools are making between three and five times the median, and schools without football are making pennies next to the ten dollar bills football powerhouses are pulling in.

Today’s SEC-ESPN deal is the capstone on a financial explosion in college athletics from which everyone has benefited except the “student” athletes. Now, it’s time to keep it real.

Send some of that cash to the kids earning it while putting their bodies at risk.

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