College sports has issues, but politicians are looking at wrong ones – USA TODAY

There have been so many college sports bills proposed by members of Congress lately, you’d think reforming the NCAA was a top priority of the U.S. government (it isn’t) and that these lawmakers have an understanding of the problems that plague the enterprise (they absolutely do not).
Out of the many bad ideas offered up by our elected officials in their mystifying desire to suck up to college coaches and administrators, one stands out as the most galling of all: In a bill that is ostensibly written to regulate and standardize laws around name, image and likeness, Senators Joe Manchin (D-W. Va) and Tommy Tuberville (R-Ala.) shoehorned in a provision that would, with a few exceptions, make athletes ineligible to transfer freely in their first three years of college.
This proposal looks suspiciously like a favor to Tuberville’s old coaching buddies who are unhappy that the loosening of transfer rules has made their jobs more difficult. It is also an issue the NCAA could enforce within its own rulebook, if it was so inclined, without Congressional intervention. 
In the real world, though, unilaterally rolling back transfer rights that were granted to athletes just a couple of years ago isn’t going to fly in the current environment. Administrators and coaches may wish they could go back to the old days where players had to sit out of competition for a year after transferring, but rolling back rights for athletes is a massive loser of an idea for the NCAA at this point.
We can debate the merits of the current policy, but athletes have always had one free transfer pass in the sports that didn’t make money. It was only football, men’s and women’s basketball, baseball and men’s hockey that operated under different rules until 2021. The change may be inconvenient for coaches, but there’s no evidence that it’s hurting the product. If anything, the transfer portal has given fans more to talk about during the offseason and allowed downtrodden programs to improve quickly. 
But the Manchin/Tuberville proposal exemplifies the current state of college sports: Constantly chasing solutions in search of problems that don’t really exist. Even just in the last few weeks, we’ve heard a parade of conference commissioners and coaches push a sky-is-falling narrative, urging Congressional action while the reality is they’re all getting paid more than ever and their product is as popular as ever.
College sports officials have been running this same scam for years to slow or prevent changes to the so-called “amateur model.”
They said schools would go broke if college athletes got a couple thousand bucks a semester in Cost of Attendance stipends. The Big Ten said it would drop to Div. 3 if it had to pay college athletes. A parade of administrators have testified on the witness stand that college sports would lose popularity if players made money. 
None of those things were true. These people have no credibility anymore.
It’s not that college sports is free of problems — just the opposite — but the folks in charge are increasingly focused on the wrong ones. So in the spirit of trying to help our U.S. Representatives and Senators who seem so eager to get involved in college sports, let’s instead focus on five ideas that would actually improve the so-called “student-athlete experience,” positively impact fans and ensure a smoother future for aimless athletic departments.
The largesse of college football and its impact on everything from Title IX to realignment has completely outgrown its current predicament. Whenever you hear an administrator saying things like, “We can’t pay college athletes because we’d have to eliminate other sports” or “This is an educational enterprise and athletes cannot be employees,” what they are essentially saying is that if you pay a college football player, then you’d have to pay an athlete in a sport that doesn’t make money. 
But rather than looking for reasons why it wouldn’t work (and losing lawsuits as a result), a more clever and forward-thinking college sports establishment than the one we have now would be looking for solutions.
Yes, equal opportunity is crucial, and federal standards like Title IX are a key part of that. So how do you keep those standards in place while also recognizing that football is a completely different animal? 
One place to start might be to pull football not just out of NCAA governance but essentially out of the university system altogether. Form a separate company to house the top-level college football league, give up non-profit status and have teams that are affiliated with colleges almost as a marketing deal.
From there, it’s a much shorter leap to unionization, collective bargaining and revenue sharing — something that will happen eventually either by choice or by force. If universities are looking to Congress for antitrust protection, this kind of setup is far more realistic than the blank check they’re asking for.
We are past the point of no return in having conferences that make sense numerically and geographically, but it has all been driven by a desire to concentrate the most valuable football television properties. As a result, we are increasingly subjected to homogenized conferences that span thousands of miles rather than the original configurations of like-minded schools in a similar geographic area of the country that each had their own unique flavor and character. 
