College football is big business to all but players, who still rank as unpaid serfs

By DAVID MOON, Moon Capital Management
September 15, 2002

Throughout today's newspaper are more than a dozen articles about the various business aspects of University of Tennessee football. Professional reporters from the Business and Sports sections have worked on these stories for months, interviewing, researching and writing. Car dealers and furniture stores have purchased thousands of dollars of advertising in today's paper, hoping that as you read or peruse these articles (or spread them across the bottom of your bird's cage or kitty box) you might be reminded that you need to purchase a new sofa or pick-up truck. Hundreds of employees' paychecks depend on the sale of those cars and couches; thousands more people manufacture, market and ship them.

Phillip Fulmer's compensation package is greater than the salary of the president of every publicly-traded company in east Tennessee, including Eastman Chemical ' a company with manufacturing facilities in more than 17 countries.

Would someone from kindergarten or Oz please tell me again how college football is an amateur activity? Amateur? The only folks for whom UT football is amateur are the player/performers.

Before Michael Munoz was potty-trained or Randy Sanders had graduated from high school, I was an offensive tackle at Tennessee. It was a fantastic experience. I was a successful student (I made very good grades, anyway) as both an undergraduate and graduate student. My diplomas say I graduated with honors and I have some other trinket-ish tokens signifying academic achievements that someone deemed significant in some way. I am not bragging. I give you this information as background for this next statement.

I came to Tennessee to play football.

Please don't kid yourself with the na've argument that the overgrown swift man-boys whom so many worship on Saturdays are at Tennessee first to get a degree. Conferring diplomas is one of the most visible functions on a university, but it is not why Cedric Houston or Casey Clausen came to Knoxville. I expect them both to earn degrees and be extremely successful at whatever lifelong career(s) they pursue. But they came to this town at this time to play football at Tennessee. You are living in a fantasy world if you think otherwise. I can just imagine 12-year old Casey sitting at the dinner table in Northridge, California: 'Mom, when I get out of high school, I want to get a sociology degree from the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.'

So many of the Vol faithful are accepting of every commercial aspect of the football business - except as it relates to the players. Everyone has their reasons: Most cling to some quaint, Norman Rockwell-ian notion about the purity of amateur college athletics. Some more practical arguments involve the application and practicality of paying the performers. Others consider football no more than a circus: as long as you feed and house the animals, the show will go on. Adhering to NCAA rules is a very weak argument. I am certain God neither created nor ordained the NCAA. (I am not so certain about the devil's role.)

My years at UT were incredibly formative and instructional. Phillip Fulmer was my father, mother, employer and inspiration for four years ' four years that laid the groundwork for the rest of my life. Like many others in his profession (but not all, trust me), he is a good, caring person and an exemplary teacher and builder of young men. But the honor of having the experience is not fair compensation for the services today's players provide. Neither are the cartel-imposed 'wages' of a scholarship.

If you are liberal, you must logically support the players' right to organize and collectively negotiate for benefits, working conditions and wages. If your politics lean conservative, you must believe that every individual has the right to earn the value of his efforts ' a value determined by unfettered participants in a free market, not a group of administrators concerned about protecting their monopoly.

Either way, we ought to pay the players. After all, it is business.

David Moon is president of Moon Capital Management, a Knoxville-based investment management firm. This article originally appeared in the News Sentinel (Knoxville, TN).

Add me to your commentary distribution list.

MCM website