As college athletes have filed one antitrust lawsuit after another demanding they be paid, the NCAA and its legion of attorneys have proffered various, convoluted legal defenses to preserve its sacred notion of amateurism, claiming the public's interest in college sports would diminish if they got paychecks, claiming the athletes would not harmoniously integrate into their academic communities.
What they can't say in open court is perhaps the most compelling reason that college athletes shouldn't paid:
Because they already are.
Not all of them, not even most of them, but a fair amount of the star football and men's basketball players who generate the most exposure and, thus, revenue to their universities through ticket sales, sponsorship deals and television rights. It's not a perfect system or perfectly equitable, but athletes are getting paid to play.
We've known this anecdotally for years, even decades. Now we're hearing it in federal criminal cases that should remove any remaining wool pulled over eyes while pretending this is a chaste endeavor of guys in lettermen jackets with a bundle of textbooks under their arms.
Last week in New York we heard from Marty Blazer, an ex-financial advisor to athletes who is a cooperating witness for the government in its case against former Adidas basketball exec Merl Code and wannabe pro agent Christian Dawkins for allegedly bribing players, parents, handlers, coaches, whoever, wherever, whenever - sometimes $100,000-plus - to engender loyalty to their shoe brand and sports agency. Blazer's incentive not to fib on the witness stand: He's facing up to 67 years in federal prison for previous sins, and a sentencing judge presumably will be less lenient with a liar.
Blazer testified how they set up shop two summers ago in a hotel suite overlooking the Las Vegas Strip and entertained a parade of assistant basketball coaches from prominent programs, handing some of them envelopes stuffed with $100 bills while FBI surveillance cameras rolled. Blazer said one coach explained he needed the off-the-books cash to bankroll the recruitment of a prominent high school player.
Blazer also recounted how they needed to make an $11,000 payment to 6-foot-10 forward Robert Williams, then with Texas A&M, now with the Boston Celtics. Went to a shop in the hotel, bought a pair of sneakers, stuffed the cash in them, boxed it up and FedExed it to him.
The top programs, Blazer is caught saying in one FBI video, "have people in place who will be able to pay for whatever is necessary."
In another video, Code, who worked for Nike before Adidas, says: "It's a mess because there's so much money involved."
The men's basketball programs at Alabama, Arizona, Arizona State, Auburn, Clemson, Creighton, Connecticut, Kansas, Louisville, LSU, Miami, North Carolina State, Oklahoma State, Oregon, South Carolina, TCU and USC have all been implicated in some way in the current federal trial or a similar one last year.
Then there's attorney Michael Avenatti, charged with allegedly extorting Nike to bury allegations that it did the same thing Adidas was. He tweeted out a 41-page document dump of invoices, text messages and bank statements indicating 7-foot prep prospects Deandre Ayton, Brandon McCoy and Bol Bol were on Nike's secret payroll before they ended up on Nike-sponsored college teams. He dropped broad hints about Duke's Zion Williamson as well.
And lest you think the graft is confined to basketball, Blazer testified he paid college football players and their families for 14 years in hopes they'd one day hire him to manage their money. He named Alabama, Michigan, North Carolina, Northwestern, Notre Dame, North Carolina, Penn State and Pittsburgh.
This is one agent, of dozens.
One person you won't find in the Moynihan Courthouse in Lower Manhattan, however, is NCAA president Mark Emmert or any of his underlings. Oh, you'll hear them huff and puff about the indignities of shoe companies and pro agents piercing the membrane of amateurism, but what you won't see is much deterrent action.
And why should they?
Think about it. It is not a perfect system or perfectly equitable, but it is perfectly suitable for the NCAA in the current climate.
The alternative? Eradicating under-the-table payments to players and their families, then bowing to pressure to pay them above it. That likely means paying equal amounts to all scholarship athletes in all sports, starting quarterback or back-up long snapper, men's basketball player or women's pole vaulter, just like the legislation that introduced cost of attendance stipends. That means budget deficits and tax implications.
That also means paying them themselves.
In the current system, athletes get paid from four basic entities. There are the shoe companies wanting to curry favor when they turn pro. There are the agents chasing the same thing, which is why you saw Dawkins and Adidas' Code join forces. There are boosters slipping an ATM card into the pocket of the leading rusher and making the PIN his birthdate. There are assistant coaches getting paid obscene six- and seven-figure salaries with the wink-wink understanding that not all of that is for them - a sly way for the head coach to retain "plausible deniability" if something goes awry.
(In court Monday, government attorneys played an FBI recording of former Arizona assistant Emanuel "Book" Richardson bemoaning to Dawkins that he made $250,000 per year but was practically broke because of how much was going to recruits, their families and their handlers.)
It's the ultimate meritocracy. The best prospects and players in the marquee sports get the most money, just like in the free market. Adam Smith would be proud.
You don't have to worry about the third-string punter. You don't have to worry about Title IX's mandate of gender equity. You don't have to worry about bankrupting most athletic departments, which rely heavily on governmental, institutional or student subsidies (on average 19 percent of their revenues, according to the most recent NCAA study) and which, contrary to perception, are not rolling in dough.
A comprehensive 2016 NCAA study found that only 24 athletic departments turned a profit and the median loss among the 129 playing football at the highest level was $18 million. Now pay each of your 500 athletes a $30,000 salary, and you just added $15 million to your annual budget. Good luck balancing that.
Another potential landmine: Athletic departments hide behind their university's nonprofit status as an educational institution. What happens to that tax exemption if you start paying "employees" and looking more like for-profit, professional sports organizations?
The NCAA doesn't have to worry about that right now, and hopes it never will.
Let sneaker company execs and wannabe agents stuff $11,000 in shoes to pay athletes. The NCAA is content to just pay attorneys and bring the hammer down on the mighty Cal Poly SLO Mustangs for paying athletes.
Last month the NCAA put the school on two years' probation and ordered it to vacate hundreds of wins across most sports after it self-reported overpaying student-athletes for books and academic supplies. The stipends were too high by an average of $174.57.