Jay Bilas keeps hitting paydirt on Maggie’s Farm and giving the NCAA a tougher row to hoe.
Whether he’s showing his nearly 600,000 Twitter followers how searches for Johnny Manziel and Jadeveon Clowney link you to their jerseys for purchase at the NCAA’s online shop or citing examples evident of how big-time college athletics is, first and foremost, big business, Bilas seems destined to help steer revolution.
The 49-year-old Bilas, an eloquent ESPN college basketball analyst that will emcee East Tennessee State basketball’s “Holding Court” at the Carnegie Hotel on Tuesday, makes good money thanks, in part, to college basketball.
However, the former Duke player, who is also an attorney, is compelled to rock the boat that’s become a cruise ship for a few and a canoe for the crew.
It’s as if Jerry Maguire and Al McGuire have been crossed with Norma Rae and Woody Guthrie.
“I’ve always felt that the (compensation) restriction was unfair, and I think people who like to couch it by saying that athletes should be paid — I’m not suggesting that,” Bilas said. “I’m suggesting that they shouldn’t be restricted from being compensated beyond a scholarship. You know, I think any thinking person looks at this system and realizes that this is professional sports. When you pay these ticket prices and see the television contracts and what coaches are paid now, it’s pro sports.
“Now, does that mean that East Tennessee State has to participate in that? No. But it should be allowed to if it wants to. And so should Duke and North Carolina and UCLA.”
There are plenty of cons and pros in the NCAA’s so-called “amateurism,” and the pros aren’t the ones getting compensated fairly. Well, some get paid, but in a black-market system that makes hypocrites out of everyone and ultimately makes the athlete appear to be the villain.
Remember former Clemson defensive coordinator Vic Koenning’s “joke” about Alabama recruit Julio Jones’ Escalade? Steve Spurrier wasn’t joking when he sent then-Alabama coach Mike DuBose a letter in February of 2000 concerning Crimson Tide recruits and cars.
Bilas played basketball at Duke when Spurrier coached there, and he appreciates the fact that Spurrier has been outspoken about better compensating college players.
“We’re good friends,” Bilas said. “I love Steve. … We’ve talked about a lot of things. Absolutely, we’ve talked about this.”
Big-time college football and basketball players are milked for billions of dollars annually, and the cash cows graze on chump change. Better yet, much of the money allegedly spent by schools is as much of a credit as it as a debit.
“Everybody else benefits at market rates,” Bilas said. “Every other student can go to school and make money and pursue whatever they want. The only one that can’t is the athlete. The coaches get paid market rate. The administrators get paid market rate. Everybody gets paid market rate. And the athlete is limited to their expenses only.
“And a scholarship is very nice. I had one. It’s very, very nice. But it’s an expense that the school pays to itself. So the idea that the school is out that scholarship money is a lie. It’s not. It’s paid from the athletic department to the school. The school is not out a nickel. … It’s a nice benefit for the athlete, but it is not all the athlete is worth.”
ETSU basketball coach Murry Bartow is far from certain what the answer is, assuming there is a better option, but suggests lifting restrictions on athletes’ income could be daunting.
“I’m not saying it’s not doable,” Bartow said, “but it would certainly be a complicated process.”
Many wonder, as Bartow mentioned, about the potential inequity among athletes. Do you pay the golfers? How do you fund non-revenue sports?
“Everything,” Bilas said, “is laid on the athlete: ‘You don’t like it, leave,’ and ‘How are we gonna pay for all these other sports?’ Okay, so you’re saying that the only thing that stands in the way of paying for all these other sports is the athlete. I mean, it’s laughably absurd. …
“They’re not saying why this (current system) is the right thing. All they’re doing is saying, ‘Well, we can’t do it’ or ‘Title IX won’t allow it,” which is a lie, or ‘If we did that, then we’d have to cut other sports and we’d have chaos and we’d have Pandora’s box and we’d have a slippery slope.’ …
“There is no answer that’s palatable, because all they’re doing is just keeping all the money. And that’s fine. They’ve gotten away with it for a long time. But a lot of people think it’s wrong, and I’m one of them.”
Scrapping the existing system doesn’t necessarily mean schools would have to add the slot receiver or the point guard to the payroll.
“There’s a lot of room between a scholarship only and being paid as an employee,” Bilas said. “There’s the Olympic model. The athletes could be allowed to do endorsements to accept compensation outside the university. It wouldn’t cost the schools anything. There are all kinds of ways that the restrictions could be eased and things could be made fair for the athletes.
“It could be regulated reasonably, because right now we’re regulating — heck, we regulate everything they do. We regulate what they eat. … We regulate phone calls. We regulate everything. The idea that we couldn’t regulate this is absurd. The NCAA just doesn’t want to.”
Many sports fans prefer the business of sports be done quietly, and Bilas understands why. But silence has helped produce the shadowy system in place.
“Fans don’t care about whether athletes get paid,” Bilas said. “They don’t care about any of that stuff until it happens to their athlete. You know, Georgia fans only cared when A.J. Green got suspended. And the same thing at any other school.
“They want their games, and I’m the same way. But I’ve been involved in this so many years, and I work in it and I see it every day. I think this policy behind it is important. When the games are on I don’t think about this stuff, I just watch the games. But when the NCAA is out there passing all these rules and, in my judgment, exploiting players, I say what I think. And I encourage others to say what they think, whether they agree with me or not.”
The NCAA system’s days do appear to be numbered. When EA Sports settles with athletes for using their likenesses in video games that have generated billions of dollars and players such as former Tennessee Volunteers running back Arian Foster publicly scoff at the lack of proportionality within the prosperity and the NCAA shop tweaks its search engines after Bilas pushes its buttons — well, the Gravy Train seems certain to be hauling many more boxcars before long.
“I think it is a contradiction for everyone to make all this money and then limit the players like this,” Bilas said. “I think fair-minded people think that’s wrong, and I’m one of those that think that’s wrong. And if some schools don’t want to participate in that and they would rather do it like the Ivy League does it, I respect that decision. But that’s a decision that should be made institution by institution, not where everyone restricts their athletes across the board. There’s no other business that does that.
“And this is not high school, where they’re charging five bucks so they can keep the lights on. This is a multi-billion dollar business and the athletes are the only ones that are cut out of it.”
Trey Williams (@TreyJCPress) is a sports writer for the Johnson City Press. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.