It’s generally tolerable in football, but there’s no reason for UCLA’s volleyball team to be playing mid-week games in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, or for UCF to be sending its softball team to BYU.
Even in basketball, a sport whose mainstream appeal is almost exclusively focused on the NCAA tournament, the regular season should be about big brands playing each other whenever possible and regional rivalries, rather than having teams fly all over the country while missing days and days of class during the regular season. With more than 350 Div. 1 teams, there is no reason to have a basketball conference where schools are more than a few hours away from each other by bus. 
Every now and then, a great story arises from an FCS team that can knock off a vulnerable opponent from one of the bigger schools. But for the most part, these matchups are complete duds and of no interest to ticket buyers or television viewers. 
The primary role they play in the college sports ecosystem (aside from the easy win most FBS schools can pencil onto their schedule) is to help subsidize smaller schools with what amount to appearance fees. That’s not a bad thing, because they provide incredible educational opportunities by having football programs. 
But it would be a win-win for the sport if those games essentially replaced what are now the boring, gimmicky scrimmages at the end of spring practice. As schools look for new revenue streams, this is an easy one: You have a real game played at a time of year where fans are starved for football — while taking a bad game off the regular fall schedule and preserving the system that helps FCS schools pay the bills.
Ever since NIL was legalized, schools have twisted themselves in knots worrying about things like tampering or the involvement of collectives or who is getting a recruiting advantage. Sorry to tell you, but once the genie left the bottle on NIL, regulation was hopeless. If you are looking for a system that differentiates so-called “real NIL” from “pay-for-play” or “recruiting inducements,” you’re not going to find it. Plus, the NCAA doesn’t have the capability anyway to meaningfully enforce rules around NIL, and nothing Congress might do is going to change that. So why have any rules at all? 
If this is the system you want, it’s “buyer beware” on all sides right now. Boosters and companies are invariably going to get taken to the cleaners on bad deals for recruits who don’t pan out. Athletes may sign contracts that don’t deliver what they’re promised. But over time, people will get smarter and savvier and the environment should normalize. Still, for all the imperfections, it seems like the two biggest impacts of NIL are athletes making money and the talent spreading out now more than ever. That isn’t a terrible outcome. 
If colleges want to mitigate the impact of NIL on recruiting, they can do it by paying the players — not through legislation.
It is amusing to see administrators run to Congress looking for limits on all kinds of things athletes might engage in while never discussing the elephant in the room: The fact that every single one of them is under the thumb of a coaches agent, often to the tune of millions of dollars per year in unnecessary extensions. 
This happens for several reasons, but two big ones that go hand-in-hand: A small handful of agents and agencies represent the vast majority of head coaches, and schools do not treat their contracts as actual contracts.
In pro sports, a coach’s contract is pretty iron-clad. You can’t just go interview for another job with two years left on your contract so that you can get an extension. In a handful of situations where an NFL or NBA coach has wanted to leave for a competitor, it has actually involved draft compensation going the other way. 
But for a college coach, all it takes to get a raise and a long-term extension is one good season and a savvy agent putting their name in the mix for any other good opening. And administrators have to play along because, as mentioned earlier, the entire coaching marketplace is concentrated in the hands of a few agencies.
There’s a legitimate fear that alienating one of those agencies or demanding enforceable contracts would eliminate huge swaths of head coaching candidates. And because of that reality, schools are on the hook for massive amounts of money in buyouts and extensions for coaches who actually like the jobs they have. Was Kirby Smart really going to leave Georgia if they’d told him last year after his first national title that $7 million a year was enough until his extension was up instead of raising him to $10 million?
Given all the antitrust talk surrounding college sports these days, does it not raise some alarm bells when one agent — in this case, Jimmy Sexton — represents all but a few coaches in the SEC, thus manipulating the entire market to the tune of tens of millions?
Looking into that would be worth Congress’ time to a much greater degree than worrying about the transfer portal. 


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