Johnny Football’s Payday
By JOE NOCERA, Published: September 6, 2013. Welcome aboard, Time magazine. So glad you decided to join our little bandwagon!
I’m referring, as you may already know, to the cover story in the current issue. “It’s Time to Pay College Athletes,” reads the headline, accompanied by the current poster boy for the issue, Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel. Indeed it is.
Now that I think about it, the bandwagon isn’t so little anymore. Over the last year or so, more and more voices have joined the chorus calling for more equitable treatment of college football and men’s basketball players — athletes who essentially hold down full-time jobs, and are expected to be big revenue producers for their schools, but whose sole compensation is a scholarship, often renewable at the whim of the coach, that may or may not lead to an education and that usually doesn’t even cover the full cost of college.
What has been especially striking to me in recent weeks is the way the Manziel case has become a tipping point. Last season, as a freshman, Manziel — whose nickname is Johnny Football — won the coveted Heisman Trophy after leading the Aggies to an 11-2 record, which included an exciting victory over Alabama, the eventual national champion.
In early August, ESPN reported that Manziel had signed his name on some sports memorabilia in return “for a five-figure flat fee” from an autograph broker. After much Sturm und Drang, not to mention an N.C.A.A. investigation, Manziel was handed a silly punishment: a half-game suspension, which he served last Saturday, when the Aggies played their opening game of the season against the Owls of Rice University. The N.C.A.A. said that it found no evidence that he had taken any money, but it imposed the penalty because one of its rules states that players can’t sign autographs for people who are going to try to make money from their signature, even if they reap no reward themselves.
It is worth noting that as college athletes go, Manziel is not the most sympathetic of characters. Unlike many college athletes, he doesn’t need money; his father inherited an oil fortune. Last spring, he didn’t go to class on the A&M campus but instead took all online courses. He can come across in profiles as surly, entitled and aggrieved. And his drinking is such that his coach, Kevin Sumlin, and his parents had him see an alcohol counselor, according to ESPN The Magazine.
But none of that has seemed to matter. Instead of viewing this as a case of a pampered player breaking the rules, many people saw it instead as example of how ridiculous the rules are. As Time magazine put it, “The real question is, ‘What’s wrong with that?’ ” referring to a college athlete’s getting paid for his autograph.
“The case just seems so egregious,” said Warren Zola, an assistant dean at Boston College’s Carroll School of Management who advises athletes preparing to turn pro. “Punished for signing your own name?”
Critics of the current system, like me, often complain that everyone in the business of college sports gets rich except the players. In the case of Manziel, you can see that clearly. After Manziel’s great season, his coach, Sumlin, got a $1.1 million raise; his salary, according to Time, now tops $3 million. The magazine came up with estimates showing that A&M’s media exposure, thanks in part to Manziel’s Heisman Trophy, is worth $37 million, and that the retail value of A&M merchandise is $72 million — a 20 percent jump from the previous year. “The general public now recognizes the fact that the money is preposterous,” Zola told me. It is this influx of money, much of it generated by television contracts, that makes the continued “amateur” status of the players so untenable.
There are, of course, voices missing from the new chorus: those of the college sports insiders, who cling to the status quo. And why wouldn’t they? But theirs is not necessarily the last word. In Congress, a bill was recently introduced that would give players more rights, a sure sign that the issue is catching on. In the courts, lawsuits aimed at making it possible for players to earn some money from their likenesses continue to move forward. If a large enough segment of the public comes to see that, however much they love football or men’s basketball, the current state of affairs is inherently unfair, public outcry may force the necessary change.
Time’s cover suggests we may be getting to that point.
A version of this op-ed appears in print on September 7, 2013, on page A23 of the New York edition with the headline: Johnny Football’s Payday.