Ever since it was determined that Northwestern University football players could unionize, legal scholars and editorial boards on both sides of the issue have weighed in with their opinions. If a reader is willing to keep an open mind, I think he or she will see the wisdom of both arguments. That said, it seems likely we are going to hear a lot more about this in the months ahead.
As a group, young men, roughly 18 to 22 years of age, who play college football make a lot of money for their respective schools. Fantastic athletes, making incredible plays, draw tens of thousands of fans into stadiums on game day. As their reputations grow, and as the wins pile up, so do Saturday afternoon receipts at the box office. Ditto that for National Football League scouts. They are looking to find the next big "it" player for their NFL team owner. What was once unheard of is now commonplace: College players bolting for the pros after one or two seasons on campus.
Imagine the dollars that could be generated if, after signing a lucrative professional contract, this very player -- or a highly recruited coach for that matter -- was obligated to donate a portion of his signing bonus to his beloved school or former employer?
Athletes and coaches already have similar arrangements with their agents, the hired guns who help them land multimillion-dollar deals. Why shouldn't colleges or universities, which already have venture capital contracts with engineering and medical professors, strike deals with their superstar players? After all, they train, feed, house, and all-around prepare them for the big leagues, right?
I am no an attorney, so I don't pretend to know the legal ramifications of obligating an incoming freshman to such an agreement. But, I am pretty good in math.
If a marquee athlete lands a $10 million contract, you know it's going to be sliced and diced several ways. First, the agent will take $1 million off the top. Then, a financial planner will be retained to invest upwards of $5 million in a home, annuities and other tax-advantageous instruments. Additionally, the athlete will be given a weekly allowance. Finally, taxes will have to be paid.
If this same athlete was under contract with his school, then it could be the recipient of a six-figure, tax-deductible donation. As far as a return on investment goes, this would serve to repay the expenses the college or university incurred while young Mr. Football attended classes or Super Coach Z took his team to the Rose Bowl.
Ten years ago, when financial woes forced California state colleges and universities to cut both their academic and sports budgets, one enterprising school sponsored a horse race between thoroughbreds Seawolf and Sonoma Slew, grandson of 1977 Triple Crown winner Seattle Slew. I don't know if you could consider either horse an employee of the sponsoring institution, but it's clear what the intent was: To make money off the race.
Isn't this what is at the heart of Northwestern's plan to unionize? After all is said and done, it sure seems like football players and race horses have a lot in common. I don't think it's a stretch to say they both could be considered red meat to colleges and universities.
Freidenrich writes from Laguna Beach, California. He once served as a major gifts fund-raising officer for the University of Southern California.