Jaylon Smith has been exploited.
That's not a fun sentence to type, and probably not a fun sentence to read as a fan of Notre Dame, college football, or just Jaylon Smith the person. But as the NFL Draft nears, and Jaylon's future as a professional athlete grows murkier by the day, he's becoming a high-profile case study in how the NCAA's unjust rules and guise of amateurism keep "student-athletes" from receiving anything near the value they contribute.
It's not a problem specific to Jaylon or any one player or school, but the unique place he stands entering today's draft - a former star with nerve damage making his football future much more uncertain - makes him a compelling example of these broader issues. Since this is a hotly debated subject with no easy solution, let's break it down piece by piece.
College football players, including Jaylon Smith, receive a lot from their universities
Let's start with the basics - average cost of attendance at Notre Dame for 2016-2017 is $67,043 (from Notre Dame's Office of Financial Aid). The value of a four-year college degree over a player's lifetime is a tremendous investment and opportunity, and many collegiate athletes would not have the opportunity to receive this type of education (or receive it at as high a caliber of an institution) if not for athletic scholarships.
In addition, players receive significant benefits for free - academic tutoring, nutrition, strength and conditioning, medical training / support, and high-level coaching. Through their connection to the school they receive better exposure to professional teams and opportunities to showcase their talent against the highest levels of competition for players in their age range* (*unless you come across a Brandon Weeden or Chris Weinke).
This is all to say that I'm not arguing that the current NCAA model is a bad deal in isolation - part of what makes these arguments tough is that most non-athletes would love to opportunity to have any of these benefits. An education from a top school in the country, wearing the gold helmet, and free Under Armour gear sounds pretty great to me compared to my experience of student loans and work study. But for football players and stars in particular, the dollar value they receive is so minimal compared to the amount of revenue they generate.
Sidenote: there are inherent issues with compensating players with significant real-world value almost solely with education - many unfortunately enter college unprepared to take advantage of these opportunities and struggle with academic eligibility and the balancing the strenuous demands of sports and classes; others are funneled into "General Studies" and other curriculums where the primary objective seems to be finding a way to keep the player eligible. In South Bend we as fans have to hope the high bar admissions sets combined with significant (but appropriate) academic support helps avoid this better than other schools, but academic casualties will probably always be an issue, with Everett Golson's suspension and the "Frozen Five" only a couple of years in the rearview mirror. For some student-athletes it ultimately works well (Steve Elmer being a terrific example), but across the college landscape it seems much more common to see players being compensated with an education they aren't prepared or equipped to take advantage of.
The problem is most FBS players, especially ones like Jaylon Smith, are worth WAY more
College sports, with football leading the charge, are generating more revenue than ever. Coaching salaries continue to climb, including Brian Kelly's new deal. Television broadcasting rights will soon earn each Big Ten school around $45 million per year. Think about that for a second - Rutgers will soon receive FORTY-FIVE MILLION DOLLARS for the privilege of letting fans tune in to watch Scarlet Knight athletics on Fox, ESPN, and the Big Ten network.
With competition more intense than ever for talented athletes, and since NCAA collusion means that no university can legally compensate them more than any other, dollars are being poured at a record-rate into anything that could help in recruiting and lead to athletic success. Ridiculous multi-million dollar facilities with lounges, bowling lanes, movie theaters, and barber shops? Check. Sprawling athletic support staffs, with football analysts and graphic designers and social media experts to help contact high school players? Check. Enormous stadium jumbotrons and stadium renovations nearing half a billion dollars? Yup. Coaching and athletic director salaries? You betcha.
With all this cash flowing freely between TV networks, sponsors, and college athletic departments, a few different approaches have been taken at quantifying how much college athletes, particularly football and basketball players at major programs, are worth. It's clear that in a free market these players would be worth far more than the value of their scholarships and cost of attendance - you could even try to assess the value of the coaching they are being provided and add that in too. Using the NFL and NBA's collective bargaining agreement as a starting point, Drexel University estimated the value of a Notre Dame football player at $445,443 a year (average FBS player value: $149,569).
If that's the value of an average player, what is a charismatic captain, All-American, and Butkus Award winner worth? Even taking revenue sharing out of the equation - how much could Smith have made in the Olympic model, where he could have used his image and likeness in endorsement deals or sponsorships? He's been a star since he walked on campus - really even before then as a consensus five-star recruit and top-five high school player in the nation. The last three years he's provided immense value to Notre Dame, received benefits that are valuable but nowhere near proportionate to what he's worth, and with potential long-term effects of nerve damage, now what?
Fortunately for Jaylon, he's in better shape than many of his peers - he's close to finishing a fantastic college degree, and thankfully had an insurance policy taken out on his draft stock. But there's not ever going to be an opportunity for him to recoup even a fraction of what he's been worth to Notre Dame over the last three seasons, and more than anything that makes me sad, angry, and a little depressed. Marcus Lattimore suffered nerve damage in his knee that destroyed his draft stock and never played an NFL down - no future earnings are guaranteed.
Time for some hypothetical challenges:
I feel sorry for Jaylon, but he's gotten a great opportunity through Notre Dame and is getting $5 million in insurance from his injury - seems fair to me.
