Exploiting U.: The Issue of Paying College Players Grows Along With Coaches' Rising Salaries

College football is a multibillion-dollar enterprise that subsists on nearly free labor. Is it time for a change?

The afternoon is warm but not uncomfortably so by the standards of August, especially if you stand up against the western fence of Haslam Field, in the limited shade of the wall designed to shield University of Tennessee football players from the inquisitive eyes of passing students. Still, it is in the mid-80s, and probably feels even hotter to the young men out on the cropped grass of the practice ground, in their helmets and pads and spandex. It is 4 p.m., and while many of their classmates are either drifting through a late afternoon lecture or starting to think about their plans for the evening, the 2010 Volunteers are drilling hard.

Quarterbacks Matt Simms and Tyler Bray, in green jerseys that signal they are not to be hit, are taking snaps and throwing screen passes. On the far sideline, orange-clad linemen are launching themselves again and again against padded blocking dummies on metal poles. The steady, repeated clatter of their collisions has the rhythm of a passing train. At the sound of a horn, the dozens of players on the field jog down to one end and quickly form neat lines for a series of near-military exercises: sprints, high kicks, soldier steps, lunges. Then come the push-ups, counted out in unison—"1 (uh) 2 (uh) 3 (uh) 4"—while a member of the coaching staff barks, "DOWN-up-DOWN-up," followed by sit-ups, "UP-down-UP-down."

While the teenagers and early-20somethings in uniform huff and puff, a man in a Panama hat, sunglasses, Bermuda shorts, and a white T-shirt strolls through the lines, pausing now and then to watch one player or another. He is 42 years old, and if he's sweating (which he doesn't appear to be, from a middle distance), it's not from any physical exertion. He is Derek Dooley, the head football coach of the University of Tennessee. And something besides attire and perspiration separates him from the 113 young men on his roster this year. Unlike them, he is getting paid—$1.8 million a year, to be exact.

It is true that a majority of those players have scholarships that pay their tuition and room and board. The Athletic Department reimburses the university $15,494 for each in-state player and $30,832 for out-of-state athletes. But there's a big difference between a scholarship and money in the bank. If a player leaves the University of Tennessee without graduating, which just under half of them do, he also leaves with nothing to show for his time on the field.

In contrast, when Dooley and his family moved to town last winter, they bought a house and nearly 13 acres of land in West Knoxville for $2.24 million. And Dooley's only the second-highest-paid person in the UT Athletic Department. Bruce Pearl, the men's basketball coach, is making $2.3 million a year under his current contract. On the women's side, Pat Summitt's contract will pay her about $1.75 million this year (which could go up over $2 million with a national championship).

The university itself also profits from the programs, something the Athletic Department brags about. With an operating budget this year of $100.85 million, it says it is "one of only a handful of departments in the country that receives no funds from state subsidies or taxes." Revenues from football and basketball support the rest of UT's sports programs (except for $1 million from student fees to support women's athletics), and the department pays money directly into general university coffers—a total of $6.26 million in cash last year.

More broadly, UT sports are good for the local economy, at least according to reports the university likes to trumpet. According to UT's Center for Business and Economic Research, the various athletic programs are worth about $120 million a year in jobs, sales, and taxes to the Knoxville area.

In other words, everybody makes money off UT football except for the guys who actually play it.

This is, of course, the way it has always been in the odd institution of American collegiate athletics. Even as coaches' salaries and TV broadcast contracts have scaled ever more gilded heights, the decades-old question of whether to pay the athletes themselves has shown little sign of movement. The National Collegiate Athletic Association remains wedded to a 19th-century notion of "amateurism" that even the Olympics has essentially abandoned. But if that ideal ever made sense as a way to shield scholastic sports from the crudities of capitalism, it is hard to defend with a straight face in an era of millionaire coaches and Tostitos Fiesta Bowls. College football and basketball are now multibillion-dollar enterprises with all the trappings of their professional counterparts except for one key difference: The labor is almost free.

