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Would You Play?


Stanford RB Christian McCaffery

You’re a college football phenom.  After helping lead your team to a solid winning season — short of the championship playoffs, but entry into a prominent, albeit absurdly-monickered postseason bowl game — scouting services project you as an early round NFL draft pick next year.  After growing up with modest means (or perhaps even in abject poverty), you stand to earn a paycheck next year worth hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of dollars…life-altering money…enough to seed your retirement, help your family, maybe even buy a little bling and a few new toys.  The only thing standing in the way is the risk of a career-threatening, or draft-position-debilitating, injury in a game that, aside for bragging rights and school pride, is mostly meaningless.

Would you play?

Running backs Leonard Fournette of LSU and Christian McCaffrey of Stanford both answered no.  Playing the most injury-vulnerable position on the gridiron, each risked a significant, if not existential, financial loss.  Both, of course, were pilloried in the angry social media: by their fan bases who viewed them as traitors, as well as by some old-school analysts who believed they violated the fundamental tough-guy, play-even-if-it-hurts ideology of the sport.  (By the way, both LSU and Stanford won without them.)

Michigan tight end Jake Butt answered yes.  During Friday night’s Orange Bowl matchup with Florida State, Butt suffered a torn ACL, placing his once likely first-round NFL draft selection into jeopardy.  For what it’s worth, Butt had no regrets, later tweeting that it “never once crossed my mind to sit this game out and I would never change that mindset. I play this game bc I love it, my teammates, coaches.” (The Wolverines lost in a squeaker.)

Would you play?

For those of us in the contact-averse, receiver-route-running-challenged intelligentsia, the answer seems simple: As a standard economic calculation, a “no” answer is obvious.  But for decades, Fournette and McCaffrey are the clear exceptions, as rare as ACLU-placard-sighting at a Donald Trump rally.  Beyond the traditions of the game, beyond the peer pressure from fans and fellow students; appearing as a “quitter” or a “coward” or a “non-team player,” could impact a player reputationally, and perhaps even financially, in the short and long run.

But that’s changing.  As scrutiny into the long-term impact of football injuries expands, as NFL salaries spiral, and perhaps most significantly, as the obscene absurdity of big-time college athletics continues to be exposed as preying upon the young people who actually fill the seats and drive up the TV ratings, the old-school view is losing its hold.  Athletes have taken up for their teammates and rivals on Twitter, and columnists are complementing the sit-inners.  If at the 2017 draft Fournette and McCaffrey soar, while Butt plummets, a large number of their successors will be carefully considering skipping bowl games this time next year.  And if the trend continues, a slippery slope could lead to stars skipping meaningful playoff games, or even large chunks of regular seasons.

There’s no easy solution, but some salve can come in a remedy for much of what else is ailing college athletics:  It’s time we pay and truly educate college athletes.

As I explored more comprehensively in this 2014 KSR column, the NCAA, elite coaches, broadcast networks, and advertisers are acquiring ridiculous wealth at the expense of student athletes who don’t earn a dime.  Worse, more than a quarter of major sport athletes don’t graduate; and many that do fail to develop any meaningful job skills, or even middle school level reading skills.

While the NCAA two years ago voted to give a few conferences a little more freedom to compensate their students, it seemed more of a sham aimed at blocking comprehensive change being sought through the court system.  The NCAA should instead establish a meaningful pay-for-play system:  one that colleges can afford; but most importantly, one whose focus is laser-trained on the welfare of student-athletes.  It could look something like this:

Pay the players a living wage. An hourly living wage – the same for each player on scholarship — would provide athletes with some walking around money for the occasional restaurant jaunt or shopping spree, as well as the exceptional luxury of flying parents in for special games. And it won’t break the bank of our institutions of higher learning. Of course, schools would be burdened less if we identified supplemental funding sources such as…

It’s gotta be the shoes. While recent reforms have proscribed many of the abuses in the historically shady relationship between college coaches and shoe companies, it’s still unjust to force players to serve as unpaid jumping billboards for their product.   A fair percentage of any and all endorsement deals could help underwrite an athlete compensation pool. Taken together, this fund could help sweep in athletes beyond just the two major revenue-generating sports, because…

Don’t forget about the girls. Gender equity in college athletics is one of the great successes of the modern civil rights era. And even though on only rare occasions will a women’s team generate meaningful revenue, the spirit, if not the letter, of the Title IX laws may require colleges to pay women the same as the boys.  And speaking of what’s truly important…

