Mandel: Does pay-for-play make you uncomfortable because it’s wrong or because it’s different?

It’s confusing right now to be a college sports fan. It’s like someone flipped a switch one day and all of a sudden everything that was wrong is now right. Players who were not allowed to transfer to certain schools can now leave to play at another school at any time. Boosters who would get in trouble for buying a rookie a burger can now buy a five-star junior for $8 million.

And now an agent can publicly demand a better NIL offer for his Miami basketball player client – ​​guard Isaiah Wong – or that player will reach the gate. Remember the days when athletes couldn’t even have an agent, let alone allow them to set up a maintenance contract?

The entire college sports establishment is freaking out, fans on the wrong side of recruiting/transfer decisions are furious, and I’ve noticed a recurring sentiment expressed towards me and my colleagues in particular: LOOK WHAT YOU’VE DONE.

But we haven’t reached that Wild West inflection point because of sportswriter tweets. We’re here because everyone — from a liberal federal judge in Oakland, Calif., to a conservative Supreme Court justice, to Republican and Democratic congressmen and red and blue state legislatures — all took a closer look at traditional NCAA amateurism. model and said: You can’t do this anymore.

Do you coaches/ADs/fans think boosters paying athletes are unethical? We believe that athletes deprived of their market value are illegal. Are you so focused on preserving “fairness” in your sport? Our only concern is what is right for the athletes.

The NCAA finds itself in this predicament because it has spent decades confusing the two things, pleading with anyone who would listen that it is somehow in the best interests of both schools. and athletes that athletes don’t make money. All those important people outside of college athletics called BS

So here we are. And now that we’re here, it’s worth asking the question: Does this whole NIL/pay-for-play thing make us feel bad because it’s actually immoral and wrong? Or because we’ve spent our whole lives listening to NCAA guys tell us it was wrong?

This is a question I have struggled with a lot lately.

Even before I spent more than two decades covering college sports, I always found it wrong and disgusting that a school could sell an athlete’s jersey without the athlete receiving a penny for it. That athletes are allowed to take advantage of their NIL in some way has always seemed self-evident.

But like many, I also for a time supported the contradictory idea that college athletes making money in professional sports would be a step too far. I remember how audacious that $180,000 figure in the Cam Newton scandal of 2010 seemed at the time. I remember how vulgar the Nevin Shapiro Miami scandal seemed a year later, with the yachts, cars and wads of cash he handed out to players.

These now seem a million years ago.

My feelings began to change when I covered the 2014 Ed O’Bannon-NCAA lawsuit. NIL compensation should be illegal or that the NCAA’s position that the preservation of amateurism was essential to the survival of college sports. I walked away from it after watching the plaintiffs’ economists and other witnesses use facts and logic to explain why the NCAA violated antitrust law, while the NCAA’s witnesses mostly invoked nostalgia and scare tactics to defend his defence.

Watching the judge admitted non-sports fan Claudia Wilken’s skeptical facial expressions and unintentionally humorous questions throughout served as a wake-up call that… oh, there’s no defense for this model.

Even after accepting this, however, I would be lying by saying that I was comfortable with the idea of ​​NIL infiltrating recruiting. It’s one thing for an athlete to get paid to support a business on social media. No harm there. It’s quite another to use NIL as a front to buy football and basketball rookies directly.

I’m still not entirely comfortable with it, but I can’t say with a straight face that it’s “wrong” either. Not in the same sport where a coach like Michigan State’s Mel Tucker can get a $95 million contract on the mere possibility that he can jump somewhere else, or Brian Kelly can leave for LSU before the end of his season. because he doesn’t get what he wants at Notre Dame.

They are the beneficiaries of a free market in which multiple schools bid for the same talent. How do we justify allowing this to coaches but not to athletes?

When you think about it this way, all of a sudden all of these seemingly salacious NIL developments become harder to condemn.

In the case of Wong’s agent, he’s using the publicity around booster John Ruiz’s $800,000 NIL deal to land a coveted transfer from Kansas State as leverage to get a better deal for one. of its current players. It’s the exact same thing Jimmy Sexton does all the time for his coaching clients, just not as overtly.

Meanwhile, you might think it’s ridiculous for a school collective to promise an unproven high school player $8 million, and you might just be right. They will surely regret committing so much to a player if he turns out to be a bust.

But is that any more ridiculous than when South Carolina gave Will Muschamp a contract extension that included a $15 million buyout after a 4-8 season that took his record at the time to 26-25? (The school ended up firing him seven games next season.) We’ve long normalized money-burning boosters when it comes to hiring and firing coaches, but we’re horrified that now do the same with players. .

Love it or hate it, one thing we can surely agree on is that while payment for play is unavoidable, schools inadvertently outsourcing it to third-party collectives is a dysfunctional exercise in governance. The NCAA’s utter failure to develop a working NIL policy in the seven years between the O’Bannon decision and the Supreme Court’s Alston decision has left a gigantic loophole that boosters are happily exploiting. As such, you hear a lot about the word “unsustainable” when it comes to the current state of affairs.

But the NCAA has managed to maintain its old model for over a century despite all sorts of controversies and crises along the way. So I wouldn’t assume the genie will be put back in the bottle in a rush.

Instead, I’d accept that payment for the game will probably be there for the foreseeable future, and then ask yourself the same question I’ve been asking myself: does it make me uncomfortable because it’s wrong, or simply because it’s different?

(Photo by Isaiah Wong: Isaiah Vazquez/NCAA Photos via Getty Images)

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