As the NCAA itself says on its website, in a section devoted to "Commercialism" (emphasis added): "Some fans believe institutional relationships with corporate entities somehow tarnish the amateur status of those who play the games. However, the NCAA maintains that ‘amateur' describes intercollegiate athletics participants, not the enterprise."

For the NCAA and its defenders, the system as it exists raises two basic questions: Is this morally justifiable? And, maybe of more actual concern to college officials, is it legally defensible?

"The NCAA is as immoral an organization as exists today, at its core," says David Moon.

Moon is a big man, which is part of why he was recruited as an offensive tackle at UT in the early 1980s. Even seated at a small conference-room table, when he feels strongly about something, he seems ready to grab it and throw it down hard on the turf. And he feels strongly about the inequities of college football.

"Division I football players are taken advantage of," he says. "By the time they realize they're getting screwed, they're juniors or seniors." And by then, he says, they have little will to fight: "When you have a 60-hour-a-week job, plus school, you don't have a lot of energy to go and fight the NCAA with unlimited pockets."

Moon is now president of Moon Capital Management in downtown Knoxville, and a business columnist for the News Sentinel. He brings a keen awareness of marketplace mechanics to his charges against the NCAA. He notes, for example, that the CEO of Eastman Chemical last year made a salary equal to about .03 percent of the company's revenues. Dooley's $1.8 million, on the other hand, represents between 2 and 3 percent of the total earnings of the football program. "The reason they can do that," Moon says, "is that they don't have to pay the employees of the football program"—that is, the players.

Frank Deford, the veteran Sports Illustrated writer and sports commentator for National Public Radio, has been crusading for years for better treatment of big-sport college athletes. In an NPR piece last month, he argued that elite college players should at least be able to sign with agents to help prepare them for a potential pro career. But in a phone interview, he takes a broader line of attack.

"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," Deford says. "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."

Moon and Deford outline a damning indictment of the current system. In brief:

—It has a monopoly. If you're an aspiring football player, you pretty much have to play NCAA ball. There is no real non-collegiate route to a pro football career. "The only argument that's ever made is, ‘Well, these boys are getting scholarships,'" Deford says. "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.'"

—It is exploitative, inducing eager, sometimes poorly educated high-school students (or, since they're often underage, their legal guardians) to sign draconian contracts that limit their rights to benefit from their own talents. "We take a bunch of black kids from the inner city and have their mothers or grandmothers sign a contract, and we make them indentured servants," says Moon. "That's what they are. And we do it to white kids, too, to a bunch of rednecks from Alabama." (Moon himself grew up in small-town Alabama.)

Consider the way athletic scholarships are structured: The university is committed to only one year at a time. An athlete who enters as a freshman has no guarantee that he will have a scholarship as a sophomore, junior, or senior. At the same time, if he wants to change schools at any point, he has to sit out a year. That happened this year to running back Bryce Brown, who decided he wanted to leave UT after the coach who recruited him, Lane Kiffin, walked out on his own contract. Brown transferred to Kansas State, where his brother Arthur is enrolled. So a talented 19-year-old with professional aspirations will miss one full year of time to develop and show off his abilities. Imagine if similar rules applied to students pursuing other careers. What if a biology major who wanted to transfer to, say, the University of Virginia wasn't allowed to take any science classes there for a year? (On top of that restriction, Dooley—already hampered by the loss of other Kiffin recruits—refused to release Brown from his scholarship, which means Brown will have to pay his own way at Kansas State for a year.)

—It is hypocritical. Players are forbidden to in any way leverage their positions for personal gain—not only can they not do endorsements or accept appearance fees, they are not permitted to receive so much as a holiday card from athletic boosters. Meanwhile, the university uses their likenesses all over the place. For example, Moon hands over a flyer for the Dish satellite network advertising its selection of UT sports. It says, "Every TD in HD." The dominant image is of 2009 Vols quarterback Jonathan Crompton hoisting a pass into the air. Crompton is now a member of the San Diego Chargers, and anyone who wanted to use a picture of him in a Chargers uniform to sell satellite subscriptions would have to pay him. But UT can keep using photos from his college career for as long as it wants, free of charge.

