We’re Talking About Autographs?!

I was watching the Braves Sunday night on ESPN when the breaking news hit that Texas A&M quarterback and Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel was allegedly paid for signing autographs. My initial reaction was muted. “Well, that’s not good,” I thought, before returning to worrying about whether or not the Braves bullpen could hold a lead. After all, college athletes seem to be placed under investigation by the NCAA as often as networks launch new crime procedurals. (He makes a lot of movies.)

Apparently, though, my lack of overwhelming shock and outrage was wrong. WAY wrong. At least in ESPN’s eyes. Every third story on SportsCenter that night was about Manziel. They had full, team coverage of what happened, what this meant for his college season, what this meant for the Aggies, what this meant for his draft status (because signing autographs potentially hurts your throwing arm??), and, at the end, a throwaway, 30-second debate about if it’s fair that college kids can’t make money off their success.

As I was watching, I just kept thinking, we’re talking about autographs? I mean, we’re talking about autographs! We’ve got wall-to-wall coverage of a kid signing his name to a mini-helmet? I didn’t get why it was such a big deal.

Ok, that’s not true. I did. As an “amateur” college athlete, it’s illegal for Manziel to profit from his athletic endeavors, if he did in fact accept money for signing. And if he did, he could possibly be suspended for at least part of the Aggies’ season, which would be huge news. (You gonna suspend him for the Alabama game, NCAA? One of your biggest of the year? Really?)

But, in the grand scheme of things, I don’t get it. He allegedly accepted $7,500 for what? To buy rims for his car? How terribly nefarious. Thank you, NCAA, for saving the great game of college football from such malfeasance.

Don’t get me wrong. I appreciate that the NCAA’s “amateurism” rules are what Manziel agreed to adhere to when he decided to play college athletics, like them or not, so he shouldn’t act like he exists beyond them.

But my knee jerk reaction to this story is to say, “Lay off the kid.” (Which is tough for me to say as a Longhorn.) He makes millions of dollars for his school. He should be allowed to make some for himself, too. After all, Texas A&M reportedly charged boosters tens of thousands just to sit at the same table as Manziel. And Aggie head coach Kevin Sumlin saw his salary double to over $3M after last season’s Johnny Football inspired success. Surely we can let the kid earn some money to perform an Xzibit-less pimping of his ride, questionable spending priorities aside. (Hope you’re saving, too, Mr. Football.)

However, I don’t think the Aggies are to blame. (That’s even harder to say.) Yes, he’s making millions for them, but did you know, based on the latest data, they profit roughly $9M from their entire athletic program, which has a budget close to $90M. In that same story, USA Today reports that only 22 college athletic programs actually made any profit at all. College sports aren’t the cash cow they seem. They make a lot, but they spend a lot, too. Is it reasonable, then, to suggest all college athletic programs should compensate their athletes? (FYI, my alma mater is worth the most! Woohoo! We’re number 1… at something at least….)

I also agree with those that say colleges give a lot to their athletes when they provide them with free education, room, and board. Look at how big a story college loan debt has become. So, in that sense, it’s not like A&M is exploiting Manziel. He and his teammates give to A&M with their revenue and prestige generation, and A&M gives back with an education. (Resist desire to quip how worthless it is….)

No, I point my finger at everyone’s favorite culprit: the NCAA. Which is totally justified! I don’t understand what they have to gain by not allowing athletes to make money off their success? They can’t still be arguing that commercialization ruins sport. If so, than stop signing massive TV contracts, stop selling merchandise, and take the corporate names off the bowl games.

Are they worried the compensation won’t be fair and equitable, with some athletes, sports, and schools benefitting more than others? Or maybe they’re worried increased cash flow will attract unsavory, money-hungry stooges to their hallowed institutions? Or, worst of all, that players will stop playing solely for the “love of the game”?

And which of those above scenarios hasn’t happened already?

Those reasons are why I think college athletes should be able to earn endorsements and rewards like any other athlete. Athletic endorsement deals are typically merit based, earned by those who excel as a result of hard work and perseverance, both traits to be rewarded. Yes, the amount might be disproportionate for some, but stop trying to make everything equal. That’s not the American capitalist way, commie! (Note: That statement is in no way a personal endorsement of a political system.)

(Also, I know athlete endorsements aren’t exclusive to ability. I won’t deny personality and appearance have something to do with them. Why else is C.J. Wilson selling stuff on my TV?) (That’s mean.) (Also, don’t get me started on PED cheaters….)

Here’s an idea: why not have a percentage of the endorsement money these athletes earn go to the school? Why not have the University function like the player’s agent so the school gets a cut? That way, instead of Manziel’s high school buddy brokering an autograph signing, A&M’s athletic department is. And don’t think for a second these schools don’t have some smarmy dude capable of cut throat negotiations immediately at hand to do this. Look no further than their recruiting departments.

Heck, maybe the NCAA even gets a tiny cut. It could happen! I mean, the NCAA didn’t even allow athletic scholarships, that’s how “committed” they were to amateurism, so we know change is possible. Otherwise, right now, they kind of just look like some greedy so-and-sos who don’t want to share with the kids their making money off of. Remember, without student athletes, there is no NCAA. Why not let them have a piece of their pie?