On the players' petition for TV money

There's a chance you've seen this by now, but it warrants some discussion all the same. On Monday, 300 major college football and men's basketball players sent a formal petition to the NCAA asking the organization for, in so many words, TV rights money. From the Associated Press, which obtained a copy of the petition from the National College Players Association Monday:

The document urges the NCAA and college presidents to set aside an unspecified amount of money from what it estimates is $775 million in recently acquired TV revenues in an "educational lock box" for football and men's basketball players. Players could tap those funds to help cover educational costs if they exhaust their athletic eligibility before they graduate. And they could receive what's left of the money allocated to them with no strings attached upon graduating -- a step that would undoubtedly be seen by some as professionalizing college sports.

There are a couple of ways to look at this proposal.

The first is on the merits, where I happen to think it shines. Most of the arguments against paying players reside on the logic that paying them would professionalize the sport and undermine the NCAA's mission of promoting academic development through athletics.

But the deferred "educational lock box" idea -- word to Al Gore -- wouldn't have to change that dynamic. Players could still be required to fulfill all the academic obligations they must currently fulfill to maintain their eligibility, and they wouldn't be receiving sums of money while still in school. But they would have the promise that some measure of their labor (beyond the obvious benefit of a full-ride athletic scholarship, of course) would be repaid upon completion of their careers at the school.

You could even use this as an incentive: If you fail to finish your career in good academic standing, you lose out. If you violate NCAA rules, you lose out. If you graduate, you get a bonus.

This is hardly a perfect mechanism, and I'm just sort of spit-balling here, but even a hazy idea like this feels superior to the status quo.

(It should be noted here that the NCAA is a non-profit organization. The money it makes from its NCAA tournament deal with CBS and Turner counts for basically all of the revenue the organization brings in, which it then disperses to athletic programs around the country. It's not like the NCAA is sitting on $10.8 billion over the next 14 years.)

The other way to look at this idea is pragmatically, and that prism is far less favorable. Frankly put, the NCAA surely has no interest in this scheme. For Mark Emmert and his amateurism-inclined colleagues in Indianapolis, it is almost certainly a bridge too far -- another dangerous step toward fully professionalizing college athletics. Reasonable folks can disagree on that count. What matters is how the NCAA feels. And anything that seems to threaten the sacred amateurism concept is practically a non-starter.

But the third way to view this petition is politically: It's a start. The AP subtly nails it here:

The NCAA opposes paying athletes, but players whose talents enable colleges and coaches to reap millions have been largely silent in the debate until now.

More than anything, that's why this matters. There is no incentive to change the system if that conversation doesn't include those most impacted by its conditions. We don't get that perspective very often. Are players happy with the ability to earn an education and high-level professional training (both in their sports and other careers)? Some argue that should be enough. Is it? Or do they, like so many of us (who aren't and never have been college athletes), see the need for widespread change?

We haven't had that conversation with college athletes yet. This petition may not go anywhere -- you can almost guarantee it won't -- but if it marks the meaningful entrance of those most impacted by this discussion into that discussion, then it should be a positive regardless of immediate outcome. It's something, anyway.