The Lombardo Trophy: Occupy College Football

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Economies are founded on a basic principle: Labor earns compensation. Advanced economies take it a step further and ensure fair compensation for workers by rule of law.

But, somehow, a multi-billion dollar American industry has for years swept this inconvenience under the rug, paving the way for executives to earn exorbitant salaries while the labor force goes undercompensated.

If this industry were located on a certain street in Manhattan, protesters would be picketing tomorrow. But because it occurs on football fields on autumnal Saturdays, most people are content to kick back on a couch and watch it all unfold on TV.

I am, of course, talking about college football. Or, more accurately, I am talking about the NFL’s development league, where the fat cats in the suits and on the sidelines watch as the young men on the field earn them seven figures and receive only a scholarship in return.

Many have argued — including me, until a conversation with a good friend who played at the University of Georgia — that a scholarship is fair compensation for the work athletes put in. But the money that pours into conference and university coffers — and then into administrators’ and coaches’ pockets — by virtue of the sweat off football players’ backs dwarfs the compensation a scholarship provides. (Matt, the friend, puts the imbalance more bluntly: “It’s a joke.”)

To give you an idea of the scale of the economics: Cal competes in the Pac-12, which recently signed the richest media deal in the history of college sports. Beginning this year, the conference will pull in $225 million annually over the next 12 years. That’s $2.7 billion in total, all for the privilege of beaming the labor of an unpaid workforce into viewers’ homes. On the flip side, Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who facilitates this unholy compact and negotiated the TV deal, earned $1.8 million in 2010.

On the program level, Cal football raked in $24.3 million in the 2011 fiscal year. Averaged over the 85 scholarships the team can dispense, that’s over $286,000 per scholarship player. Even if you just look at the gate take — ticket sales, which can be directly attributed to the work put in by those athletes, totaled just under $12.2 million that season — each scholarship player brought the university athletic program about $144,000. Although not insignificant, the monetary value of a full ride pales in comparison. And what are the people above the players earning? Head coach Jeff Tedford made almost $2.9 million last year. Sandy Barbour, Cal’s athletic director, took home over $685,000.

So to sum up: Cal is a mediocre team playing in a middling BCS conference and still generates more than enough money for its players to deserve a slice of the pie — except the vultures standing over the athletes already eat almost every crumb.

Of course, money cannot be the sole consideration in this argument. College football players are students, too. But let’s face it: The moniker “student-athlete” has rung hollow for years.

Football players practice more hours than most students spend on homework and partying combined. Away games devour entire weekends and force them to miss class. Bowl games — which, incidentally, routinely earn bowl executives six figures — disrupt final exams and winter breaks. Anyone who can talk about football players as “student-athletes” with a straight face has either taken more Botox than Vladimir Putin or is delusional.

If you want to argue about whether athletics should be a part of a university’s mission, fine — we can have that conversation later. But under the current model, you have to recognize the injustice in the system. NCAA college football calls itself non-profit. Right now, that’s only true for the players.

Contact Jordan at [email protected].