These first statements are both true, but how is it fair that what he can receive is artificially capped to be the same as any other football player, or for that matter any other student-athlete on scholarship? Again, I'm not arguing it's bad deal to be Jaylon Smith here, but that it's tremendously unfair because in a free and open market Jaylon would be getting a far better deal. There's no other comparable setting in which we apply this weird concept of "amateurism" to set arbitrary economic rules and restrict people from realizing their true value.
And while the insurance policy is great, it has nothing to do with the NCAA or Notre Dame - he likely could have taken out an insurance policy as early as his senior year of high school given the near-certainty of a future NFL career. And while a five million dollar payout is great, he's definitely taking a personal hit - last year's #10 pick for example, Todd Gurley, received $13.8 million guaranteed in his rookie deal. The implications could be huge on the future contracts he may not earn or earn less on as well after his rookie deal if he doesn't make a full recovery. It's also worth noting that this injury took place in a bowl game that earns TV networks and the bowls themselves millions of dollars, but the only additional benefit a player receives for playing and risking their health in another game is a few hundred dollars' worth of gift cards and electronics.
Jaylon Smith's value comes from Notre Dame - without a college football program, he'd be worth far less
Yes, some of his value has been enhanced by the University of Notre Dame - it's an extremely valuable fanbase and provides national exposure. Jaylon Smith on a CFL team doesn't command TV revenue or endorsements or jersey sales. Here's the rub -both players and the schools have value, so why does one party get to determine that the other gets the smallest amount of the revenue?
And what would Jaylon Smith, the 2nd ranked high school player in the country, get if programs could bid on his services? He didn't need Notre Dame for exposure - if the NFL didn't restrict his eligibility for the draft and allow the NCAA to serve as their de facto minor league, there's no doubt professional teams would happily have paid for his future rights - we see it all the time in other sports like baseball and soccer.
And why do we treat athletes different than other talented students on scholarship? If I was a terrific writer (unfortunately not the case) that received an academic scholarship and benefitted from mentoring, classes, and teaching at Notre Dame, and then wrote a best-selling book after my junior year, does Notre Dame take a piece of what I've earned? Nope, and there would be outrage if that was the case, even though I've likely developed some of my skill and potentially leveraged connections and exposure gained through the school.
And how would you feel if you were Smith's sibling or parent - you're cool with the past three years just being a time when Notre Dame, the NCAA, and TV networks can make money off his image and likeness but he can't?
If you allowed athletes to receive cash from playing college sports, a player like Jaylon may not have even ended up at Notre Dame
I'm personally a proponent of the Olympic model - the relationship between the school and athlete doesn't change, but you allow players to realize some of their financial worth through third party endorsements, autograph signings, appearances at Club Fever, etc. Does this open the door to potential shadiness, as boosters use this loophole to funnel money to players? Absolutely. But A) this already happens, and B) isn't it better to err on the side of letting players get what they're worth?
The protests this inevitably brings up are around competitive balance, and the fear that schools like Alabama and Oregon will corner the market for top talent by paying top dollar through sponsorships or endorsements. But wouldn't the free market, like it does in other industries, work itself out? There's not unlimited scholarships and playing time available, and if I'm a top recruit, I know that in the next few years I might actually be able to earn more staying home at Arkansas, for example, where I have a better chance at starting than at Alabama when I'd be just another blue chip in a rotation or starting my career on the bench.
Competitive balance also doesn't currently exist anyways - top recruits already overwhelming choose power five programs in football and basketball, and there's no evidence that easing NCAA restrictions would have any negative impact. While it may not make you feel great about it, I think that Notre Dame, with an endowment in the top 10 in the US among all institutions, would be just fine.
No one forced Jaylon Smith to play in the NCAA - he could have tried to make money off his talent elsewhere
Patrick Hruby has written some great articles on this topic, and a question similar to this leads off this mailbag. Sure, there are technically other options, but the NCAA has the highest chance for the best outcome for players (in football and basketball in particular) from among other crappy choices. We'll wrap up with an excerpt from Hruby's article:
"...From an economic perspective, the collegiate system is rigged and unfair. Rigged and unfair because while athletes get something in exchange for their labor -- an athletic scholarship -- they are prevented from getting both actual money and a free-market level of said money because a cartel has agreed a) not to compete for their services with offers of money; b) not to allow them to accept any money that anyone might want to provide them.
Whether the current college sports system is a bad or good racket isn't the point. The point is that it's a racket. A racket based on collusion among schools and price-fixing for talent. The fact that athletes choose to participate -- or choose not to participate in the NBDL -- doesn't make it any less of one. Arguing otherwise is a red herring."
This was true before Jaylon Smith's injury and it's true now. But I think it's harder to see the true impact of this racket when everything goes well - when talented players stay healthy and go on to NFL success and earnings, I'd argue it's easier to buy into the notions of amateurism and competitive balance the NCAA is selling. But this injury unfortunately has helped bring to light just how current rules limit players - no one that's been that valuable over the past three should need to depend on the NFL Draft or an insurance policy for their financial security. And there's plenty of players that won't get the chances Jaylon will - that are worth far more than their scholarship and benefits they receive, but won't have professional football careers. They will never get a chance to receive money for the value they've provided, and may not ever again have an opportunity like the three to five years they play high-level collegiate sports. I'm hopeful that Jaylon Smith, who from all accounts is an incredible physical talent and just as good a person, can make a full recovery, but it's time that players like him and his teammates are allowed to receive legitimate opportunities to realize what they're worth.