It’s the education, stupid.   The primary mission of any university is to educate and prepare its students for the postgraduate job market. Current athletic academic standards instead often function to stifle opportunity or to encourage inappropriate shortcuts. The core flaw is the ludicrous and pernicious assumption that every “scholar-athlete” has the preparation, the aptitude – or even the need – to earn a four-year, liberal arts bachelor’s degree. For decades, outside of sport, policymakers have been encouraging youth from lower income environments and underachieving high schools (a common background for many a collegiate hoopster or gridder) to enroll in two-year vocational and technical colleges, where they can be empowered with the skills they need for the modern job market. That’s why it is incumbent on the NCAA and its member schools to direct athletes, when appropriate, to focus their academic attention on job skills and technical programs that interest them, prepare them for postgraduate life, and enable them to earn associates degrees at the university, or through an affiliated community college or vo-tech program. Similarly, the NBA, NFL and their players’ unions should effectuate a new “two and done” system, which will enable each player to earn sufficient credit to graduate with at least an associates’ degree.  And those that stay on past their two-year degrees can be enrolled in apprenticeship programs with local businesses, or compensated job training in the workplace.

In the end, we should abide by the motto and mission of our Fayette County Public Schools:  “It’s About Kids.”  In our passion for sports, we too often fail to fully appreciate and protect the interests of the teenagers and young adults who provide so much enjoyment for the rest of us.  While the Fournettes and the McCaffreys might still skip a game or two, we would provide meaningful integrity for a system that truly needs it, and we would finally respect, honor and truly compensate the individuals who make college sports possible.


Would you play?  Should we pay?  Fire away in the comments below.

Article written by Jonathan Miller

Jonathan Miller, The Recovering Politician (Twitter: @RecoveringPol), writes about the politics of sport and the sport of politics...and sometimes about bourbon. Jonathan has been elected twice as Kentucky's State Treasurer; practices as a crisis management attorney; authored three books on faith, public policy and crisis management; serves as a Contributor to The Daily Beast, played straight man on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart; reached the final table of the World Series of Poker; and with his summer camp sweetheart, raised two remarkable twenty-something daughters.

23 Comments for Would You Play?

  1. kentuckybatcats
    8:19 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    One thing to consider is these guys typically take out insurance policies on their bodies.
    For example Jake Butt has a $4M Total Disability insurance policy as well as a Loss of Value policy valued at $2M if he falls past round 2 in the Draft.
    While I know a couple million compared to multi million dollar contract’s are meager, they still will be set up well. I say play but it’s not my decision.

  2. MikeM
    9:05 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    I don’t think the players should be paid. They get free tuition, room, board, tutors and the ability to travel the country while playing the game they love. Good for them. If the student-athletes decide not to take advantage of all their benefits, it’s on them; not the coach or athletic department or university.
    How many people struggle to make it through college, come out with a mountain of debt and still not have viable career path? The athletes are being given an opportunity that most of the student body would trade for in an instant. I understand that college sports is a job, but the student-athletes are way ahead of their student-only counterparts. If you think the universities should have to pay for the insurance policy, I’m fine with that but not much else. The benefits the student-athletes get are potentially worth hundreds of thousands of dollars. Please, quit saying that they get nothing. It’s just not true.

    • Wah Wah
      4:50 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

      The education many of these kids get is laughable.

      You throw a poorly prepared, wholly undereducated 17 or 18 year old into an institution of higher learning and expect him to actually learn something.

      The NCAA needs to take a look at catering an education to the needs of these athletes. The “education” that many, excepting the actual scholars, is a joke.

  3. Luether
    9:44 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    Your wordy diatribe makes full ride scholarship college athletes out to be victims – similar to what greedy Democrats do to nearly every constituency in return for votes. Nothing could be farther from the truth…

    • Texas Cat
      10:08 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

      Not everything is about politics. JMs piece did not make athletes out to be victims. He’s expounding on a hot topic of this bowl season. One many of us find intriguing and not easily answered given the financial stakes.

    • keiths
      10:08 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

      Your reply was just silly, and made no sense

    • Wah Wah
      4:47 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

      1. They are victims of sorts. The Universities are STEALING their ability to contract and associate. These are basic human rights.

      2. I didn’t get the whole political thing. This is more a cultural/economic issue.

  4. KYcats11
    9:50 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    Heck no, you should not get paid, it’s a luxury having access to the facilities, free travel around the southeast in our case, and free college education. You play the game because you love it. And if you don’t feel safe playing it, then dont play it. But, you still have the opportunity to make money, and not have any debt like most of us do from college, because of your free education.