—It is punishing. The physical toll of athletics, and football in particular, is still not fully understood or acknowledged. In a game that prizes hard heads and bruising hits, the National Football League has only reluctantly begun to address the long-term danger of concussions. A poster mandated in NFL locker rooms just this summer warns, "Concussions and conditions resulting from repeated brain injury can change your life and your family's life forever." But long before that issue came to the fore, the legacies of knee, back, shoulder, and neck injuries were well known. To commit years of your life to playing football at the high-school and college levels, even for players who don't go on to the NFL, is in many cases to commit to a lifetime of pain that might not appear for years or decades after the fact.

"When a kid gets out of UT, or he's getting ready to leave school," Moon says, "one of the things that they do is they make you sign a form that says, ‘These are the injuries I have, and I have no other injuries.' They make them sign off on their bodies."

Moon, who was at UT from 1981-84, saw many of his former teammates last month at the funeral for Harry Galbreath, the former Volunteer and Green Bay Packers lineman. "It was like a bunch of old ladies," Moon says of the reunion. "You know what we talked about? What kind of anti-inflammatories we take."

Moon is careful to say that he got a lot out of his Vol experience. "I met my wife here," he says of Knoxville. "I stayed here, I built a business here. But the bigger things I got were intangible things. I learned things from John Majors, Phillip Fulmer, and David Cutcliffe that I never learned from anyone else." He is in some ways a poster child for the benefits of the student-athlete model.

But he also knows how often that model fails. "We bring a lot of kids here who are not capable of taking advantage of those opportunities," he says. According to the most recent NCAA calculations of what it calls "graduation success rate"—which covered athletes who enrolled from 1998-2001—the UT football team graduated 54 percent of its players. The men's basketball team reported just 38 percent. (Both teams should probably pay attention to what Pat Summitt's doing. She posted a perfect 100 percent graduation rate.)

So what could change, and how?

Deford and Moon both point to the courts as the most likely avenue for reform. The NCAA has faced lawsuits in the past from players or former players challenging one or another of its practices. It agreed to pay $10 million to settle a federal antitrust case in 2008 that arose from former players seeking more reimbursement for educational expenses. The settlement helped stop the case from turning into a class-action suit, something Moon says the NCAA dreads. He fantasizes about a suit built on the multiple surgeries and physical therapies former athletes tend to endure. "I would love to see a lawyer attack the NCAA on a workers' comp claim," he says.

That hasn't happened, but there is a class-action suit currently in federal court in California that Deford thinks might be a crack in the wall. Former UCLA basketball star Ed O'Bannon and a group of other former players are demanding that the NCAA reimburse players for the use of their images and likenesses. If you think about how many highlight clips of historic games are used in broadcast promotional spots during bowl season or the March basketball tournament, for example, it could add up to a lot of people being compensated.

"That's just gonna crack things wide open," Deford predicts. If it is successful, it would establish the principle that college players are not forever the legal property of the NCAA. (The NCAA is vigorously contesting the suit, needless to say.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. Justice Department has recently shown some interest in the question of why scholarships are guaranteed for only one year at a time. The NCAA reported earlier this year that the department contacted the organization and asked to speak to some member colleges about their scholarship practices. The Justice Department has not commented on the scope of its inquiry.

Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who has written extensively about college and professional sports, agrees that lawsuits could change the landscape. He says most of the cases to date have settled too quickly to make a structural difference. But he notes that big-game-hunting attorney David Boies has signed onto the O'Bannon suit, along with other legal heavyweights. "They appear to be completely committed to it," Zimbalist says. "And I think it's a very strong issue."

Zimbalist is skeptical that anything will produce an actual system of salaried college players. Among other things, he says, it might not even be in most players' best interest. The starting squads at major schools might be worth a lot in an open marketplace, but second- and third-string players in less successful programs could wind up worth less than the dollar value of their scholarships.

But Deford says that even if that's true, it would be at least a more honest and fair system than the one that exists.

"Everybody always says, ‘Well, how will it work?,'" he says. "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, and it should be corrected."