Frank Deford: ‘It’s Indefensible’

A conversation with the veteran 'Sports Illustrated' writer on why he thinks it's time to pay student athletes

Frank Deford has been writing for Sports Illustrated since 1962, and is a regular commentator for National Public Radio. He is a member of the National Association of Sportscasters and Sportswriters Hall of Fame. For years, he has campaigned for some form of compensation for big-sport college athletes. He talked about it in a phone interview with Jesse Fox Mayshark.

This question of paying college players has been talked about for years. Is it ever going to get anywhere?

I think it will in the courts. There’s already a trial right now, a suit...

The Ed O’Bannon case.

Right. And that’s just gonna crack things wide open. And payment I don’t think will be far beyond. The only argument in favor of maintaining the situation is that it’s always been that way. What existed in the 19th century or the early 20th century is just simply not analogous to today. As long as football coaches were making $40,000 a year and there were no huge television contracts and there were only eight or nine games a year and so forth, you could try to make the argument that it was okay to use these guys as indentured servants. But in the year 2010, when there is no other situation like this anywhere in the world, I think it’s very hard for this great capitalistic democracy to say that football players and basketball players are the only athletes in big-time commercial sports in the world that don’t get paid.

The only argument that’s ever made is, “Well, these boys are getting scholarships.” And my answer to that is, do they want scholarships? They’re forced to take scholarships, it’s a monopoly. Who else wants to have a barter system in the United States? “I’ll barter you a scholarship for your body for a few months.” Nowhere else do people make the argument that, “Well, you know, I’m a lawyer, and I’ll take some pigs if I take your case. Or I’ll take some flowers.” Nowhere else does the barter system apply.

And given the fact that it’s a monopoly, that you have no other choice—at least basketball players can go overseas. Football players can go nowhere else if they want to practice their trade. Why should they be any different? When I was in college, I wrote a play. I had an agent, I got paid for it. What difference does it make whether I’m a writer or a basketball player in college? What’s the justification? To me, it’s just simply a terrible anachronism.

How do you think your average college football fan feels about it?

Oh, they think it’s wonderful. They think it’s just grand that Alabama or Tennessee can get these boys to play for free. That’s terrific! Gee, wouldn’t you love to have somebody come and fix your house for free when your plumbing goes wrong? Or cut your grass for free?

Some fans might even think it’s an honor to be asked to come and play at a school.

Well, if they see it that way, that’s really a stretch. I mean, good lord, “it’s an honor.” I’m sure some of them do see it that way, yes. They’re the same ones who say, “Well, they’re getting a scholarship.” If you break down a scholarship, first of all, scholarships for athletes are like airline seats. If you’ve got a free airline seat, you’ll give it to a guy with points. But if the linebacker didn’t take the scholarship, it’s not gonna go to a valedictorian. These are set aside, they’re not nearly as valuable as people make them out to be. People say, “Well, that’s a $30,000 scholarship!” It’s not gonna save the school $30,000. So that argument doesn’t hold any water either.

And given the amount of time—it was one thing when you played eight games a year, and you came to practice late in August and you were finished at Thanksgiving time, and you had the rest of the year to be a student. Well, these kids don’t have the rest of the year to be a student. They have to lift weights, they have to work constantly. You don’t just show up and go to practice. And as soon as the season’s over, they’re expected to stay in training, they’ve got spring football and on and on. It’s a different situation than it was when it started. Olympic athletes, who didn’t used to be able to get money, they get paid now.

The Olympics thing seems like a major shift, because the whole cult of amateurism has kind of eroded.

Everything’s gone! Everything is gone except this, in revenue sports. Now, as far as some volleyball player, if he wants to come and play, fine. He’s not making any money for anybody. If he wants to do that, that’s great. I don’t think he should get a scholarship, but that’s fine.

And of course those other sports are paid for by the football program.

That’s the argument. And it’s not the football program—it’s the football players and the basketball players. They always like to say the football program supports everything else. Well, it doesn’t. It’s on the back of the players. It’s just incredible. I think in 20 years or 25 years we’ll look back and say, “Isn’t that amazing? They were selling out 100,000-seat stadiums and charging $100 a ticket and the players weren’t making any money? “Daddy, is that the way it was?” “Yes, son, it was.” My god.

So you really think the Ed O’Bannon case is going to change that?

I think that’s the start. That’s the first leaf of autumn.

Why not some kind of class-action suit, or a workers compensation suit?

The trouble with that is, the kids are only in school for a couple of years. Nobody wants to rock the boat. That’s why professional athletes have managed to change all the rules, that’s why track-and-field athletes were all taking money under the table, and it forced the issue. Football players in particular, as we all know, tend to toe the line. Basketball players, your good ones are gone after a year—that’s another fraud, that’s ridiculous. It just isn’t the system that was originally put in effect a century ago. To me, it’s indefensible.

And everybody always says, “Well, how will it work?” That’s not my issue, how it would work. Whether everybody gets the same amount of money, or, to me, you can just throw it open, make it a wide-open market. You want to pay $100,000 to a quarterback, fine. You want to pay $18,000 for a punter, fine. That’s not the issue. The issue is that it’s wrong, it should be corrected.

They figured out ways to jump conferences, and to create extra football games. I think it’s even more now imperative because of all of the studies that have been done on concussions. And now guys are being asked in football to put their bodies on the line for more games, more practices, more everything. If you’ve gotta do that, you oughta be compensated.

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