    • Wah Wah
      4:45 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

      Sounds a whole lot like Socialism to me.

  5. kyrupp8
    9:55 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    Did the Russians hack KRS and open the comment sections on your posts? Those bastards!

  6. Texas Cat
    10:12 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    Players should get a stipend at a minimum. An escrow account with a portion of gear sold with their names or numbers should also be established. Given the sums made by the programs and coaches, along with the short shelf life of their careers, this would be a small price by the universities and corrupt NCAA.

    • Angelo
      10:56 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

      college football players get totally screwed. IMHO. but they don’t see it that way. the Universities should give them insurance policies.

    • Texas Cat
      11:31 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

      I agree

  7. UKfanman01
    11:02 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    This is my feeling on whether or not they should play. At the end of the day they, for now, are college athletes who get free tuition, paid for by others, and are catered to at every turn. They’re treated like royalty, if you’re a top name, and have tons of press coverage to boost their careers by being exposed to pro teams. It is not their option, but their duty, to play in a bowl game. It should be a requirement no matter the position they play. I’m tired of seeing these pre-Madonna players act like bad @$$e $ their entire collegiate career, talk tons of trash, and then puss out like a punk before major games. If it weren’t for the colleges picking them up they couldn’t become pro players. If you get hurt c’est la vie homie. You’d have gotten hurt in the pros. Cull the hurd and save a pro team wasted money

    • UK Big Board Update
      11:15 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

      Pre-Madonna? LOL

      About 5000 players are going to play in bowl games, and everyone’s bitching about two who don’t, because they want make sure their futures are set up, rather than entertaining some redneck drinking beer on a couch. Some of you are ridiculous.

    11:16 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

    Did you really type pre- Madonna and hurd?
    This isn’t a grammar police reply, just an inquiry. If you are being ironic,; super.
    If not,- dear sweet Jesus.
    +1 for correct usage of “c’est la vie.”

    If the school can make millions selling John Wall’s jersey, some of that money, as mentioned above should be put in escrow for the athlete ‘s future- perhaps some cash could be put towards an insurance policy.
    If a coach can leave a team prior to a bowl game in order to improve his financial position, why should a player be given less latitude?

    • CATandMONKEY
      11:21 pm January 1, 2017 Permalink

      I fully accept culpability for hitting the incorrect reply button…intended for 7.

    • Wah Wah
      4:42 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

      I thought he just liked Madonna.

  9. Wah Wah
    4:33 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

    I would not risk playing in a meaningless bowl game. It’s wretched that schools put these kids futures on the line for profit and then columnists whine about it and the downfall of civilization.

    I think they should be compensated and allowed to make outside contracts (endorsements and such). Universities are akin to robber barons when it comes to these kids and their personal property (use of likeness, endorsements, etc).

    The system as it stands now is criminal.

    If they want it to be all about the alma mater, they should take the money out of it. Have a semi-pro prep league (they already have one) for those who are likely to head to the NBA. The scholar athletes can be second tier talent and undeveloped talent. A guy like Jorts could get a scholarship to college and develop over four years. Guys like Monk, Davis and MKG could go to the prep league.

    Bottom line, these guys should be able to gain compensation rather than the schools syphoning it all off.

    That Cal, K, Meyer and Saban make millions while the kids who sweat and bleed get absolutely zero is criminal, criminal, criminal.

  10. Wah Wah
    4:44 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

    I just realized that I went all basketball in my post. lol

    But the sentiment is the same.

  11. Tater Soup
    6:31 am January 2, 2017 Permalink


  12. FCFS82
    9:59 am January 2, 2017 Permalink

    If we’re to pay the players then they should serve out the entire contract. Dock them less pay if they want to sit out the bowl game – likely because you’re also not practicing the entire month while you await said bowl game.

    Academics. Fans do NOT care about graduating players. The day a coach can walk up to a podium and save his job because he’s gone 6-6 in two straight years but he’s graduated 95% of his players – that is the day this will even be a discussion worth mentioning.

    I really think the best way is to have the pro leagues abolish their “one year wait” (basketball) for players. If players are good enough then they should go straight in. I also think however, a player should be able to test the NBA/NFL drafts as many times as they like. The whole process should provide for the most information to be gathered by those making that decision. I really disliked the times when it was a 1 or 2 week window to decide all this.